South Asia

Pretexts to Arrest: A Response to Sajeeb Wazed's Defence of the Bangladesh Government

People have been arrested simply because they belong to rival political parties, without evidence that they have committed any offences. This is the real link that ties the post-election violence in 2015 and the alleged ‘plot to kill’ the prime minister’s son.

Sajeeb Wazed and Sheikh Hasina

Credit: Sajeeb Wazed’s Google Plus account

Sajeeb Wazed, the US-based son of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken time off from his frequent Facebook musings about the country’s politics to pen an article in the Washington Times defending the arrest in Bangladesh of opposition journalist Shafiq Rehman for his involvement in an alleged plot to kill him in the US.

The article also seeks to connect this ‘plot’ directly to violent protests by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in early 2015 and to defend the government’s arrest of thousands of opposition party activists and leaders.

In setting out his stall in support of the Bangladeshi government’s action, Wazed, however, omits significant facts and makes a number of inaccurate statements.

A ‘plot to kill’?

Rehman was arrested five weeks ago on charges of being involved in a plot to kill Wazed in the US. Another opposition journalist, already in detention, was also ‘shown arrested’ for this offence. The high court on Tuesday refused to give them bail.

The Washington Times article connects the arrest of the journalist in Bangladesh to a criminal prosecution in the US last year that resulted in a US-Bangladesh citizen, Rizvi Ahmed, pleading guilty of bribing an FBI agent to obtain confidential information about Wazed.

Wazed states that Ahmed sought the information from the FBI agent so that he could ‘scare,’ ‘kidnap’ and ‘hurt’ him, and that this information was given or sold to Rehman who also sought to do the same.

However, Wazed’s reporting of this US federal prosecution is inaccurate and highly partial.

First, he does not mention in his article that the key documents sought and obtained by Ahmed concerned alleged financial irregularities by the prime minister’s son himself.

According to the US Department of Justice’s sentencing report, in December 2011 in exchange for $1000 – the only money that was given to the corrupt FBI agent ­– Ahmed received a number of confidential documents about Wazed including “an internal memorandum (the ‘FBI Memo’) that referred to Individual 1 and a sum of $300 million, and a confidential report, known as a Suspicious Activity Report (the ‘SAR’) that also referred to Individual 1.”

Individual 1 refers to Wazed. Banks or financial institutions are required to file a SAR report when they identify any suspicious financial transactions.

According to the Department of Justice submission, on receiving this document, Ahmed was particularly interested in getting more information about the ‘$300 million’.

In a text, quoted in the US court submission, Ahmed writes to the accomplice of the FBI agent, “Just give me some idea what exactly you have on them … The last documents you gave me about $300 millions. How far that investigation went n what they found. Give me some idea and I will get u that contract!!!” (sic). (The ‘contract’ relates to ongoing discussions about Ahmed paying further money to the FBI agent and his friend for further information.)

Secondly, Wazed also omits in his article any mention of the US federal judge’s ruling, which dismissed the department of justice’s contention, raised during the sentencing hearing, that another objective Rizve had was to ‘scare,’ ‘kidnap’ and ‘hurt’ him.

“The [US] government’s contention that [Rizve] Ahmed in fact sought to kidnap and physically harm an individual is a stretch,” Judge Vincent L. Briccetti had said.

“I just don’t feel there’s enough evidence that’s been presented to me for me to make that finding,” he had added.

“This case,” the US judge had said, “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 [Sajeeb Wazed].”

A case against Rehman?

Ignoring all of this, Wazed seeks in his article to link Rehman to the ‘plot’ to kill him by pointing out that a copy of the same FBI documents that Ahmed had corruptly purchased were found in his house. The documents, he says, “chillingly included my home and office addresses, my day-to-day movements and even the license plate number of my car.”

Wazed’s article though does not state that the ‘documents’ found in Rehman’s house comprise the FBI memo relating to him that mention ‘$300 million’ and the SAR – which any journalist, particularly one linked to the political opposition, would love to get their hands on.

