A rebuttal letter signed by 322 prominent European citizens of Bangladeshi origin or Bangladeshi citizens residing in Europe was sent under the banner of Bangladesh Civil Society in Europe. The letter was sent to Prof. Dr. Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Vice-President of the European Commission.
The letter comes in the aftermath of six members of the European Parliament namely Mr. Ivan Štefanec (EPP, Slovak Republic), Ms. Michaela Šojdrová (EPP, Czech Republic), Dr. Andrey Kovatchev (EPP, Bulgaria), Ms. Karen Melchior (Renew, Denmark), Mr. Javier Nart Peñalver (Renew, Spain), and Ms. Heidi Hautala (Greens/EFA, Finland) sent a letter to Dr. Borrell expressing some concerns regarding Bangladesh.
The rebuttal letter says, “We highly appreciate their apprehension and awareness regarding the human rights issues, good governance, and democratic practice of Bangladesh. We however state with great care that all the incidents that they have mentioned are based on false and untrue information.”
“We highly appreciate the long-time partnership and cooperation between Bangladesh and EU countries for trade and commerce, education and research, and all other development sectors. With the active participation of all EU member states and other development partner countries, Bangladesh has done a tremendous achievement on the economic and social fronts. According to the World Bank’s definition of prosperity, Bangladesh has shifted from being a “low-income” to a “middle-income” country (United Nations Committee for Development Policy announced in March, 2018). The incumbent government has been doing extraordinarily well to maintain the ‘middle income’ status. The honorable prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been working tirelessly for achieving the official deadline for graduation from the LDC category by 2026, fulfilling the UN’s SDG goals by 2030 and transforming Bangladesh into a ‘developed and smart’ nation by 2041. This nation is recognized now all over the world as a ‘Role Model of Development’. The so-called ‘Bottomless Basket’ turns into “Over Flowing Bowl”.
“Proposing VISA restrictions or cutting the GSP+ incentive etc are not good diplomatic solutions. These will only harm a country and a harmless and peace-loving nation. Politicians all over the world should avoid these kinds of thoughts. We strongly believe that the cooperation of Bangladesh with all European countries will last longer.”
The signatories include Dr. Mazharul Islam Rana (UK), Sharaf Ahmed (Germany), M. Ahmed (Germany), G. H. Mahmud (Germany), Barrister Fowjia Akhter Popy (UK), Shohela Purvin Shova (France), Dr Golam Rahat Khan (Babu) (UK), Iqbal Moni (UK), Mohammad Abul basher Liton (Czech Republic), David Rahman (The Netherlands), Sohel Parvez (Belgium) and others.
The Rebuttal in Full
With great concern, we would like to draw your kind attention to a recent letter sent by six EU parliamentary members namely Mr. Ivan Štefanec (EPP, Slovak Republic), Ms. Michaela Šojdrová (EPP, Czech Republic), Dr. Andrey Kovatchev (EPP, Bulgaria), Ms. Karen Melchior (Renew, Denmark), Mr. Javier Nart Peñalver (Renew, Spain), and Ms. Heidi Hautala (Greens/EFA, Finland) to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Prof. Dr. Josep Borrell Fontelles.
We highly appreciate their apprehension and awareness regarding the human rights issues, good governance, and democratic practice of Bangladesh. We however state with great care that all the incidents that they have mentioned are based on false and untrue information.
1. Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite law enforcement body was formed during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat E Islami (Jamaat)’s rule by amending the Armed Forces Battalion Ordinance, which has been operational since July 12, 2004. Under the amended ordinance, RAB was given two responsibilities — to gather all crime and crime-related information from the state intelligence agencies and conduct inquiries into any crime on government orders. However, the then BNP-Jamaat government have used RAB to curb the opposition parties especially the then main opposition party Awami League (AL). In the first three months, RAB has arrested thousands of AL activists and killed 79 persons in the alleged crossfires. There is a pattern in the incidents of death in RAB crossfire which appeared to be repetitive, and the explanations were so transparent as to lead one to believe that the incidents were stage-managed and planned. This created huge criticism among every walk of people in the community and people from different sectors started to raise their voices. Then RAB started to pick and torture some journalists who wrote against their activities. A writ petition was filed in the High Court on October 25, 2004 in the wake of criticism against the RAB activities. But the then BNP-Jamaat government did not pay heed to those rather kept using RAB to act heavily against AL and other opposition parties.1 Finally, it has come out that within a period between July 2004 and October 2006, thousands of AL leaders and activists were arrested and tortured and a total of 1500 of them were killed in the name of crossfire.
