South Asia

Evidential Chasm: The Case Against Journalists Accused of Plotting to Kill Bangladesh PM's Son

Given that Sajeeb Wazed has already asserted that Shafik Rehman was directly involved in the plot to kidnap and kill him, it is difficult to see how the police can walk back from the path set out for it.

The Bangladeshi government has accused Shafik Rehman of being involved in a plot to kidnap and kill the prime minister's son. Credit: Dhaka Tribune

The Bangladeshi government has accused Shafik Rehman of being involved in a plot to kidnap and kill the prime minister’s son. Credit: Dhaka Tribune

Dhaka: Two senior journalists, with strong links to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were last week arrested on charges of conspiring to kill Sajeeb Wazed, the son of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The allegations against Shafik Rehman and Mahmudur Rahman are based on evidence collected by the FBI when it investigated a scheme in the US involving a Bangladeshi-American, Rizve Ahmed, who purchased confidential information about Wazed from a corrupt law enforcement agent.

As The Wire had earlier revealed, whilst sentencing Ahmed and two others for bribery offences, the US States Federal District Court judge, ruled in March 2015 that the FBI’s evidence was not sufficient to show that Ahmed had planned to use the illegally obtained confidential information to physically harm Wazed.

Whilst this US court ruling would appear to significantly dent the credibility of Bangladesh’s case against the two journalists – who were not even alleged to be part of the bribery scheme in the first place – the authorities in Dhaka have brushed it to one side.

The day after the publication of The Wire’s article, the magistrate court in Dhaka granted a police application seeking a further five-day period in which to question Rehman in custody.

The US court order may be an embarrassment, but it will not curb the enthusiasm of the Bangladeshi authorities in pursuing this case.

An alleged plot to kidnap and kill the son of the prime minister, involving two major pro-opposition journalists, which could reach into the heart of the BNP itself, is too good to be true for a government that is seeking every opportunity it can use to weaken the opposition party.

But let us give the Bangladesh authorities their due – and put aside the US Federal court ruling and see how the evidence uncovered by the FBI supports the government’s contention that two Bangladeshi journalists were involved in a plot to kidnap and kill Wazed.

The evidence of a plan to injure Wazed

Court documents point to the US Department of Justice having three pieces of evidence in support of the claim made in court that Ahmed, who pleaded guilty to bribery offences, ‘sought to cause Individual 1, who was living in Virginia with his wife and child, to be kidnapped and physically harmed.’

First, the Department of Justice’s sentencing submission relating to Ahmed states: “In a voluntary interview with investigating agents, Ahmed admitted that he provided the private investigator $4,000, and that he requested the private investigator’s help regarding a plan to “scare,” “kidnap,” and “hurt” Individual 1.”

This private investigator, referred to as Steve, was not one of the three men involved in the bribery scheme, but a separate person who Ahmed contacted around January 2012 to obtain information about Wazed.

Secondly, according to Judge Vincent L. Briccetti’s summarising of the evidence, the private investigator had confirmed to the FBI that Ahmed had told him that he ‘wanted his help regarding a plan to scare and hurt Individual 1’

The third piece of evidence concerns a text message from the corrupt FBI agent, Robert Lustyik to his friend Johannes Thaler, both of whom were convicted along with Ahmed, which was sent when the two men thought Ahmed was reneging on their financial deal. The text stated: ‘Tell [Ahmed], I’ve got [Individual 1’s] number and I’m pissed. . . I will put a wire on n get them to admit they want [a Bangladeshi political figure] offed n we sell it to [Individual 1].’ The assumption, here, is that ‘offed’ means killed.

The court’s views about the evidence

In relation to his admission in the interview, the judge stated that Ahmed made conflicting statements:

‘Ahmed made conflicting statements about what he intended to do with respect to Individual 1 when he was interviewed following his arrest a year and a half or so after the bribery scheme in this case had petered out … As I said, the statements he made about it were conflicting. At first he said he did, then he said he didn’t. I don’t know which is true.’