The most reasonable and obvious explanation as to why Rehman had a copy of these documents is that he hoped to use the financial information they contained to expose Wazed’s allegedly corrupt behavior – not to use it to track down and kill him.

Indeed, if it were true that Rehman – or Ahmed himself –­ was involved in a plot to kill Wazed, what evidence is there that after receiving this information, either of them took any action of any kind to further that intention?

There is none.

The BNP and the 2014 elections

In his article, Wazed then seeks to link the alleged ‘plot’ to kill him with violent protests orchestrated by the BNP, one year after the controversial January 2014 elections. In doing so, he makes an inaccurate claim about why the BNP chose not to take part in these elections.

He says the party “chose to quit rather than contest” the elections as it realised it would have been “soundly defeated”. However, such a contention is not supported by the international-standard polls that were undertaken at the time, which in fact showed that the BNP had a good chance of winning any elections conducted freely and fairly.

In January 2013, a Democracy International (DI) poll found that 38% of voters would vote for the BNP against 32% for the Awami League; in July 2013, another DI poll found that BNP’s support had increased to 43% among voters, with the Awami League staying at 32%. Another poll conducted just after the elections found that preferences had changed and Awami League had a lead of 4% (within the margin of error).

The International Republican Institute published polls do not include data on voting preferences, but they do provide information on people’s views concerning whether the country was heading in the right or the wrong direction, often used as an indicator of voter preference.

These showed that in November 2013, a couple of months before the election, 62% thought that the country was going in the wrong direction and 33% in the right direction. At the time of the election, the polls showed a very similar result, 59% to 35%.

The only poll published before the elections that suggested that the Awami League was doing well – with a 6% lead – was one commissioned by the party itself and undertaken by a polling agency owned by an Awami League member of parliament. Moreover, a different interpretation of the same data put the BNP ahead by 3%.

Significantly, Wazed also fails mention the crucial reason why the opposition parties did not take part in the 2014 election – the Awami League government’s decision to remove provisions from the Constitution that required the establishment of a pre-election neutral caretaker government to ensure that the elections would be free and fair. Ironically, it was successful protests by the Awami League twenty years earlier when it was in opposition that had resulted in the caretaker government provision first being enacted.

BNP violence: “Without prejudice or favour?”

Wazed was correct to criticise the opposition party’s “violent” response to these controversial January 2014 ‘elections’ (which resulted in over half of the parliamentary seats remaining uncontested and the other half uncompetitive).

And he is right to claim that it was perfectly legitimate for the Bangladesh authorities to seek to arrest those responsible.

However, this was not done “without prejudice or favour,” as he claims.

The police filed hundreds of criminal cases, each one filed against dozens of named BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami activists and supporters chosen mainly because they were from the area where a violent incident took place – without any proper evidence of their involvement in the crime. Those named were then arrested and detained for months, with charges subsequently raised against them.

Moreover, many of the criminal cases also included a statement by the police that the violent offence was also committed by dozens or hundreds of ‘unnamed’ people. This allowed any BNP or Jamaat activist, otherwise not named in a case, to be subsequently detained and ‘shown arrested’ as one of these unnamed accused. As a result, Bangladesh’s law authorities have arrested thousands of opposition activists.

In addition to the arrests there were also many extra judicial killings by the police – in fact, a third of the total deaths during the 2015 violence involved opposition activists or pickets killed whilst in the custody of law enforcement bodies, during alleged ‘shoot-outs’, during protests or in incidents where it has been alleged law enforcement authorities were responsible.

At the end of his article, in criticising human rights organisations and the international media who condemn Bangladesh, Wazed asks rhetorically: “Should criminals not be arrested because they belong to rival political parties?”

Clearly, “criminals” should not escape prosecution simply because they belong to a particular political party.

However, what has been going on in Bangladesh is that hundreds of people are being arrested simply because they belong to rival political parties – even though there is no credible evidence that they have committed any offences.

And this is the real link that ties the 2015 violence and the alleged ‘plot to kill’ the prime minister’s son.

They both have provided pretexts to arrest opposition supporters and activists.

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