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.


1. "The opposition did not have a manifesto" in the last election.

Yes it did. See here

2. "Free and fair elections took place"

There is considerable evidence of the lack of free and fair elections. This started before the elections with the arrest of opposition activists and actions to prevent the opposition candidates from standing, and others from even campaigning.

Apart from India, China and Russia (who all supported the election) the immediate international response to the elections was very negative. Most recently, the United States State Department Human Rights report, published this week, stated:
"Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free, fair, and credible and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies won only seven. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. According to data assembled by the NGO Democracy International, there were 1,324 acts of violence against the opposition BNP and its political allies and 211 acts of violence against the ruling AL and its allies during the month prior to the election." (emphasis added)
International media were also highly critical across the board.
- "The biggest loss was for Democracy itself" 
- "The World should be watching Bangladesh's Election Debacle" 
- "Bangladesh's Farcical Vote  
- "'They Threaten Everyone.' Sheikh Hasina's Landslide Win in Bangladesh Marred by Voter Suppression"
This blog also wrote about this: "Documents suggest AL rigging" and "Election rigging: the polling agents debacle"

3.  "Large number of international observers were there, saw [elections] for themselves"

There was not a large number of international observers. None from the EU or the US. In its human rights report the United States State Department stated:
"The government did not grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). ANFREL issued a statement on December 23 noting that as of December 21, the government granted accreditation to 13 of 32 applications submitted, and due to significant delays in the accreditation approval by the EC and the ministries of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, it was forced to terminate its observation mission on December 22.
The government has primarily relied on a group of observers which called themselves the "SAARC Human Rights Foundation" A must-read Reuters investigation into this group found that:
Though the initials and logo it uses closely resemble those of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the SAARC Human Rights Foundation has no affiliation with that inter-governmental body.
Reuters then went onto find that:
"The president of the SAARC Human Rights Foundation told Reuters he now believed there should be a fresh vote after hearing accounts from voters and officials presiding over polling booths that activists from Hasina’s Awami League stuffed ballot boxes the night before the poll and intimidated voters.
“Now I have come to know everything, and can say that the election was not free and fair,” said Mohammad Abdus Salam, a 75-year-old former high court division justice.
A Canadian observer who was brought in by the foundation has also said she now wishes she had not been involved."
The investigation also reported that the Foundation's advisory council:
"Includes a lawmaker from Hasina’s Awami League, and a former lawmaker from the Jatiya Party, which has often been allied with the Awami League."
This is significant, as the government had stated that the political affiliation of a member of ANFREL's board was the rationale for restricting the role of ANFREL members in monitoring elections. Why not here?

It should also be noted that Bangladesh government bodies has also prevented the most experienced and independent domestic election monitoring the elections - including Brotee and FEMA. As the US state department reported:
"Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the EC to conduct domestic election observation."
4. "I have yet to see the evidence [of Transparency International]"

This statement refers to the Transparency International report, published on January 16, 2019 which found that there had been anomalies in 47 out of the 50 constituencies which they had monitored, including fake votes, ballot stuffing, and voters and opposition polling agents barred from entering polling centres. It also found the ruling party was alone in actively campaigning at all areas surveyed, sometimes with help from local law enforcement officials and government resources.

It is pretty inconceivable that Rizvi had not read the report.

5. "These were people who committed arson and killing in months of January to March 2015. after that they went underground. At the time of election, they resurfaced. There were criminal charges against them, so when they resurfaced they were arrested."

This statement refers to why the police were arresting dozens of opposition activists before the election. It is correct that there was arson and killing in months of January to March 2015 - however these incidents did not just result in the police filing cases against only those actually involved in the violence rather in the them filing cases against tens of thousands of opposition activists in a totally arbitrary manner without any credible evidence. This therefore put the police in the position of being able to arrest any opposition activist who showed their faces during election time.


6. "Those who know the media in Bangladesh, know that it is free. It is vigorous".

This is a preposterous statement that flies in the face of journalistic experience in the country. The media operates on the understanding that there are many kinds of stories - which are critical of the government and officials associated with the government - that cannot be published or broadcast - and if they do so their very existance as media houses are under threat. After the Daily Star and Prothom Ali, two of the country's most independent newspapers, published a story in 2015 about extra judicial killings, the country's military intelligence agency DGFI instructed the country's main advertisers to stop placing adverts in the two papers, reducing their income by as much as one third. This boycott continues. A year later, government ministers and activists orchestrated a campaign to intimidate the editor of the Daily Star by filing dozens of sedition and defamation cases. External news websites are blocked if they publish critical journalism, particularly about sensitive subjects about state responsibility for enforced disappearances. Journalists and editors who publish critical articles against the government or its official have been prosecuted under restrictive media laws. The arrest of the photographer Shahidul Alam before the recent general election for his interview on Al Jazeera (see below) is a perfect illustration of the limits of media expression in the country and what may happen if you breach them.

Two weeks ago, government authorities blocked Al Jazeera over an article it had written about disappearances linked to the prime minister's security adviser, Tarique Siddique - as well as a local news website TheJobon. Not a single local Bangladesh newspaper has reported on the Al Jazeera story.