And as to the statement made by the private investigator, the judge stated that whilst Ahmed did mention an intention to scare and hurt Wazed, it was not discussed any further. The judge said:

‘And [Ahmed] was asked of course about involvement in this case but he was also asked about his involvement with a private investigator by the name of Steve that he hired after the Lustyik/Thaler conspiracy had petered out, and in the context of being asked about his relationship with Steve, according to the memo of interview, Ahmed told Steve that he wanted his help in obtaining private security for BNP officials in Bangladesh, .. and Ahmed also allegedly told Steve that he wanted his help regarding a plan to scare and hurt Individual 1. And it also says in the report that Ahmed initially told the investigators that he was just kidding about such a plan. But when he was questioned further … Ahmed acknowledged that his intent was genuine when he asked Steve for help to hurt and kidnap but not kill Individual Number 1. Steve said that was possible but they didn’t discuss it any further.’

About the third piece of evidence, the judge seems not to have concluded that ‘offed’ meant ‘kill’, and said the following:

‘Everything that I’ve been presented in this case, the text messages and the other things that I’ve seen — and I acknowledge that I’m definitely not as familiar with the case as the lawyers are, but all I can do is rely on what I’ve been provided with — based on what I’ve been provided with, this case is all about furthering Ahmed’s political aims, getting confidential information to expose what Ahmed apparently thought was corrupt behavior by the ruling party and otherwise embarrass Individual Number 1. And that’s all terrible behavior and as I said relevant to sentencing. But there’s no talk in these exchanges about doing physical harm to Individual. So I cannot find that that objective was part of the offense of conviction here.’

In summary about the three pieces of evidence, the judge stated: ‘I will also say for the record that the government’s contention that Ahmed in fact sought to kidnap and physically harm an individual is a stretch. I just don’t feel there’s enough evidence that’s been presented to me for me to make that finding. …  As I said earlier, Ahmed’s overall intentions with respect to Individual 1 are to say the least unkind and highly relevant to sentencing in this case. But I don’t believe that there’s sufficient evidence that he really did seek to kidnap and physically harm Individual 1.’

So, the US court, rightly or wrongly, ruled that these three pieces of evidence were not sufficient to allow him to conclude that Ahmed sought to use the illegally obtained information to physically harm Wazed. The US government did not appeal the judge’s decision on this matter.

The significance of the evidence

However, for the purposes of this article, let us now bin the judge’s comments and look at the evidence itself. How does this help the government in its case against the two journalists in Bangladesh?

To consider this question, one must look at some other aspects of the FBI investigation into Ahmed’s conduct.

First, the FBI found that Ahmed had provided the illegally obtained FBI information to three men, including a ‘Bangladesh journalist’. Also one of the court documents states that it was in fact this journalist who had paid ‘$30,000’ for the information.

Secondly, Ahmed, having already paid  $1000 to obtain some confidential FBI information, organised a meeting at this home at the end of January 2012 which, according to one court document, was attended by Lustyik, Thaler, Ahmed, Ahmed’s father – who is the vice-president of the cultural wing of the opposition BNP – and ‘two Bangladeshi men’.

Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that Rehman was this ‘Bangladesh journalist’. This would mean that he received illegally acquired FBI information from Ahmed – and may even have paid for it.

As for the meeting, according to evidence it was ‘to discuss exchanging additional confidential law enforcement information, to which Special Agent Lustyik had access to by virtue of his position with the FBI, for additional cash payments.’

Therefore, if, lets say the two arrested journalists were the two ‘Bangladeshis’ present at the meeting – and this is by no means confirmed – then they may well have been complicit in the offence of bribing an FBI agent, an offence that could be prosecuted in the US, but not in Bangladesh. (It should be noted that, according to his family Rehman has visited the United States in 2014 and 2015 and was not apprehended by the authorities)

But the Bangladesh government’s claim is not about the illegal acquisition of FBI documents – but about a conspiracy to kill Wazed.

