Thursday, July 4, 2019

Why the Sunday Times has a lot of explaining to do

Bangladesh, an authoritarian regime, notorious for arbitrary detentions, false cases, extra judicial killings and disappearances would not seem the ideal source for a supposed expose in the Sunday Times claiming that a businessman who has lived in the UK for ten years was in fact a jihadist “terrorist”, and “arms dealer”.

But this did little to deter Tom Harper, the Sunday Time’s Home Affairs Correspondent from making such an allegation against Shahid Uddin Khan, a former colonel in the Bangladesh army in a report published late last month.

If the provenance of the allegations did not itself raise alarm bells about their integrity (and one assumes that for the Sunday Times, it did not) all that Harper had to do was to read an Al Jazeera investigation published in March which explained how Khan, far from being a “Jihadist” and “terrorist”, had been good friends and business partners with Tarique Ahmed Siddique, the security adviser to the Bangladesh prime minister and indeed the uncle of British parliamentarian Tulip Siddique MP. For ten years between 2009 and 2018, Siddique and Khan’s families jointly owned a land company in Bangladesh with Siddique’s wife as the chairperson and Khan the managing director.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Five key takeaways from Tarique Siddique's "vendetta"

The story about what has happened to Colonel (rtd) Shahid Khan over the last fourteen months published on this blog (and previously by Al Jazeera) says a lot about contemporary Bangladesh - the impunity, the links between politics and business, the corruption of law enforcement, intelligence and other state bodies, the unlimited power of people around the prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the lies and false allegations - and how the victims simply just keep on piling up.

Below are five key points that emerge from this story

1. The number of secret detentions and disappearances are almost certainly much higher than we know.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

"Vendetta" by PM's Security Adviser turns business partner into a "terrorist"

Colonel (rtd) Shahid Khan with the President of Bangladesh at the Hilton
Hotel in London, April 26, 2017
Colonel Shahid Khan is a retired Bangladesh army colonel, turned businessman, who since 2009 has lived in the UK with his wife and daughters. 

Until recently, Khan ran a Bangladesh company, Prochhaya Limited, jointly owned by both his own family and that of another retired Bangladesh army officer, Major General Tarique Ahmed Siddique. 

Siddique is no ordinary retired officer. He is the Security Adviser to the Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina, and is now one of the government's most powerful and feared men with effective control of the country's military and intelligence agencies. Siddique is also related to the prime minister as his brother is married to Hasina's sister - a relationship that itself brings power and status.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Judicial independence, media freedom and Sheikh Hasina



This is a story about a recorded conversation that says a lot about judicial independence and media freedom in Bangladesh - or the lack thereof.

Bangladesh's justice system is based upon an important fiction. It is a fiction not  uncommon to many authoritarian governments. This is the idea that the country's courts operate independently from the executive.

Probably, few people in Bangladesh actually believe that fiction. Many are aware of the partisan way in which magistrates and judges are appointed; how the government moves magistrates around from one court to another court, one district to another one, as and when they require; or indeed the powers of persuasion and intimidation held by the executive which they use to ensure that magistrates and judges make the "right" decision. Of course, if they have already appointed highly partisan judges, then little persuasion and intimidation will be necessary.

This is not to say that every decision goes the Bangladesh government's way. In a non-totalitarian country, there remains some levels of autonomy and independence, and certain conduct and decisions is outside the government's control.*

Nonetheless, this fiction of judicial independence is constantly claimed by government ministers and of course by the courts themselves. It is an important fiction; at some level the judicial system cannot function unless people have some kind of belief in the judiciary's independence.

In the past, the media - or more accurately the small parts of the media which remained independent  - did sometimes prick holes in this judicial fiction. However, it is rare - as doing so risked prosecution for contempt of court. Now, with even less media freedom in Bangladesh, it is a brave or reckless editor that would publish such a story.

It is in any case difficult for journalists at the best of time to get solid evidence that a particular judicial decision was made as a result of executive interference.

Occasionally, however, comments from the mouths of ministers themselves give the game away. And one such moment came a few days ago in a telephone conversation between the prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her UK Awami League party leaders in which she refers to the question of whether  Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, currently in jail following conviction for corruption, will be allowed out of jail or not. The government of course have said that it is upto the courts - and the courts are not giving her bail pending appeal.

Yet, a recording of a conversation between Sheikh Hasina and Awami League activists suggest that it is not the courts that will determine what happens to the opposition leader. 

The prime minister arrived in London last Wednesday, on 1 May. As is customary, Awami League leaders and activists came to the airport hoping to meet her. Amongst those present were Sultan Shariff, UK Awami League president and Syed Faruq, the UK Awami League secretary.

The video shows Syed Faruq holding a mobile phone, with the speaker phone on, and the voice of Sheikh Hasina can be heard. It appears that Hasina was using a mobile phone belonging to Bangladesh's High Commissioner to the UK, as the name of Sayeda Muna Tasneem is shown on Faruq's mobile phone screen.

The person who filmed the conversation was Md Akkadus, an Awami League activist using Facebook live. The video is no longer posted on his Facebook time line.

Sheikh Hasina's voice can be heard loud and clear. At first she says this:
I will talk with you later after the surgery in my eyes. Please don’t crowd the hotel. Because you make such a crowd, no hotel wants to give us booking now. I will talk to you later at my convenience.
She then goes onto to talk about Tareque Zia, the son of the opposition leader Khaleda Zia
And, let the BNP know that if Tarique shows his arrogance with me, his mother (Khaleda Zia) will never be able to come out of jail in her lifetime. He must understand that nothing can be realized from Sheikh Hasina by force. Their (BNP) MPs have joined parliament today. They had some demands… treatment and others (of Khaleda Zia). We are ready to consider [that demand]. Many have met me in this regard, but as I come here now, if Tarique shows his arrogance over it, then I will tell them: ‘Sorry, your leader (Tarique) has misbehaved with me, has done such malicious act, I will not…" (emphasis added)**



Sultan Shariff, the UK Awami League president told this blog that "It was a simple conversation. She wanted to say thank-you for coming as she had not come to the UK for a long time."

However, it is pretty blatant that this was not a "simple" conversation - and that it suggests that the decision about Khaleda Zia's bail will be dependent on Sheikh Hasina and not on any independent judicial decision.

Equally noteworthy is that not a single media outlet in Bangladesh (as far as this blog can make out) actually reported on this conversation although this video was widely distributed. This is a reflection of the highly restricted media operating in Bangladesh these days - as noone would dare report on this conversation.

------------

In addition, there are many decisions before the courts that the government does not care that that much about anyway. And, of course, there are some individuals/organisations outside the government which can themselves corrupt the system so that the courts rule their, rather than the government's, way.

** This translation was revised on Thursday 9 May.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Fact-checking Gowher Rizvi on Al Jazeera


A month ago, Gowher Rizvi, the Bangladesh prime minister's foreign affairs advisor was questioned on Al Jazeera's Head to Head programme by Mehdi Hasan.

For me, as someone who has written about Bangladesh politics for a number of years, the programme was remarkable in that its format allowed for the first time the sustained questioning of someone representing the current Awami League government.

If there was anyone able to respond to Mehdi Hasan's hard questioning, Gowher Rizvi was probably the man to do so - but as I have written earlier, there are aspects of the current government's human rights and governance record that are hard to defend.

In the course of seeking to justify the Bangladesh government's position, Rizvi - and the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK who was present to support him - made a number of false statements, inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Here are 18 examples.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

State agencies release Maroof Zamen from secret detention


On the evening of December 4, 2017, Maroof Zaman, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam, (as well as previously Counsellor of the Bangladesh High Commission in UK and an additional secretary of the foreign ministry) was picked up by state security agencies as he was driving alone to the airport to pick up his daughter Samiha Zaman. 

Later that day, at around 7.45pm, Zaman called his home telephone landline from an unidentified number and informed the domestic help that some people would come by the house to retrieve his computer, and instructed them to cooperate. About 20 minutes later, three tall, well-dressed men came to the house and took possession of his laptop, home computer, camera, and spare smartphone. They wore caps and surgical masks to conceal their faces from the building’s CCTV cameras.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan takes on Bangladesh's Gowher Rizvi

This is going to make interesting and engrossing television.

The suave Gowher Rizvi, the Bangladesh Prime Minister's international affairs advisor, taking on the fierce interviewing style of Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan. 

The programme is being aired tomorrow on Friday, 1 March and for those interested in Bangladesh is "must watch" television. I was in the audience at the live broadcast, and Rizvi at what point looked like a boxer on the ropes. Though there probably is no one more capable than Rizvi of defending the Bangladesh government's human rights and governance record, the record of the Government on these issues is so parlous that even his skills are insufficient. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Resignation letter of Abdur Razzaq from Jamaat

Abdur Razzaq, until Friday an assistant general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami resigned from the party in a bold and surprising move. My article for Al Jazeera on this can be read here

Razzaq made public the resignation letter he sent to the leader of the Jamaat, and I am posting it here, as it is a very interesting document.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How safe is the current Awami League government?


Why hold a free and fair election which you risk losing, when you can rig it to ensure certain victory, and get away with it?

This was clearly in the mind of the Awami League in Bangladesh which three weeks ago won 293 of the 300 parliamentary seats in what must be the country’s most rigged national elections as the party won its third consecutive term in power. This weekend, Sheikh Hasina organised a victory rally in Dhaka where she told her supporters, "Please remember, retaining victory is harder than earning it.”

In the fifteen years between 1996 and 2009, Bangladesh’s three national elections, though violent, were relatively fair, resulting each time in a change in government. This had nothing to do with the just disposition of the country’s politicians but because three months before each election a neutral caretaker government took over power and ensured a level playing field.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

3 youngsters accused of committing war crimes

Yesterday, Al Jazeera published my story on the recent arrest of a US citizen of Bangladeshi descent for allegedly committing international crimes including murder, rape and arson in the country's independence war even though he was 13 years of age in 1971 (he was born on January 3, 1958) when the offences were said to have been committed. 

You can read the article here

In the prosecutor's application for the arrest of Jubair (and 10 other people) it is stated that he was 62 years of age, suggesting that he would have been 14 - rather than 13 - in 1971. Whilst this was inaccurate - since all other documentation shows that he was born on January 13, 1958 - this may have just been a rounding-up error, since whilst he was 61 at the time of his arrest, he turned 62 two weeks late on January 3, 2019.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Egregious rigging in Barisal uncovered

If any more proof were needed of the government's rigging of the election, you can find it if you dig down into the constituency results at a polling station level.

The Daily Star has done this in the district of Barisal - with the most egregious constituency being the constituency of Barisal-1 which had a total of 115 polling centres/stations.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Government election narrative shredded by US, UK, EU

The UK, EU and USA have all now issued statements concerning the Bangladesh elections which will concern the government as they accept that vote rigging took place and cutt across the government narrative that these were free and fair elections. Each statement calls for the complaints to be examined. 

Opposition politicians and activists may have expected more - some even hoping (highly unrealistically) that the US or the EU would not recognise the new Bangladesh government - but arguably these comments are as critical as these countries could make in relation to a friendly ally, whose assistance they need in the fight against islamic militancy, and support for the Rohingyas. (It is important to appreciate that Governments tend to recognise states, not governments.)

When satire becomes reality in Bangladesh


There is now no satire in Bangladesh. Only reality. Or is that what we thought could only be satire is now reality.

Six months ago, Sheikh Hasina's son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, wrote a couple of outrageous fact-free articles arguing that the police had investigated every single allegation of an enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and found them all not to be genuine! In fact, he argued that all allegations of disappearances were "fictitious attempts by accused criminals to avoid prosecution and accountability." Yes, really. He said that!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Economist and the "Exit Costs" of losing power

The Economist has an uncanny ability of distilling a country's complex politics into 500 words - and yesterday's article on the election is pretty sharp. It states:


"The Awami League, which has has been in power continuously for ten years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag." (For those who cannot access the website, the whole article is set out at the end of this post. )

Election rigging - the international community response?

So far political leaders from China, India and Bhutan have congratulated Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government for "winning" the election - without any of them mentioning the widespread allegations of election rigging before and after the Sunday poll.

India is Awami League's closest ally, and so its unconditional support for the government after the election is far from suprising. China is not interested in the fairness or otherwise of elections. And Bhutan is too small to matter.

Western liberal democracies have not yet given their views on the Bangladesh election - and what they have to say, in particular the will both be both fascinating and significant. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

After the "election". What next?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of polling day was how much the Awami League government felt they had to rig the election on the day itself - since they had taken pretty extravagant steps to ensure victory before the vote itself. But clearly, the Awami League did not want to take anything for granted and used the police and their own activists to stop BNP supporters from voting, preventing opposition polling agents from entering polling centres, and stuffing ballots. 

There are enough eye-witnesses and reports to suggest that this was a widespread and systematic in most parts of the country. The plan set out in the documents leaked yesterday by BangladeshPolitico seemed to have been followed pretty assiduously.

The Bangladesh opposition should perhaps counts itself lucky that the Awami League government allowed it to win 7 seats!

Perhaps, the only institution whose credibility is more questionable than those involved in holding the elections is the small international observer mission which has played a home run for the government in bestowing legitimacy on the election. They clearly had no idea what was actually going on in the real world of Bangladesh's polling stations. (The EU, US government and Commonwealth did not send, or were not permitted to send, any observers) 

The Bangladesh government will now get its ducks in a row - and we will hear similar utterances about the credibility of the elections from the local partisan election observers (who were permitted to monitor the elections by the Election Commission), from the Indian government, and other political allies inside and outside the country.

The opposition has, understandably, rejected the election and has demanded a new one. It is, however, almost impossible to see how this could happen (at least in the short term) unless there was some kind of large-scale people's movement - which is itself highly improbable (opposition activists are now in hiding to escape arrest and are in no position to lead any street movement) and, were it to happen, would be ruthlessly repressed.

So where does that leave the government. There is no doubt the government will survive - as it does have a significant support base - but its widespread and systematic election/vote rigging has arguably created a far greater crisis of legitimacy than it faced even after the uncontested 2014 election. 

The reason why the last elections were uncontested was because the opposition parties did not trust the Awami League government, whilst it held the levers of power, to hold a free and fair election. The opposition demanded that the election be run under the control of a neutral care-taker election-time government under which all elections since 1996 had been held.

The AL government, however, argued that a special election time government was not necessary as it was quite capable of holding free and fair elections. The opposition refused to accept this and so boycotted the election. As a result over 150 parliamentary seats were uncontested, and the remaining ones were uncompetitive.

One of the reasons why the political opposition  did not take part in these 2014 elections was to avoid providing legitimacy to a rigged process which they would have lost - at the time the BNP was ahead in the opinion polls. The BNP thought that if it did not take part, it could more easily attack the government for being illegitimate. 

To some extent the opposition was right. For some time after the 'elections', the government did have a significant legitimacy problem - however as time went on, the Awami League government managed to win over the international community, and was successful at repressing the domestic opposition. In addition, the government put forward the cogent argument that it could not be described as 'illegitimate' when it was opposition which refused to take part in the elections.

This time round, the opposition agreed take part in the election, despite significant reservations. In effect, it agreed to test out the government's notion that it would hold free and fair elections even though it was in power. 

And the government flunked this test, resoundingly. 

The government cannot now criticise the opposition for not taking part - and instead can only argue that the elections were free and fair. There will be a battle between two narratives - and of course with the government in almost total control of the TV news media, and partial control of the print media - it will trumpet these arguments hard.

However, arguably, the government has gone too far in its rigging to make its arguments convincing. Apart from everything else, the very fact that the opposition won only seven seats will itself be seen as evidence of rigging.

The Awami League government has dug a huge hole for itself from which it will emerge only with difficultly. The drip drip arguments about the lack of legitimacy in Bangladesh will take its toll, and whilst, the future of the country is not easy to predict, it may well lead in due course to more concerted demands, particularly from young people, for new free and fair elections that will be hard for the government to deny.

Other "2018 Elections" articles


Election rigging - the polling agents debacle


On the eve of the election, this blog reported on the the arrest of seven polling agents from one constituency, raising the possibility that preventing polling agents from entering polling stations could become a more systematic strategy of the Awami League government on the subsequent day.

And this is exactly what has happened. The BNP claim that they had reports of polling agents being refused access in 221 constituencies.

Having polling agents within polling stations is crucial to prevent all kinds of shenanigans happen within the centres including stuffing of ballot boxes, and improper counting of votes - which is of course why the Awami League focused their efforts in stopping opposition polling agents from entering centres.

The Dhaka Tribune had a good story on this. It stated that:
The Dhaka Tribune independently observed nearly 200 polling centres across the capital on Sunday, and hardly found any polling agents of the BNP and Oikya Front.
The paper also reported on pro-Awami league people pretending to be opposition polling agents. The article is worth reading in full

The widely respected Zonayed Saki, chief coordinator of a small left wing party, the Ganosamhati Andolon, boycotted the elections in the three constituencies - one in Dhaka, Pabna and Chittagong - in which he and two other party candidates were contesting. According to him, their "poling agents were kicked out of polling stations and assaulted in almost every centre of Dhaka-12 constituency as well as in Chattogram and Pabna".

It appears that many formal complaints have been made about this to the Election Commission (which will no doubt ignore them). The lawyer, Assaduzzaman, who was standing in Jhenaidah sent this complaint which not only deals with the polling agent issue but other conscerns about stuffing of ballot boxes and voter intimidation.
Returning officer and Deputy Commissioner
Jhenaidah. 
Sub. Prayer for Cancellation of Election due to massive vote rigging in the Constituency No.81- Jhenaidah-1 (Shailkupa) 
Dear Sir,
With a heavy heart and deepest Concern, I would like to Lodge this Complain to you and pray for cancellation of the election due to massive vote rigging on 30, December, 2018 in the Constituency No.81- Jhenaidah-1 (Shailkupa) in which I happened to be a candidate having been nominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The basis of my complain and prayer are comprehensively stated in the following manner: 
1. On 30, December, 2018 all my Polling Agents in 117 polling centers appeared before the respective presiding officers to submit their identification card duly authorized and issued by me. In some of the centers, they could submit it but in many centers they could not submit it under duress by the cadres of the Bangladesh Awami league candidate and that too happened in presence of the presiding officers and members of the assigned law enforcement agencies. It is to be noted that in this election the Presiding officers and Polling officers are commonly known in the locality as the member of Awami league oriented families

