Policies supportive of the global War on Terror have ensured that Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) is able to detain without trial, commit to death without appeal, and round up thousands under the broadly defined banner of “counter terrorism”.
Samiun Rahman is the latest pawn in an end game to establish US-UK hegemony in the region, with the added benefit to the AL of delegitimising legitimate political opposition. Karen Jayes reports.
The story of Samiun Rahman’s arrest and detention on allegations of “recruiting” for the IS has been riddled with holes from the start. Some reports say that at 11.30pm on 28 September Rahman was arrested at Kamalapur Railway Station. But CAGE established that Rahman had been picked up five days earlier from Sylhet without any charge and kept in a cell.
Rahman then confirmed this to reporters: “They brought me out of the cell, took me to a train station on Sunday and forced me to sign a sheet of paper,” he said. His statement contradicts claims made by Bangladeshi police that they had launched a national manhunt to find him.
Rahman denied all charges: “I am not an IS member,” he said. “I came to visit Bangladesh.” Following his arrest, a narrative unfolded in which Samiun contacted some “youths” allegedly through Facebook, arrived in Bangladesh and met them to make plans to go to Syria. Police said they had decided to go to Turkey with Tabligh Jamaat and then migrate to Syria.
But in court transcripts, Samiun said he had been subjected to a bizarre scenario in which police had not interrogated him, but had simply told him who he was, without allowing him to disagree with them. “I was not even interrogated. They kept on taking me in and out and asked me questions that were not relevant. They said ‘You did this. You are a very bad man’ Things like this. They did not even question me. They would just throw assumptions at me. This was happening throughout. I don’t know what I am being charged with.”
Rahman went to Syria for humanitarian aid in 2013 and was stopped and questioned on his return at Gatwick, then released since he proved he was travelling for humanitarian purposes. He admitted and gave details of this to his captors.
Rahman had requested to contact the British High Commission, but had been refused. The court also rejected a petition filed by the defence lawyer seeking bail for him. When Rahman was paraded before the media just after his arrest, he suggested that journalists contact the British High Commission in Dhaka to learn more about him. A reporter from the local Daily Star duly did so. The UK spokesperson said they knew about the arrest but refused to talk about it.
The hand of the British government in Bangladesh’s “war on terror”
Bangladesh’s policy in the War on Terror has been closely allied with American and British aims in the region. The Bangladeshi paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is the long arm of the ruling party in its “counter-terrorism” operations, has the support of the British Foreign Office. Leaked Wikileaks cables in 2010 revealed that the country’s RAB, largely responsible for the high number of extrajudicial killings (dubiously coined “crossfire killings”) and for employing methods of intimidation and torture, were trained by the British police in “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement”.
In CAGE’s report Fabricating Terrorism III: British Complicity in Rendition and Torture, UK-born Bangladeshi Jamil Rahman details how, while on a visit to Bangladesh to see family in 2005, he and his new wife were arrested and detained at a family dinner, by members of the RAB. He was interrogated, physically and sexually abused for a week, in what was preparation for a meeting with Liam and Andrew, two members of MI5.
The man responsible for his previous interrogations, Colonel Saiful, told him, “Our British friends are here, they are MI5, are you ready to tell them everything? What I told you to say.” – namely that he was to agree with everything Liam and Andrew accused him of: that he was a member of al-Qaeda and that he knew people who were connected with what his MI5 interrogators referred to as “the July 7 bombings” – this fake testimony was then recorded, while the MI5 agents reeled off questions from a file.
“Liam and Andrew were putting enormous pressure on me to become a witness for them, work for them in the UK,” Jamil Rahman told CAGE. “That meant whoever they wanted me to testify against in court I had to, even though I do not know who these people are, what they have done, innocent or guilty. Liam, Andrew would threaten me if I don’t do this, they will get someone to do the same for me, and so I will end up in prison for life.”
Reports by Guardian journalist Ian Cobain have detailed British complicity in RAB torture in Bangladesh.
The RAB is described by Human Rights Watch in a 79-page report as being responsible for so many extrajudicial killings and torture – against Muslim leaders and activists, local government officials and left-wing activists – in the name of counter-terrorism that it is in effect “a government death squad”.
And yet, the UK Foreign Office has said of its training of the RAB: “We do not discuss the detail of operational counter-terrorism cooperation. Counter-terrorism assistance is fully in line with our laws and values.”
The US is prevented from supporting the RAB due to its well documented human rights abuses. But Britain has actively engaged with the unit – as well as other intelligence units (which it has engaged with since 2009 alongside the US in the name of “counter terrorism”), including the Detective Branch, the National Security Intelligence and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – a notorious unit known for its torture of Britons in its Taskforce for Interrogation Cell, or TFI, reportedly “a place where officers from all Bangaldesh’s intelligence agencies and main police units work together, extracting information and confessions from enemies of the state”.
It is this haunting term “enemies of the state”, that holds the key to understanding the real nature of Bangladesh’s purported parliamentary democracy, and its hidden aims in the War on Terror.
When “counter terrorism” merges with blood politics
Bangladesh, with a population of around 150 million, is the third largest Muslim majority country in the world. The political arena is dominated by secular ideology, and ruled by the Awami League (AL), headed by the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who came to power with massive popular support after the war of independence in 1971.
Bangladesh has a history of dynasties dating back to the pre-colonial era, but it’s most recent political struggles has seen the AL trading power with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It is described as a parliamentary democracy, but the realities on the ground are otherwise. Testimony to this is the fact that the recent elections in January in which Awami claimed victory, were seen as widely farcical: the BNP boycotted the vote and a meagre 20 percent of Bangladeshis turned up at the polls.
The political landscape has seen the emergence of Islamic parties, most notably the Jamaat-e-Islami, a moderate Islamic party founded on social justice activism and the establishment of equality and Islam in all spheres of life.
Over 40 other organisations allegedly affiliated with al-Qaeda are under surveillance in various cities in Bangladesh and are the targets of a joint Bangladesh-India counter-terrorism strategy that has seen “indiscriminate killings” at the porous border between the two countries.
The 18 Party Alliance, an alliance led by BNP and Jamaat and formed in 2012, has proved a threat to the ruling AL. The alliance has long expressed skepticism at the very existence of violent Islamic extremism, a stance that have earned the alliance the dubious title of “Satanist’s party” of “conspiracy theorists” by leading AL members.
Bangladesh’s political discourse and vote-courting hits at the heart of Islam itself: the extent to which Islamic law should be integrated into politics and the rule of law. However, these debates take place within a fake democracy where political mud-slinging descends to levels where politicians call each other up on their religious attire and ceremonial adherences.
Leading members of the moderate Jamaat-e-Islami have been imprisoned and held for long periods without trial. The agency through which many of these arrests have occurred is a special court known as the International Crimes Court (ICC), set up by the AL, the purpose of which is to try political leaders – many of them from Jamaat – for alleged war crimes during the 1971 war of liberation, 43 years after the war ended. The actions of the ICC in arresting leaders of Jamaat have resulted in violent street protests.
Political leaders from Jamaat have been harassed, spied on, arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Leaders such Khalid Mujahid have died in custody.
Operation Clean Heart ushers in a dark era for human rights
After the events of 9/11, Bangladesh immediately declared its support for US/UK policy in the War on Terror and embarked on an accelerated securitization programme branded with the dubious name Operation Clean Heart.
According to the South East Asia Human Rights Commission, “Operation Clean Heart disregarded all basic principles for policing, justice and the rule of law in favour of arresting, terrorising and brutalising the largest number of people within the shortest time possible.” It says the War on Terror-based policy has done incalculable damage to already defective institutions and has spurred on already prevalent abuses such as “assault, torture, rape, extortion, arbitrary and false arrest”.
The much-needed reform within the judiciary has not taken place – and instead the judiciary has, in the context of over 170 extra-judicial killings in the past three months alone, the imposition of the death sentence without right of appeal, and a series of key alterations to the constitution, been declared “almost non-existent” by leading Bangladesh Human Rights Commission lawyer Mazinur Rahman.
“Extrajudicial killings cannot occur in a civilised society under any circumstances,” Rahman said. “In the name of imaginary crossfire, encounters, killings and disappearances are against the rule of law and human rights.”
Rahman pointed to changes made in the 1972 Constitution. The most recent – and possibly the most drastic – of these changes was a Bill allowing Parliament to impeach judges, through the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This has, in effect, also rendered the judiciary close to redundant, and totally subservient to the ruling party’s aims.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described Bangladesh as a country without the rule of law.
NGOs that are critical of the ruling party are constantly under threat, the most notable being Odhikar, which has a long history of documenting human rights abuses. According to HRW, Odhikar’s leader Adilur Rahman has faced arrest, threat, prosecution and public attack due to the group’s tenacious documentation of ongoing human rights violations in Bangladesh.
A legislative and judicial framework that fosters terror
Capital punishment in Bangladesh carries with it no right to appeal, and has been condemned by Amnesty International.
Laws enacted swiftly under the Act serve to harass and delegitimise legitimate political opposition, and strive to shape what is acceptable Islam and what is not. In 2010, a new National Education Policy is aimed at reforming the Madrassa curriculum, and introducing “anti-extremism” chapters in school textbooks. The Money Laundering Prevention Act 2012 implemented by the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Bangladesh Bank aims to “curb terrorism financing” through state and private banks. The Mutual Legal Assistance Act 2012 which provides a legal framework for inter-country cooperation and allows the government of Bangladesh to freeze properties of criminals and terrorists and their equipment at the request of a foreign country.
As a result of these and other measures, Bangladesh’s ruling AL boasted of “glowing reviews regarding its anti-terrorism measures in the recent US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism (2013). It noted with recognition the “remarkable successes” Bangladesh has achieved in the task of combating national and transnational terrorism.”
On 22 October 2013, Bangladesh signed an agreement with the USA which “aims to enhance counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries in terms of capacity building, information sharing, and ensuring increased exchanges between law enforcement agencies”.
In February 2014, owing to Bangladesh’s successful reforms to anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing measures, the Financial Action Task Force (an inter-state organization comprising 34 developed countries and two regional organizations) removed Bangladesh’s name from their “grey list”. In light of Bangladesh’s well documented human rights abuses and farcical democracy, this measure clearly illustrates the hypocrisy at the heart of the War on Terror.
Bangladesh’s ruling AL boasts of “five years of effective counter-terrorism” – but at what cost?
Samiun Rahman, a Bangladeshi-born London cab controller, is a small pawn in a big narrative that must be generated in order for the AL to prevail and legitimate opposition to be quashed. In return for complicit UK and US support, comes the tacit agreement to US-UK hegemony in the Indian Ocean region and the demonization of Islam under an increasingly dubious War on Terror doctrine.
Rahman will most likely be tortured. Local rights organisations such as Odhikar as well as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported that Bangladesh is well known for enforcing long pre-trial periods on awaiting trial detainees, during which they are often subject to torture.
Gulam Mustafa, Jamiel Rahman and Faisal Mostafa were tortured while in Bangladesh with the complicity of British security agents, a claim corroborated by counter-terrorism officers in Bangladesh at the time. According to a 2013 US State Department Report, the prison conditions in Bangladesh are “harsh and at times life threatening”.
There are roughly 70 000 prisoners in a system designed to hold 34 000 in 68 jails throughout the country. Just over 20 000 of these inmates are in pretrial detention or undergoing trial. Pretrial detainees are often incarcerated alongside convicted prisoners. Prisoners often do not have access to medical care or water. Odhikar have stated that these conditions lead to custodial deaths. In order to restore its image in Bangladesh, and around the world, the British government must step up and protect Samiun Rahman in full compliance with its duties to humanity under international law.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)