The issue of these sanctions was raised on 5 January at the meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on the ministry of foreign affairs. It was said that the foreign ministry felt a PR agency was responsible for these sanctions. The committee also suggested that lobbyists be appointed to work in favour of Bangladesh in the US. However, a review of the US Department of Justice’s website reveals that several lobbyist organisations have been already working in the US on behalf of the Bangladesh government, long before the sanctions.

When approached about the matter, head of the parliamentary standing committee on the foreign affairs ministry, Faruk Khan, did not reply to the written query. Attempts were made to contact foreign ministry AK Abdul Momen on Sunday night, but his phone was turned off.

The US lobbyist firms are contractually engaged to work in exchange of fees to support and promote the interests of the governments of various countries, political parties and business establishments. They basically maintain contact with US senators, congressmen and other political and policymaking bodies of the country and try to exert influence in various policy decisions.

Under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the lobbyist firms have to submit details of their operations to the US Department of Justice. The details include their income and payments, if any, made to US politicians and political parties. The justice department then publishes these details on its website.

The government’s lobbyist firms

The Washington-based lobbyist firm BGR last year worked for Bangladesh basically on human rights issues, presenting the government’s explanations to non-government organisations and the media. The documents show that last year BGR received a quarterly payment of 80 thousand dollars from Bangladesh, amounting to 320,000 dollars per year (equivalent to around Tk 2 crore 78 lakh).

The Bangladesh government, through BEI, signed another one-month contract, from 26 July to 26 August, with Conewago Consulting. The deal was signed with an advance payment of 35,000 dollar retainer, by the prime minister’s private industry and investment advisor Salman F Rahman

Earlier, the government appointed this firm from April 2019 to March 2020 for a 300 thousand dollar fee, according to news reports (Kaler Kantho 28 July 2019). Basically, BGR has been working on behalf of the Bangladesh government since 2014 (Prothom Alo, 17 November 2018).

Other than BGR, the Bangladesh ambassador in Washington, Shahidul Islam, signed one-month deal in September last year with the Friedlander Group in the US. The specific objective of this deal with to arrange a top level meeting between the two countries as well as exchange visits. Friedlander was paid 40,000 dollars for that month.

Then again, the Bangladesh government, through the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), signed another one-month contract, from 26 July to 26 August, with Conewago Consulting. The deal was signed with an advance payment of 35,000 dollar retainer, by the prime minister’s private industry and investment advisor Salman F Rahman. Conewago was specified to represent the Bangladesh government with members of the US Senate and House of Representatives. Incidentally, Salman F Rahman is the chairman of board of governors of BEI, a non-profit and non-political research institute.

According to the US Senate, on 26 June Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report appealed to the US Department of State to place sanctions on the top leadership of RAB. Documents on the US justice department’s website reveal a reply the report. On 13 July BGR’s senior public relations officer Alex Ellis emailed a reply signed on behalf of Bangladesh’s embassy in Washington by the deputy head of mission Ferdousi Shahriar, to the chief executive of HRW, Kenneth Roth and another HRW official John Sifton.

In its report ‘Bangladesh: Hold Security Forces Accountable for Torture’, HRW brought about allegations of torture, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance against RAB. The report mentioned that the US Republican and Democrat senators had called for action to be taken under the Magnitsky Act against RAB. The report also quoted observations made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the UN Human Rights committee against torture.

Writer Mushtaq Ahmed, arrested under the Digital Security Act, died in prison on 25 February last year. Diplomats of 13 countries expressed their concern over the incident. Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen then called upon the media not to report in such a manner. HRW mentioned this in its report too.

Ferdousi Shahriar, in response, rejected allegations of writer Mushtaq Ahmed being tortured saying that the government took death in custody very seriously. The response also highlighted the various successes and achievements of RAB. It mentioned the trial of the Narayanganj seven-murder case and the internal investigations into various allegations against the police.