7. "Between 2009 and 2018, Sheikh Hasina has opened up the media and 32 private TV channels everyday 90 political talk shows  Sheikh Hasina is being criticised left and right. There are newspapers criticising Sheikh Hasin and in the parliament she is being criticised, so why wouldn't Bangladesh have press freedom." (Bangladesh High Commissioner)

It is correct that since 2009, the Awami League government established 28 new private TV stations, but almost all new stations that received licenses were owned by pro-Awami League businessmen. The limits of what can be broadcast on these stations is evident from the arrest of the owner of ETV in January 2015 the day after the station broadcast a speech by BNP politician Tarique Rahman living in the UK. The idea that the talk shows criticise Sheikh Hasina "left and right" is absurd - as illustrated by the arrest a few days ago of the head of Bangladesh's woman's football for criticising Sheikh Hasina's policy on the funding of Football. Yes, the funding of football!


8. "Shahidul Alam was not arrested on Al Jazeera for appearing on Al Jazeera and making a comment. He was arrested for spreading disinformation that was inciting violence."

This is false. His arrest was based on a First Information Report. You can see this here. This justifies his arrest on what Shahidul is alleged to have said that is very similar to the language used in the interview he gave in the Al Jazeera programme - though it does not actually mention the Al Jazeera interview. Interestingly, of course, the FIR distorts what he said in the interview.

9. "[Shahidul Alam spread the following disinformation that] there were several people killed, hidden in the Awami League office in Dhanmondi, women were raped."

This is entirely false.


10. If you are saying that [enforced disappearances] is a government policy, I fear you are mistaken. Government does not need to disappear people. Government has authority to arrest people if they feel someone has done something wrong and remand them.

Enforced disappearances have become common in Bangladesh. According to the human rights organisation, Odhikar, the numbers of reported disappearances stood at 3 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 31 in 2011, 26 in 2012, 53 in 2013, 39 in 2014, 65 in 2015, 92 in 2016, 90 in 2017, 83 in 2018. Those who are picked up, are first secretly detained and then one of four things happen: (a) they are killed; (b) they remain disappeared; (c) they are released; (d) they are 'released' but then immediately formally "arrested." So in 2018, out of 83 known cases: - the dead bodies of 8 were found; 24 remain disappeared, whereabouts unknown; 10 were released; and 42 released, and immediately "arrested"

Is it government policy? Whilst there may be some disappearances which have not been authorised at a senior governmental level, the evidence suggests that a significant number are with some even involving agreement from the prime minister. It is difficult to explain how 19 opposition Dhaka based opposition BNP activists could just before the 2014 national elections in a two week period be picked up  secretly detained and disappeared, without there being a clear governmental instruction? It is difficult to see how the disappearance of three sons of senior opposition leaders in Dhaka in August 2016 were not authorised at the most senior governmental level.
11. "Other names [of those disappeared] have also given, same set of people have resurfaced and openly moving around"

Rizvi suggested that some or all of those alleged to have been disappeared "resurface" suggesting that they never had in fact disappeared. Whilst it is correct that a small number of the disappeared men do "resurface" that is because they have been released from secret detention - and not because they were never in state custody. Moreover, the great majority of those disappeared are either killed, remain disappeared or are "released" from secret detention and them immediately formally arrested.


12. "Is there a international gold stand? No. There is not"

That is not correct. There is a gold standard - the International Criminal Court or the other international courts set up about crimes committed in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

13. "Was the process followed in in the tribunal in any way inferior to our high court or Supreme court. No. 

This is wrong. The process was in a number of significant ways different from "the high court or supreme court". Most significantly, the tribunal exempt from constitutional standards and secondly there was no right of judicial review to a separate court. (It is true though that in certain ways the Tribunal provided improved rights compared to the local court system)

14. Bangladesh was the only country which tried war crimes and gave them full rights of representations, full evidence was placed in to the hands of defence lawyers, allowed to bring in as many defence lawyers ..."

This is inaccurate as there were many ways in which the tribunals fell far short of acceptable or international standards. On the specific issue of 'defence lawyers',  it should be noted that the accused were not allowed to bring in foreign lawyers.

15. I don't know anything about [defence witnesses being abducted from outside]

Rizvi must surely have been aware of the case of Sukhranjan Bali who was abducted from outside the Tribunal

16. "Standards were higher than what happened in Nuremberg trial"

The Nuremberg Tribunal happened in 1946, over 60 years earlier. The Nuremberg Tribunal is not the process with which the Bangladesh Tribunal should be compared. It should be compared with the contemporary tribunals at the ICC, or the Tribunals in Rwanda/Yugoslavia/Cambodia.

17. "No other international tribunal gave opportunity of appeal." 

This is obviously inaccurate. All modern international tribunals provide opportunities for appeal.

18. "Bangladesh rules gave opportunity for judicial review"

The Tribunal rules in Bangladesh only allowed review by exactly the same court with the same judges who had made the original decision. That is not understood as judicial review, which requires a scrutinising body separate from the original decision making body.

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