Of course, if we assume that the evidence set out above is correct and Rizvi sought to harm Wazed, then perhaps at this meeting such a plot was discussed – or perhaps the plot to harm Wazed was discussed at some other meeting between Ahmed and the two journalists.

However, such an assertion would be total speculation. There is no known evidence to support this contention.

This brings us to the basic weakness of Bangladesh’s allegation. Although there is some evidence that Ahmed may have thought about using the FBI information to harm Wazed – there is no evidence that on receiving the information, Ahmed, or anyone connected to Ahmed, actually made an attempt to harm the prime minister’s son.

The relationship between Ahmed and the FBI agent ended in February 2012.

Ahmed, however, was not arrested until 2 August 2013 – 18 months later – and in that period, there is no evidence of any plotting or attempting to kidnap Wazed.

Following Ahmed’s arrest, his house was searched by the FBI.

In the Department of Justice’s sentencing submission, it is stated that ‘a search of Ahmed’s residence and electronic devices revealed that he was in possession of false FBI credentials and false business cards representing that Ahmed was an FBI agent, FBI paraphernalia, and false FBI documents that purported to contain classified information.’ Whilst it is possible that false FBI credentials could have been used as part of a kidnapping plan, the Department of Justice does not suggest that they were intended to be used in that way. And there is no evidence linking this paraphernalia to either of the two journalists.

Indeed at the Federal court, the sentencing judge stated:

‘Finally, it’s also clear, fortunately, that Individual 1 was in fact never physically harmed nor was there ever an attempt to harm him.’

Of course, most significantly, the Department of Justice never indicted Ahmed for seeking or planning or attempting to harm Wazed – something it could have only done if it had enough evidence that between February 2012 and the time of his arrest a year and a half later, Ahmed had planned to do so.

Wazed’s recent claim that Ahmed pleaded guilty to crimes of bribery in order to avoid ‘facing a very long prison sentence for attempted murder,’ is not supported by the case documents. Ahmed was indicted in August 2014 for five bribery offences, his plea bargain involved him pleading guilty to two of offences, escaping prosecution for the other three.

So whilst there is some evidence that points to Ahmed thinking of causing physically harm to Wajed, it is – using the language of the Federal judge –  a very big ‘stretch’ to then use this evidence to argue, as Wazed and the Bangladesh police do, that the two journalists were conspiring to kill him.

New evidence?

However, the evidence set out above may not be the end of the story.

It may be that there is other evidence that the FBI did not make public in the court documents which could fill the evidential chasm in the government’s case.

The US embassy in Dhaka has in the last few days issued a statement saying, ‘The United States Department of Justice responded to the Government of Bangladesh’s request for legal assistance related to this case. As a general matter, when the U.S. government shares law enforcement information as part of a request for legal assistance, we do not comment on it.’

So what information could the Department of Justice be sharing?

At the very least, one would expect it to provide the names of the three men who received information from Ahmed, along with the names of Ahmed’s other two associates, who met with the corrupt FBI agent.

It is also possible that there was additional information that the FBI may have collected during the investigation into the bribery case which the Department of Justice did not mention in its sentencing submission and which did not come up during the court hearing. We simply don’t know.

For the Bangladeshi authorities, however, this is less a question of evidence and more one of politics.

Of course, the authorities would love it if the US Department of Justice could provide them with additional evidence of a plot. They would much rather prosecute a case with strong rather than weak evidence. But if the Department of Justice doesn’t provide them the requisite evidence, the authorities will not worry them much – since damaging and weakening the opposition party by any means is a key goal.

Even without new evidence, the criminal case will go on, as will the assertion of a plot to kill Wazed.

Indeed, Wazed has already asserted, without ambiguity, that Rehman had ‘direct involvement in the plot to kidnap and kill’ him. It is difficult to see how the Bangladeshi police can walk back from the path Wazed has set out for it.

In Bangladesh, criminal justice is very often just politics by other means.

David Bergman is an investigative  journalist based in Bangladesh. He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs.