[Editor’s Note: The Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States submitted this Letter to the Editor in response to an opinion piece by Toby Cadman. We are publishing, in conjunction with this letter below, Toby Cadman’s Rejoinder to the Government of Bangladesh. We advise and encourage reading these pieces together.]
The January 31 article by Toby Cadman, “What Should the International Community Do to Address Impunity in Bangladesh?” is filled with errors and mischaracterizations. Worse, it fails to disclose that Cadman has been a paid representative of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladeshi extremist group that has waged violence across the country in recent years in opposition to the government. As a result of these activities, Jamaat is responsible for several deaths, including children killed by Jamaat firebombs.
In the run-up to the 2014 Bangladesh general elections, candidates of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition to the ruling Awami League, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, were broadly trailing in opinion polls, foretelling an election rout. Having failed to win Bangladeshi voters in the marketplace of ideas – probably because the economy under the ruling party is growing at a greater-than 6 percent annual clip – the BNP tried to disrupt and delegitimize the election by boycotting it. BNP Senior Vice Chairman Tareque Rahman fled the country after he was implicated in a 2004 grenade attack targeting Sheikh Hasina that killed more than 20 people. Rather than face justice at home, Rahman lives comfortably in London.
At the same time as the boycott, the BNP’s foot soldiers and major funding source, Jamaat, which had been declared an illegal political party by Bangladesh’s High Court in 2013 because of its history of violence, organized massive nationwide strikes and a campaign of violence.
Jamaat members set fire to thousands of buildings, cars and businesses. They derailed trains. They killed 20 law enforcement officers and torched government buildings. They burned the homes of Awami League officials and firebombed polling places on election day.
During Jamaat’s reign of terror – which ultimately killed more than 230 people and injured another 1,200 — Jamaat frequently targeted non-Muslims and other minorities and vandalized more than 30 Hindu temples.
As recently as last fall, Bangladesh authorities arrested several Jamaat members before they could carry out an attack, and confiscated bombs and other explosives, machetes and jihadist books.
Law enforcement officers have naturally worked to halt the violence and use intelligence and pinpointed raids to stop attackers before they execute their plans. Any reasonable person would say that Sheikh Hasina’s government is cracking down on violence, protecting innocent citizens and maintaining rule of law. But in Cadman’s view, these actions have “shrunk the space for civil society.” Cadman should ask the families of the children killed by a 2015 Jamaat firebomb attack if prosecuting the perpetrators would endanger Bangladesh’s civil space.
Indeed, any “widespread criminality,” which Cadman accuses the government of perpetuating, has in fact been carried out by the BNP and Jamaat.
Bangladesh has been forefront in prosecuting crime. The country’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), which was set up to try the perpetrators of war crimes and genocide during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Liberation from Pakistan, has succeeded in bringing to justice some of the worst offenders – most of whom had managed to escape justice for nearly five decades, living consequence-free lives in the open. These include monsters such as Mir Quasem Ali, leader of the notorious Al-Badr paramilitary death squad — which he modeled on Hitler’s SS — which operated during the 1971 war. He was convicted of the abduction and murder of several people and ran a gruesome torture center in a hotel in Chittagong. He received his deserved justice in 2016, when he was executed by hanging.
Jamaat has enlisted Cadman and other Westerners to attempt a sort of judo on the war crimes trials, arguing that they are politically motivated because the defendants are typically Jamaat members. This is a futile effort to excuse defendants of their horrific crimes because of their political affiliation and the passage of time. The defendants typically are Jamaat members – though not exclusively; a former Awami League official was convicted of murder – for the simple fact that Jamaat was leading the worst crimes of the 1971 War and genocide while collaborating with the attacking Pakistan Army.
Now, in this article, Cadman is trying another form of judo: An attempt to delegitimize the ICT by accusing it of failing to try alleged crimes perpetrated by the Bangladesh government. Even if such crimes had happened, involving the ICT would be redundant. Bangladesh has an efficient and robust judicial system that capably handles domestic criminal matters. And it, not the ICT, carries the country’s final authority: Bangladesh has the world’s only criminal tribunal whose verdicts can be appealed to the nation’s highest court. And, in fact, Bangladesh’s High Court has sided with a defendant and overruled an ICT verdict. That’s why this attempted sleight-of-hand by Cadman is just as obvious as his previous one.
As for Cadman’s other allegations, they are refutable with facts.
His view that “The position adopted by Bangladesh is to view any opponents, as ‘enemies of the State’ and therefore, anti-Liberation, or against the country’s independence” is preposterous. All one has to do is open any of the nation’s more than 25 national or around 400 local newspapers, flip on any of the privately-owned television channels (there are about 40 private and only one state channels) or click on any of the hundreds of independently owned news sites to see a steady stream of criticism of the ruling party, some of it more vitriolic than others. All of it is spoken with impunity, because of Bangladesh’s freedom of the press. Bangladesh’s libel laws are much more like the U.S.’s than Britain’s, where it’s much easier to win a libel claim. Bangladeshi journalists are protected by laws that make it tough for libel plaintiffs to prevail.
Instead, it is Cadman who is guilty of incorrectly characterizing the actors in Bangladesh politics. Many of those he paints as innocent members of opposition parties, acting in good faith within the system, are in fact – as has been demonstrated – violent extremists attempting to destroy the system and take cover behind a political party’s flag.
Cadman recounts unverifiable data from human rights groups in Bangladesh regarding “extra-judicial executions” in recent years.
To call these events extra-judicial executions is recklessly hyperbolic. Most of the deaths occurred during police raids on criminal and terrorist cells, which ended when the suspects initiated gun battles and attacked authorities. Law enforcement officers were protecting themselves and suppressing the threat.
Here is an example of how Cadman gets the story wrong as he tries to prove his twisted argument that the government of Bangladesh is running an out-of-control police state: He criticizes a one-time “round-up” of more than 10,000 individuals in the summer of 2016. Here is what actually transpired: More than 650 police departments across the country, acting over a period of seven days, made about 11,000 arrests. This was an average of about 1,600 arrests per day – the same as an ordinary day in Bangladesh, a country with a population of 160 million. It turned out the crackdown was highly efficient. The majority of those arrested – about 8,000 – were criminals with outstanding warrants.
These hardly sound like the “crimes against humanity” Cadman charges the government with committing.
The same is true of Cadman’s charge that the government is engaging in forced disappearances of political rivals. When investigated by Bangladesh authorities – and they are; every time a citizen reports that someone has gone missing, it is investigated — these so-called disappearances were found to be either self-initiated or executed by criminals disguised as law enforcement officers, using forged identifications. The latter is a troubling phenomenon and is being addressed aggressively. Some so-called abductions have turned out simply to not be so. Alleged abductee Hummam Quader Chowdhury was found to be living with his family. The family of opposition-party BNP leader Salauddin Ahmed claimed he was abducted by law enforcement officials; he reappeared in India.
Following the 2016 terror attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery, individuals seeking to join banned violent extremist organizations or who have left Bangladesh to join jihadist groups have been using the term “enforced disappearance” to conceal their actions. One case highlighted recently in the media involving a Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, reported abducted by his wife, is being investigated. Quasem has four criminal charges filed against him, including two for the use of explosives.
Bangladesh recently has instituted new measures in its criminal and justice system designed to ensure the rights of the accused, including glass-walled questioning facilities. This is part of a set of wider reforms to ensure the trustworthiness of the country’s law enforcement apparatus. Law enforcement officers and members of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, an elite unit created to fight terrorism, have been disciplined for criminal action; some have been imprisoned. A member of the ruling Awami League was convicted of providing false information to the nation’s Anti-Corruption Commission in 2014 and sentenced to three years in jail. No one, regardless of their political party, is above the law in Bangladesh.
Cadman writes that the government of Bangladesh has been unresponsive to calls from the United Nations for more information on these events. This is incorrect. As an elected member of United Nations Human Rights Council, the government of Bangladesh has remained engaged with the UN mechanisms through constructive dialogue. The government has shown openness in human rights issues and responded to the calls of the UN Human Rights mechanism through the established process.
As for the EU, the Government of Bangladesh enjoys excellent relations with the EU and EU countries that goes beyond development cooperation. As a trusted partner the EU recognizes our efforts and achievements in the fields of governance and human rights.
Cadman accuses the Government of Bangladesh of attempting to manipulate the International Criminal Court through Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. Rather, both Bangladesh’s Supreme Court and its Chief Justice are independent and not under the control of the ruling Awami League.
Finally, Cadman references the recent arrest of several senior Jamaat members in Dhaka, which resulted in the suspects being charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Many of those arrested, in fact, were fugitives. Cadman glibly writes, “Considering that they are a political party one might reasonably ask why holding a political meeting is not permitted, and secondly, as there is an upcoming election, it might be reasonable to suggest that unseating the government was its responsibility.”
This reeks of Orientalism and post-colonial arrogance. Bangladeshi authorities are not so simple and backward as to be unable to differentiate between a good-faith political meeting and an attempt to overthrow the government, and Cadman knows this. In addition to his factually flawed attacks on the government of Bangladesh, which have been rebutted here, he’s just plain offensive.