Journalist Tim Sebastian this Wednesday interviewed Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, on the German media outlet Deutsche Welle’s talk show ‘Conflict Zone’. They discussed human rights in Bangladesh, corruption, the recent Al-Jazeera documentary and more. The full text is given here.
For years now the government of Bangladesh has been criticised around the world for its human rights records. But its reputation received another jolt this month with the release of a news documentary alleging high level bribery and corruption. My guest this week from Dhaka is Gowher Rizvi, the foreign affairs advisor to the country’s prime minister. When will the authorities stop denying the truth about the repression they have inflicted and clean up their act? Gowher Rizvi, welcome to ‘Conflict Zone’.
Your country has become a byword for egregious human rights abuses which your government routinely denies. As an academic who is used to dealing in truth, why do you serve a government that seems to have such little regard for that commodity?
Mr Sebastian, I think this question needs to be qualified a bit. When you say egregious human rights violations, might I explain that human rights is a very large word.
Let me be more specific then -- arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, all of which your country is accused of by the UN, UN rights groups around Asia, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee Against Torture, that’s what I had in mind ...
I wish I could deny all this in entirety. I will not deny that there have been instances of some disappearances. When you talk about torture, there is no documented evidence of torture, to the best of my knowledge.
The UN Committee against Torture is certain that torture is carried out routinely. It has received report after report that torture is carried out routinely by your security forces. And you will have us believe they have all got it wrong?
I would not deny it or say they have got it wrong. But I do also want to say that as far as the government is concerned, torture is illegal and we try to make sure that torture doesn’t take place. I was objecting to the way you posed the question because so many good things have been happening in Bangladesh. Today Bangladesh is one of the spectacular successes of development ...
Yes, and you are very good at promoting the successes, the economic successes in your country for example. But that is not what I am asking you about. I am asking you about the things that have gone wrong in your country. Your government claims zero tolerance of corruption. The boss of Transparency International in Bangladesh himself summed up the extent of corruption when he accused the government of going after only, what he called, the ‘small fish’. The activities of the corrupt leaders at the top are beyond our imagination, he said. We don’t see robust investigation or legal action against those big players. So, so much for the zero tolerance for corruption ...
If you recall, about six to nine months ago, there was a big action against various corrupt individuals and organisations. Many of them have been arrested. Police investigation is taking place. The Anti-Corruption Commission is inquiring into it. At the end of the day we have to follow a judicial process and this is a time consuming process. I am not saying that our process is perfect. I am not saying that there are no political considerations going into it. These things are true. But where I object, and Mr Sebastian you are such an experienced journalist, is that the way you paint the picture is all one-sided and the viewers will end up getting the wrong impression.
It’s not me painting the picture. I am relying on reports of internationally respected organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee Against Torture.
In that case, please allow me to balance that picture with reality and as it happens on the ground.
Which you are doing. But all this has paved the way for a high profile documentary which was released this month by the Al Jazeera network which reveals shocking levels of corruption among the officials of the state in your country and the government's immediate reaction was to call the film false, inflammatory and a smear. You all did not even consider investigating the matter. This is hardly the reaction of an honest government, is it?
It’s being inquired. An inquiry is underway. I want to point out in all sincerity that the documentary’s title was ‘All the Prime Minister’s Men’. And we were told it would expose corruption around the prime minister. Do you really believe this documentary has succeeded in doing that? Was there a single evidence which incriminated the prime minister in the alleged corruption? This is where I think as sensible academics and journalists, we should stand back and ask ourselves, what was the evidence given to incriminate the prime minister's involvement. And yet this whole documentary was billed as to show how corrupt the regime is.
The documentary was able to locate two high level fugitives from justice convicted for murder, whose elder brother just happens to be your serving army chief General Aziz Ahmed. That’s pretty embarrassing for you, isn’t it?
Technically it is, but on the other hand I’m not going to be defending everything. But the way you are putting the question, I need to ask, should a person be held guilty because of the guilt of his brother? I think this is a question we need to ask. Now if the brother in the armed forces helped his brother to evade justice and to further his criminal activities, this accusation would be extremely pertinent. What happened took place long, long before this gentleman became the army chief.
Let’s just look at some of the details that came out in the film about General Aziz Ahmed and his brothers. Two of them, Anis and Haris, were found guilty of involvement in a 1996 murder of a member of a rival party. Both were absconding from justice and went on the run. The third brother Josef was also convicted and spent more than 10 years on the death row. Magically, just before his brother Aziz was promoted to head of the army, Josef gets a presidential pardon. How did that happen? Is Bangladesh in the habit of giving pardon to convicted murderers who gun down their opponents on the streets in cold blood?
The certainty with which you speak is surprising. You have linked the army chief and his brother’s release into one story.
It is one story.
No, no, no.
My point is, you have to be pretty well connected to get a pardon for cold-blooded murder.
Let me give you the facts and then you draw a conclusion. The brother in question had served about 20 years in prison. There is a law that after serving a certain amount of years, you may be given parole of clemency by the president. All this happened long before, months and months before even the vacancy for chief arose. It happened completely separately. This man has served over 35 years in the armed forces, worked his way up with a fairly clean record. So why should we malign him and link these two stories together. I would like you to look at the timeline of the two events. These are six months apart.
The point is, as the film brought out, your army chief knew perfectly well where his two other brothers were, the ones that were on the run and apparently didn’t tell the relevant authorities. Isn’t that worth investigating?
It would be worth investigating, but please also you know as much as I do that both these gentlemen were outside the jurisdiction of Bangladesh. And yes, if this information had been available, we would have tried to extradite them provided we had an extradition treaty. In fact, in many cases we have done so. And there is no reason to believe we would have not done so. You are quite right. If this information would have been available to the government, the government would have taken action.
But perhaps this was all too dangerous to delve into. Isn’t it a fact that nobody in your country wants to delve to deeply into suspicions of high level corruption, do they? Too many people disappear and end up dead if they say the wrong thing and ask the wrong questions. It’s a fact of life in your country.
No, no, no. We are proud, however imperfect, we are proud of our liberal democratic system. We are proud that we have a prime minister who has a very intolerance for corruption. Our armed forces are firmly under civil control and therefore to say that corruption is connected at the high level is wrong.
How is it then in a state that is supposed to have a functioning justice system, that these two fugitives brothers of your army chief, Anis and Haris, convicted murderers, are reported to have returned to Dhaka in broad daylight in 2019 to celebrate a family wedding. There aren’t many fugitives killers who can show up at a big society wedding, mingle with the president and foreign dignitaries unless they have protection right at the top. You know that as well as I do.
You are absolutely right. If it was known to anyone that these gentlemen have returned to Bangladesh, immediately they would have been apprehended. There is no question about it.
But they were pictured at the wedding, Dr Rizvi, at an army military club, two convicted murderers, uncles of the bridegroom, happily celebrating with everyone else.
We are telescoping something that happened over 25 years, into a single incident. The brother had committed crime in 1996, long before General Aziz had even joined the army as a cadet. We now go forward 25 years later and we are saying that these two men came back to Bangladesh and this was absolutely a great failure of our justice and administration and the immigration police in the airport. There is no question about that. But you will also have to understand that these people had acquired different passports. Unless it was known to the government, unless that was on the watch list, it is quite easy for them to have slipped in along with thousands of people who come in and go out. I am not saying for a moment that this was not a failing of the government. This was a failing of the government.
Dr Rizvi, in a democracy with the kind of free press that you claim exists in Bangladesh, all these allegations which Al Jazeera made, would be plastered all over the newspapers and broadcast media, but they aren't, are they. Dhaka Tribune explained to its reasons, "The reason for our silence is simple. The current state of media and defamation law makes it unwise for any Bangladeshi media house to comment on the controversy." That it, isn't it? You have cowed the media into submission and muzzled it so it's become afraid of its own shadow. Are you proud of that?
If it were true, as you say, I would have been ashamed of it. But let me tell you what the truth is.
Are you saying the paper is lying?
Let me not answer 'yes' or 'no'. Let me give you the explanation. Indeed, there is a thing called Digital Security Act. This law, unfortunately, which our government inherited, was the ICT Act passed in 1996. Out government revised it and it is now called the Digital Security Act. Sadly, we have now learnt that some of the wordings are very loose and vague, which lead to which leaves it open to its abuse. But to say that the press has been muzzled, to say that there is no freedom of press in Bangladesh... let me just tell you. There are over 60 daily newspapers being published from Dhaka alone.
Amnesty International said in the first nine months of last year, more than 800 cases were filed under this act with the loose language that you talk about, with many of the most prominent editors and senior journalists increasingly targetted. So 800 cases, using this law which this government apparently inherited. Your government doesn't seem to have any reservations in using this law, does it? It is time to admit your law is nothing but a weapon too silence critics and suppress dissent. That's the truth of it, isn't it?
No. I would have accepted your criticism and allegations, had you asked the Human Rights Watch, of the 800 or so (and I am taking your figure as you gave it to me) who were arrested, how many of them were journalists? You have used a broad figure of 800. We have faced a serious terrorist attacks in this country. We had to fight hard against terrorism. How many of those 800 were actually terrorists? How many of them were criminals who incited violent activities? Without differentiating, you have given me the figure of 800. I challenge you about the figure. Tell me, how many were actually journalists?
I can break down some of those figures for you. Human rights groups are pretty much united in their condemnation of your government's crackdown, on free speech, especially during the current pandemic. Human Rights Watch said you arrested journalists, artists, students, doctors, political opposition members and activists who spoke out against the government's response to the pandemic or otherwise criticised the ruling party. Last June you even arrested a 15-year-old boy for allegedly defaming the prime minister on Facebook. The child was sentenced to time in a juvenile detention centre.
Let me now answer the question as clearly as I possibly can. You are telling your viewers that during this period of pandemic, the government did all sorts of horrible things. Have you told your audience that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world, compared to your own country in the UK, to the United States, or anywhere else in the world, where we have tackled the pandemic really well with our limited resources. We have one of the lowest death rates in the world. We have the highest rate of recovery. We have expanded our hospitals to provide treatment. None of these facts were mentioned.
I am sure you want to change the subject, Dr Rizvi. I am sure you want to talk good things about your country because that is what you are paid to do. That's why you are a government advisor. Why do you turn a blind eye to what the UN Committee against Torture has been calling the widespread and routine commission of torture and ill treatment? You passed an act in 2013 supposedly outlawing torture. But 6 years later, only 17 had been filed against security personnel and not a single one had been completed. Is that a proud achievement when the government is allegedly cracking down on torture? It isn't, is it? It's a disgrace.
You are right in a sense when you say in 7 years, x number of cases of torture have been filed and none of them have come to a final judgement. I take your statement to be true and agree this is not a very good record. But the truth of the matter is, we did pass the law, we are trying to deal with it. Where I am constantly objecting, not because as you think, as you said, I am paid to do it, I might turn the same thing to you and say, is it not right you are being paid simply to make these attacks without putting into broad, wide context. Every question you have asked so far, you have gone straight into the negative dimension. Even on the pandemic, you said very clearly that all these horrible things are happening. Please tell me another country in the whole wide world which has dealt with the pandemic as effectively as our government has.
Dr Rizvi, it's a very good tactic to change the subject, but I don't want to leave it because you said your government is taking action against the human rights abuses. Is it going to take action against this so-called Rapid Action Battalion that you have? The UN says its members have been credibly alleged to have committed torture, arbitrary arrested, unacknowledged detention, disappearances and extrajudicial killing of people in their custody. You tell me about the good things your country has done, but are you not embarrassed this Rapid Action Battalion has been carrying out in the name of your government? Your government is killing people.
Let me say with all honesty and humility and embarrassment, that some of the cases that you have just stated are true. There have been instances of that which nobody in the government in his or her right mind defends.
Who is in charge?
Let me finish. You have asked me a question, let me finish answering it. What you did not say is how many of those Rapid Battalion force have been removed from service, how many of them are under investigation and how many have been charged. This was not mentioned by you. This is the role of the government. When it finds out that there is a serious violation of human rights, a law has taken place. They must get to the bottom. I don't say we are always correct, but I do resent not being given the credit for the effort we are making.
All right, Dr Gowher Rizvi, it was good to have you on 'Conflict Zone'. Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you Mr Sebastian. It has been such a pleasure and an experience to speak to you.