Since coming into power in 2009, the present AL government has taken the initiative to utilize RAB for curbing terrorism, fighting drugs, maintaining law and order, and providing security to the citizens rather than abusing it to curb political opposition. Within a short time, RAB has developed itself with an upward trajectory and emerged as one of the vital law enforcement agencies for Bangladesh. RAB and its members were known for their commitment to their service and to the country. In the last 19 years, 27 RAB officials were killed in the line of duty while upholding national security. Countless were also injured during the operations. RAB’s intelligence chief, Lieutenant Colonel Azad Abul Kalam also sacrificed his life during the infamous counter-terrorism operation at Atia Mahal. It has arrested top Jamatul Mujahidin (JMB) (a home- grown ISIS-affiliated Islamist terrorist group outlawed in the country) leaders including, Shaikh Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai. One of the most successful operations of RAB was foiling the terrorist activities of JMB at the Holey Artisan Café in Baridhara, Dhaka on 1 July 2016, when five gunmen sieged control of the Café and killed 22 people, including 13 foreign nationals (9 Italians, 3 Japanese, and 1 Indian nationals).
Currently, it is playing a praiseworthy role in Bangladesh’s drive against Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF) – a militant separatist entity active in Chittagong Hill Tract. RAB is also curbing terrorism and arrested several of the top brass of the newly formed terrorist organization, Jamatul Shaqia.
Despite success stories, RAB has been heavily criticized by national and international bodies due to their heavy-handed operations and extra-judicial killings at different times. However, there were hardly any such allegations against the force since 2021 when the United States of America imposed financial sanctions on RAB and six of its current and former officers on 10/12/2021. After that Bangladesh government with the support of US government and other European countries, made a huge improvement in the activities of RAB. The top US diplomat’s recent statement on the issue of the country’s human rights situation has boosted Bangladesh’s morale to a great extent.
2. The extra-judicial killing and enforced disappearances have been started by Major General Ziaur Rahman, the founder of BNP, after the assassination of the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members on 15th August 1975 which culminated in the extra-ordinary murder of four national leaders on 3rd Nov 1975. An indemnity ordinance was introduced on September 26, 1975, paving the path for Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad to take over with the help of Bangabandhu’s killers. Later on, when the first military dictator Major Zia occupied the state power, he kidnapped and killed numerous numbers of army officers and dumped the dead bodies in unknown locations in order to consolidate his illegal power 2. According to the reports of Amnesty International, during Zia’s five-and-half years in power, more than 2,000 military personnel were reported to have been executed. The highest profile was the hanging of Colonel Abu Taher. According to one report, General Mir Shawkat Ali was believed to have confirmed that 1,130 military personnel were killed during 1977-1978 period alone by Major Zia. His BNP government made changes to the Constitution of Bangladesh (the ‘Fifth Amendment’) which legalized all measures taken by the government between 15 August 1975 (the date of the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members) and 9 April 1979 (the date martial law was lifted). According to the indemnity ordinance, no one involved in Bangabandhu’s murder, or its conspiracy could be tried in the lower court, Supreme court, or court martial3. Thus, Ziaur Rahman turned the ordinance into an act, denying people’s basic rights to get justice, and established a culture of impunity.
During the power of BNP-Jamaat under prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia in 1991-1996 and 2001-2006, they have kept continuing the same fashion of torture, kidnapping, abduction and killing of opposition leaders and activists, journalists, minor community leaders including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and the Indigenous community. The most infamous incidents were the army-led “operation clean heart” in 2002 when 60 people died in custody allegedly by torture, and more than 10,000 people were arrested mostly from the opposition parties. The government has never clarified the legal base and goal of this action. Moreover, it indemnified all persons for all their acts during the countrywide joint drive by making an ordinance namely ‘The Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance 2003’ on the 9th January 2003. They did it without placing it before the Parliament for debate. The ordinance precludes ‘any move to seek justice in the court of law for custodial deaths and human rights violations during the countrywide clampdown on crime’.
Another painful and horrifying act was the grenade attack at the Awami League (AL) rally on the 21st August 2004 when several grenades were hurled targeting the top leadership of the main opposition, Awami League and the prime target was the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament and Bangladesh Awami League (AL) President Sheikh Hasina while she was addressing a rally on Bangabandhu Avenue. Sheikh Hasina escaped as activists formed a human shield to protect their leader aboard a truck. Assailants fired seven bullets at the bulletproof vehicle that Sheikh Hasina boarded immediately after the blasts. Bullets also punctured the wheels of the vehicle and there was a large hole on the rear left side of its window. At least 12 bullets hit the windows of her car. At least 23 people were killed including Ivy Rahman, the top leader of the women’s affairs organization of Bangladesh Awami League and more than 400 people were injured in this grisly incident. The way the attack was carried out points to a very well-organized, well-planned, and professionally executed operation. It would not be wrong to suggest that the timing, the mechanism used, and the targets were selected in a manner, which would cause the maximum death and destruction. The attack was orchestrated by the Taliban-affiliated local terrorist organization Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (known as Huji in the media). The testimony of the leader of the organization clearly mentioned cooperation and support from the ministerial level as well as the then Prime Minister’s son Tarique Rahman.
3. It is absolutely right that “it is the choice of the people to decide their representatives through acceptable elections”. But what is the determining factor of an acceptable election? During the 10th parliamentary election held in 2014, the BNP-Jamaat alliance let loose a reign of terror to resist the election. They vandalized and torched hundreds of vehicles. As many as 200 people, including 20 law enforcers, were killed by their petrol bombs, handmade bombs and other sorts of violence. This was the only series of events in Bangladesh, where violent political activities targeted mass people systematically. They felled thousands of roadside trees. They torched small shops, government and private establishments, and power plants. The goons of BNP-Jamaat vandalized mosques, temples, pagodas and churches, and torched hundreds of copies of the holy Quran. On the day of the election, they killed 26 people, including a presiding officer, and torched 582 schools across the country, that were serving as voting centers. Braving all obstacles, people exercised their voting rights and helped continue the democratic process. More information can be obtained from the human rights watch report on the pre- and post-2014 election of Bangladesh4.
During the 11th parliamentary election of 2018, BNP-Jamaat led coalition took part in the election and won in few seats. All other political parties have taken part in the election. BNP-Jamaat led coalition was in the parliament until very recently when some of BNP members resigned but one of them known as Abdus Sattar of Brahman Baria has got re-elected again. All others from their coalition are still active in the parliament.
The allegation of the ‘Midnight Election’ was an act of rumor and disinformation which was never proved. A recent Deutsche Welle and Ekattur TV’s investigating reports have suggested that this claim was completely baseless.5
4. The call to contribute to ensuring a free, fair, and impartial general election is a good call, but relating two points namely ‘poll-time neutral caretaker government’ and ‘release of Begum Khaleda Zia’ are illogical or not in the hands of the present AL government.
In May 2011, the Supreme Court declared illegal a 15-year-old constitutional provision that mandates an elected government to transfer power to an unelected non-partisan caretaker administration to oversee a new parliamentary election on completion of its term6. Later in June 2011, the 345-member legislature passed the 15th amendment of the constitution with its majority in Parliament by 291 to one7. The cases of Begum Khaleda Zia in which she was sentenced to jail were filed by army-led caretaker Govt in 2008. For example, the ‘Zia Orphanage Graft Case’ for which she was sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of abusing power during her second term (2001-2006) to collect and spend Tk 6.52 crore for different purposes, including purchase of 42 kathas of land in the capital to set up a Charitable Trust after her late husband’s name8. The five other accused in the case, including her son Tarique Rahman who is now BNP’s acting chairman, were awarded 10 years’ imprisonment for misappropriating over Tk 2.1 crore that had come from a foreign bank in grants for orphans. Another case known as ‘Zia Charitable Trust Graft Case’ for which she along with her three other associates was sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing power and collecting USD 375,000 from unknown sources.
Begum Khaleda Zia was sentenced in the trial due to irrefutable evidence unearthed by the army intelligence agency during the caretaker Govt in the period of 2007-2008. The prime minister Sheikh Hasina has shown exceptional kindness to provide special order for providing a maid with convicted begum Zia while she was in prison. Later in 2020, she was freed from jail on humanitarian grounds as per the instructions of the prime minister in response to appeals from her family10. Apart from these, many other corruption cases are pending.
5. We highly appreciate the EU leadership in promoting diplomacy, the rule of law and human rights across the world. It will be advisable to carefully check how was the rule of laws or state of human rights during the BNP-Jamaat regimes. Especially, if we consider some incidents during the period of 2001-2006, we can get a clear picture. According to the “Corruption Perception Index (CPI)” of the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI), Bangladesh became the world champion in corruption five times in a row from 2001 to 2006 thanks to the unbridled corruption and money laundering by the BNP-Jamaat alliance and the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s family members12 . Both sons of Begum Khaleda Zia, Arafat Rahman Koko and Tarique Rahman, were engaged in wide-ranging bribe collection in connection with public works projects awarded by the government of Bangladesh. In 2009, the U.S department of justice seeks to recover approximately $3 million in illegal proceeds from foreign bribe payments to Arafat Rahman Koko, in connection with projects awarded to Siemens AG and China Harbor Engineering Company.
Later a Singapore court ordered the return of the money from Singapore to Bangladesh where the money was deposited14. Several senior BNP politicians, Dhaka’s US embassy officials, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the media during 2001-08 revealed that Tarique Rahman and his notorious associates had made “Hawa Bhaban” (the political secretariat of Begum Khaleda Zia in a building named “Hawa Bhaban” on Banani Road 13) an alternative powerhouse that took many crucial decisions bypassing the laws of the land15. In November 2008, US envoy James F Moriarty sought a security advisory opinion under Section 212(F) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Presidential Proclamation 7750, suspending the entry of Tarique Rahman into the US. “Notorious for flagrantly and frequently demanding bribes in connection with government procurement actions and appointments to political office, Tarique is a symbol of kleptocratic government and violent politics in Bangladesh,” said former ambassador James F Moriarty. His involvement in corruption, patronization of bribery, financial irregularities and graft charges are well documented.
Tarique Rahman was notoriously involved in violating the regional harmony of the South-East Asia as he kept very close ties with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and a few other rebel groups in India’s northeast. He was supporting the arms supply for them by using the territory of Bangladesh, however in 2004 a huge contingent of 10-truck arms and ammunition was hauled in Chattogram. Later Anup Chetia, one of the founding leaders of ULFA, in a recent interview, said the weapons were intended for other rebel groups in addition to his group18. He was the mastermind of the 21st August 2004 grenade attacks on the opposition rally (aforementioned) for which a Dhaka court delivered the verdict on October 10, 2018. A total 19 people, including former state minister Lutfozzaman Babar and former deputy minister Abdus Salam Pintu, were sentenced to death. A further 19 people, including BNP acting chairman Tarique Rahman, were sentenced to life imprisonment, while 11 others were given various jail terms
6. Bangladesh has seen the rise of deadly Islamic militancy during BNP-Jamaat regime in 2001-2006, with the direct patronization of the ruling parties. There have been a number of attacks on various institutions/individuals perceived un-Islamic20. Some examples of terrorist attacks are bomb blast at a Communist Party of Bangladesh rally in Dhaka in 2001; at a function to celebrate Bangali New Year at Ramna in 2001; serial bomb blast in four cinema halls of Mymensing in 2002; bomb blast at Shah Jalal dargah in Sylhet in January 2004; grenade thrown at British High Commissioner during his visit to Shah Jalal shrine in Sylhet in May 2004; bomb blast at a community centre in Sylhet in July 2004 to disrupt a meeting organised by AL; grenade attack at an AL organised rally in Dhaka led by party President Sheikh Hasina in August 2004; synchronized bomb blasts in 63 out of 64 districts on 17th August 2005 etc.
As a political party, Jamaat has acted against the liberation of Bangladesh during 1971, and the leaders of this party was involved in crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, mass systematic rape and sexual enslavement during the time of war, persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution etc. Most of the top leaders of this party were convicted and few of them have already got punishment already. On 1 August 2013, the Bangladesh Supreme Court cancelled the registration of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
7. We highly appreciate the long-time partnership and cooperation between Bangladesh and EU countries for trade and commerce, education and research, and all other development sectors. With the active participation of all EU member states and other development partner countries, Bangladesh has done a tremendous achievement on the economic and social fronts. According to the World Bank’s definition of prosperity, Bangladesh has shifted from being a “low-income” to a “middle-income” country (United Nations Committee for Development Policy announced in March, 2018). The incumbent government has been doing extraordinarily well to maintain the ‘middle income status. The honorable prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been working tirelessly for achieving the official deadline for graduation from the LDC category by 2026, fulfilling the UN’s SDG goals by 2030 and transforming Bangladesh into a ‘developed and smart’ nation by 2041. This nation is recognized now all over the world as a ‘Role Model of Development’. The so-called ‘Bottomless Basket’ turns into “Over Flowing Bowl”.
Proposing VISA restrictions or cutting the GSP+ incentive etc. are not good diplomatic solutions. These will only harm a country and a harmless and peace-loving nation. Politicians all over the world should avoid these kinds of thoughts. We strongly believe that the cooperation of Bangladesh with all European countries will last longer.
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1 For more details, please go through the detail memorandum of Bangladesh Civil Society in Europe sent to EU Parliament in 2005(https://bcsineu.org/pdf/Memo-EU-Parliament-2005.06.09_Repression-violation-Human- Rights.pdf)
- a. http://www.londoni.co/index.php/27-history-of-bangladesh/1981-assassination-of-ziaur-rahman/298- assassination-of-ziaur-rahman-1981-mass-execution-of-officers-history-of-bangladesh
b. https://www.tbsnews.net/bangladesh/45-years-families-army-and-air-force-officers-executed-gen-zia-still-await- justice-550170
4 https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/04/29/democracy-crossfire/opposition-violence-and-government-abuses-2014- pre-and-post
5 a. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=550957913883926
8 https://www.thedailystar.net/politics/zia-orphanage-trust-corruption-case-verdict-high-court-enhances-khaleda-zia- punishment-10-years-1653796
9 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/former-bangladesh-pm-khaleda-zia- sentenced-to-seven-years-in-jail-in-graft-case/articleshow/66411757.cms?from=mdr
19 https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2022/08/20/august-21-grenade-attack-cases-close-to-conclusion- after-18-years