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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 11:15 GMT
Bangladesh crime fight
Soldiers arrest crime suspect in Dhaka
A number of suspects have died in army custody

It is called Operation Clean Heart and it has made Bangladesh look like a military state.

We never terrorise the people, we never intimidate the people

Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Saif
About 40,000 troops have been deployed in most towns and cities of the country as part of a drive by the government to eradicate violent crime.

The military have been carrying out overnight raids on the homes of suspected criminals to arrest them and hand them over to the police.

Several thousand people have been detained.

While many Bangladeshis fed up with the daily threat of crime have welcomed the army's involvement, concerns have been expressed about the detention of prominent members of the opposition and the deaths in custody of at least 12 people.

Night raids

This is no typical operation - as I discovered when I joined troops one night.

Controversially, the army's raid this time is on the streets of the capital itself - in search of violent criminals.

Law and order has been breaking down

Troops are ordered to spread out, and surround the houses of two suspects.

But they do not force their way into suspects' homes - the tactic here is to knock first, at least while we were there.

"That's the standard policy we follow. We never terrorise the people, we never intimidate the people," Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Saif tells me.

"We always try and do it in a modest way so that they do not get annoyed with us."

Public backing

Prisoners captured overnight are handed over to the police the next day.

Those who are at the helm of public life... have obligations not to violate the law

Dr Kamal Hossain,
constitutional expert
In most cases the suspects will be prosecuted for firearms offences.

At the same time, the army carries out random stop-and-search checks in towns and cities all over Bangladesh.

The sight of armed soldiers on the streets of Dhaka may bring back uncomfortable memories of the dark days of military dictatorship 10 years ago.

But this army operation seems to have been overwhelmingly welcomed by most people, who are relieved that at last something has been done to combat the breakdown of law and order.

However, the military deployment has been strongly criticised more recently by the main opposition Awami League, angry over the fact that at least 12 people have died in military custody since the army operation began.

The opposition say that the army's offer to hold an official inquiry into the deaths is not satisfactory.

They are also angry that several of their own leading MPs have been arrested since troops were ordered onto the streets.

Leaders blamed

Constitutional experts say that the success of the military deployment will remain doubtful so long as both main parties have MPs accused of criminal offences who are likely to escape arrest.

Bangladeshi soldiers on parade
The army has played a central role

Dr Kamal Hossain, one of the authors of the Bangladeshi constitution, is clear where the blame lies.

"This epidemic of lawless violence from which people have been suffering, now and under the previous government, is the result of those who are at the helm of public affairs forgetting that they are subject to the constitution, and that they have obligations not to violate the law or permit the violation of the law by their supporters," he says.

Throughout Bangladesh's 30-year history, the army has played a pivotal role.

On the positive side, it fought for the country's independence from Pakistan, and plays a vital role in dealing with floods and disasters.

But memories of Bangladesh's military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s have not disappeared.

The anti-crime drive may be a popular move now, but human rights groups such as Amnesty International say that the overall cost is too high.

See also:

23 Oct 02 | South Asia
22 Oct 02 | South Asia
17 Oct 02 | South Asia
17 Jun 02 | South Asia
11 Mar 02 | South Asia
02 Apr 02 | South Asia
16 Feb 02 | South Asia
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