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.

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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.