2. By 11 am of 30 December 2018, all my Polling Agents have been forced to go outside the polling centers under duress by the Awami league candidate’s agents and their fellow cadres encircled in the respective polling centers. That too happened in presence of the presiding officers and the member of the law enforcement agencies assigned therein who were either kept silent or had abetted their activities. The Awami league candidate’s cadres had stamped on the ballot papers in the open day light after ousting our Agents which have been seen by many people. Even some persons who died before 30 December have been seen to have casted their votes . These were the scenario of all the polling stations. 
3. Immediately, I informed some of the incidents to the Assistant Returning Officer, Shailkupa over telephone but of no result. BNP supporters including my polling agents from all the centres had informed me over telephone that Awami League Candidate’s cadres had been resisting the voters on their way to polling centers, specially those who they believed to have BNP orientation. Motiur Rahman Bishwas of Baroipara has been caused leg broken injury and Md. Motiur Rahman Motin of Shailkupa Pourashova area has been caused grievous hurt with serious bleeding injuries while they were on their way back to Polling centres. 
4. If any effective and fair due diligence is done, you will be posted with the facts that from 2 pm onwards of 29 December 2018, the Awamileague Candidate’s cadres had threatened from door to door of BNP supporters with dire consequences asking them not to go to polling centres and they have caused serious panic in the vicinity all over the Constituency and it continued the whole night. They also used abusive languages upon the female members of some of the BNP leaders and supporters. This horrific situation can never be said to be an atmosphere for holdin a free and fair election. 
5. You may recall from your record that as many as 52 major incidents had been reported to you in writing over the last two weeks which were duly received by your office but no action had ever been taken in reference to those. Had there been any action taken against the perpetrators of those incidents, I strongly believe that the goons could have been controlled effectively and the election rigging could be prevented. Your failure to do the needful has not only given them a Frankenstein, but has also established your helplessness to conduct a free and fair election under a political government. 
6. Please be noted that in the given facts and circumstances, this complaint could not be lodged before the respective presiding officers due to our no confidence upon them as their purported and biased inactions have fuelled the vote rigging. In addition to that , our Agents are apprehending that their life will be endanger if they go to submit it to the Presiding officers. Hence, making complain to the returning officers lacks effective and efficacious remedy. 
7. In the circumstances, had there been a free and fair election, not only me but also the people of my Constituency strongly believe that I would be elected in a landslide victory. But the Awamileague Candidate has snatched my victory upon rigging the votes in the aforesaid manners. 
Wherefore, it is most humbly prayed that your honor would graciously be pleased to cancel the 11 Parliament Election purportedly held on 30 December 2018 so far it relates to Constituency No. 81-Jhenidah-1(Shailkupa) and take other appropriate legal actions against the perpetrators and I will be highly obliged for that 
Thanking you 
yours sincerely,

Md. Asaduzzaman
Candidate,Nominated by BNP
Constituency No.81-Jhenaidha-1 (Shailkupa)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

"Polling agents arrested" and "ballots box stuffing"

The next roll of the rigging dice now seems to be the police arresting opposition polling agents and ballot box stuffing - though it remains unclear how extensive this is.

Polling agents should be able to play a crucial role in ensuring that some of the crasser attempts at vote rigging during the actual voting and the count do not take place. Removing opposition polling agents from the scene is a way to allow vote-stuffing and improper vote-counting - particularly when, as revealed by BangladeshPolitico, "Core AL Presiding Officers" have been allocated to certain polling stations.

Local BNP activists in the constituency of Thakurgoan-1, where the opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is contesting, have told BangladeshPolitico that at least seven of its polling agents, each attached to a separate polling centre, were arrested by the police on Saturday. As of writing, three of them remain detained, and the whereabouts of the other four are uncertain.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Exclusive: Documents suggest AL rigging



BangladeshPolitico has been sent a copy of a power point presentation that provides new information on what appears to be one part of the government's proposed strategy of rigging the vote. Read here more generally about pre-vote rigging.

The presentation is titled: "How to win 11th Bangladesh General Election 2018: Strictly for Bangladesh Awami League.BangladeshPolitico obtained a copy of the document from a source in Police Headquarters.

The information is contained in the final two slides of the presentation given to the Awami League government, probably before the formation of the National Unity Front, as it only refers to the BNP, and assumes an untroubled relationship with the Jatiya Party.

Rigging the election before votes are cast

Awami League allowed to campaign without threats or fear
Autocratic governments rig elections before any votes are cast - by restricting opposition candidates from standing, stopping the opposition activists from campaigning, and preventing opposition supporters from voting. 

All these we have seen in recent months in Bangladesh - through the government's control of the courts, the police and the election commission. These three bodies are no longer independent entities in Bangladesh, and have largely become part of the Awami League machine. The government would like to avoid having to stuff ballot boxes on the day - which makes vote rigging very obvious - so they are doing everything to deter opposition supporters from coming out on election day to vote.