Based on the HRW report, Associated Press (AP) came up with a report, ‘UN Urged to Probe Alleged Disappearances in Bangladesh.’ On 18 August, BGR official Alex Ellis sent a reply to this report in two emails sent to the news agency and to its Bangladesh representative Julhas Alam. This letter too was written by Ferdousi Shahriar, saying that HRW’s sources were questionable and, in many cases, not credible. The letter said that HRW relied on information of the human rights organisation Odhikar which was not reliable. It also said that HRW for many years had been repeatedly bringing about such unproved allegations against non-white and not wealthy countries.

The very next day, on 19 August, Ferdousi Shahiar sent a reply to HRW’s Kenneth Roth and John Sifton in response to the report ‘Where No Sun Can Enter: A Decade of Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh.’ The letter pointed out that the report contained interviews of 60 unnamed persons, details of 81 incidents provided by unidentified persons and seven anonymous eyewitnesses, and said that all this was unproven. Referring to the claim that plainclothes members of the law enforcement agencies had picked up 35 persons, the letter asked how the organisation was certain that these people were not abducted by criminals. This letter too accused the organisation of repeatedly bringing about unfounded allegations, saying that it should stop such bigotry.

The Diplomat’s website on 18 August published a report, ‘Bangladesh Fake News Law is used to Stifle Dissent’. On 24 August, counselor (political) Shah Alam (Khokon) of the Bangladesh embassy in the US, issued a letter to the chief editor of the website, Shannon Tiezzi. The letter tried to justify the arrest of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, pointing out the problems created by digital platforms used to spread confusion and fear about the government’s programmes to tackle Covid. It also denied allegations of torture in custody.

On 29 November a counselor of the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, Dewan Ali Ashraf, sent a letter to Al-Jazeera saying that it was incorrect to term the cases against Khaleda Zia as politically motivated. He protested against Al-Jazeera’s statement that Khaleda Zia was a victim of political vengeance.

Bangladesh also issued a reply to a report of the news agency AP regarding the arrest of Prothom Alo’s senior journalist Rozina Islam last year. On 20 May, BGR sent the letter of the embassy official Ferdousi Shahriar to AP and at least a dozen other newspapers in the US that had published the AP report, ‘Bangladesh arrests journalist known for unearthing graft.’ The embassy’s letter said that the report had misconstrued the incident. BGR also submitted to the US Department of Justice details of its highlighting throughout the year the Bangladesh government’s development work, economic advancement, positive social indicators, success of its digital initiatives and so on.

The days of secrecy in lobbying are coming to an end and it is now much easier to get a clear idea of the activities of the governments and various other groups

BNP and Jamaat’s lobbyists

The details of opposition BNP’s lobbying are basically of 2019. BNP also had used the services of various lobbyists. The party’s main lobbyist firm was Blue Star and sub-contractor Rasky Partners. According to reports of the US justice department’s website, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir had issued letters on behalf of the party to the US Department of State and members of various Senate and House of Representative committees, calling for a probe into the various discrepancies of the 30 December 2018 election. The letter also highlighted allegations of the party’s leaders and activists being tortured, arrested and harassed, but it did not call for action against any specific person or force. The reports also mentioned meetings between BNP leader Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury and certain top US politicians.

The Blue Star and Rasky Partners’ report reveal that till May 2019 they claimed 239,249 dollars from BNP of which they received 197,790 dollars.

The Organisation for Peace and Justice, known to lobby anonymously for Jamaat-e-Islami, used the services of Husch Blackwell Strategies regarding human rights violations in Bangladesh. There is no records either of any of their lobbying after 2019.

While lobbying is a recognised political tool in countries of the West, a certain consensus is building up about transparency in this regard. Fourteen member countries of the economic and development organisation OECD have already drawn up legislature concerning transparency in lobbying and is on the way to creating more related laws too. It has said the number of laws drawn up in this regard over the last five years is more than done in the last 60 years. That indicates the days of secrecy in lobbying are coming to an end and it is now much easier to get a clear idea of the activities of the governments and various other groups.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir