Why pardoning Anis and Haris’ sentences is not normal

Certain important persons in the government have revealed further significant information recently concerning issues raised in Al-Jazeera’s documentary ‘All the Prime Minister’s Men’, throwing more light on the matter. We got to know these unknown facts from the home minister and the law minister after the court order was passed to remove the documentary from various platforms of the internet. Meanwhile, a lot of information came out in two reports published by Prothom Alo, giving rise to further discussion on the matter. However, the statements of the two ministers who are in closest connection with the law have given rise to questions that cannot be overlooked.

The army is a vital institution of the government and there is a propensity to avoid discussions regarding it due to the sensitive nature of its institutional status. It becomes even more difficult when the individual and the institution are denoted as one. However, the matter has become easier with the ministers speaking out on the subject.

Before taking up the questions that have been raised, it would be prudent to briefly recap the information and the chronology of incidents. The information in the two reports of Prothom Alo is that among the three brothers who had been sentenced for murder, the government on 28 March 2019 had remitted the sentences of Anis Ahmed and Haris Ahmed, fugitives facing life sentences, and this news was not revealed for two years. And Haris was even granted pardon for another murder case and his life sentence in that case was remitted too. Until news of this second murder case appeared in the Prothom Alo report, it has mysteriously remained hidden from public knowledge all these days. Among the others sentenced in the second murder case was the youngest of the three brothers, Tofail Ahmed Josef. In the first case his death sentence had been commuted to life and later he was pardoned by the president and released. The matter of his death sentence in the second case remains unclear. Another brother of these three who have received such unprecedented pardon from the president and the government, is our army chief.

While everyone was aware of this family relationship, it was Al Jazeera on 1 February that brought to light the criminal lives of these brothers. They raised various questions of the army chief keeping in contact with his fugitive brothers. On 2 February the foreign ministry, on behalf of the government, and the army headquarters dismissed the reports as Al Jazeera’s fabrications and an attempt to tarnish the government’s image. However, they issued no statement concerning the brothers.

On 10 February, nine days after the documentary was aired, the prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor Gowher Rizvi told the German media outlet Deutsche Welle in an interview, “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.” But then Prothom Alo investigations on 16 February revealed that the sentences of the brothers had been remitted.

On the day that the Prothom Alo report was published, the army headquarters issued a second statement, revealing the government decision to pardon the army chief’s brothers.

The ISPR statement said that when the army chief’s brothers attended his son’s wedding reception on 29 March 2019, they were not convicted or fugitive criminals. They were fully pardoned when attending the event and there was no case against them at the time, either pending or under trial. In the meantime, the government, the army, the army chief’s family, the pardoned brothers, their families and the ruling party have said nothing about the matter in the 15 days that have passed since then. It is the pro-government elements who have been talking about conspiracy theories on TV channels and in the newspapers.

On 18 February Prothom Alo came up with a second report about Haris and Josef getting passports and national ID cards made with false information and also changing information in their passports several times. They even had false passports made changing the names of their parents.

And on 18 February, replying to questions of the media, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said that the sentences of the army chief Aziz Ahmed’s brothers Anis Ahmed and Haris Ahmed have been remitted in keeping with the law. Earlier he had told Prothom Alo that he knew nothing about the sentences being remitted. However, he did say that a person had appealed for his sentences to be pardoned, but he could not recall the name. The president had granted the pardon. The home minister said that another one had declared himself to be a mental patient and that is all he remembered about the matter. When asked if a fugitive criminal was entitled to any legal rights, the home minister replied in the negative. He would have to surrender to get legal rights, Asaduzzaman said.

When asked about the matter of the sentence being remitted, law minister Anisul Huq told Prothom Alo that day, “I do not know if anyone’s sentence has been remitted. I have no idea about the matter.”

The law minister and his deceased father lawyer Sirajul Huq had been the lawyers of these accused persons

The next day on 19 February, law minister Anisul Huq told Deutsche Welle in an interview that the sentence of the two brothers had been pardoned in keeping with the law of the land. The law minister must be thanked for revealing a lot of information in this almost hour-long interview. However, the fresh questions that have arisen are no less important.

Anisul Huq’s interview ascertained certain matters:

1. The government pardoned the brothers under Section 401of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) because the government considered they were victims of political harassment.

2. The appeal had come from the home ministry.

3. The law ministry gave its legal nod to the matter.

4. The court which had passed the sentences was not consulted regarding the decision to remit the sentences.

5. In Section 401 (2) of the CrPC, it is stated that the government “may” be required to take the opinion of the judge of the court where the conviction was made. The government took this word, “may”, as a matter of option, not obligation and so did not feel the need to consult the court. However, he could not give any instance of anyone else in the past being granted with such a provision.

6. An appeal had been made to the government on behalf of the convicted to pardon the sentence.

7. The appeal had been made by the mother of the fugitive convict.

8. The convicts were granted pardon without coming before the authorities.

9. The law minister and his deceased father lawyer Sirajul Huq had been the lawyers of these accused persons.

10. The law minister had not seen the gazette notification regarding the remission of the sentences.

11. The government routinely issues pardons under this law on the occasions such as Eid and Independence Day.

12. The law minister had received the letter which Al-Jazeera had said it had sent to him for his comments on the allegations that had been raised in the documentary. However, he did not feel it necessary to respond.

Did the other associates convicted in the same two cases receive the same pardon? Or are they not Awami League men? In their case were the cases not a matter of political harassment?

The questions which remain unanswered in his statements:

1. The allegations brought about in the Al-Jazeera report are serious, so why did he as a legal expert, or the government, not take the matter seriously? Was it coincidental that the home ministry, the army headquarters, the police and the accused also chose to ignore Al-Jazeera’s questions? What explanation is there for not informing Al-Jazeera that the convicted persons had been pardoned two years ago? After this collective silence, will they succeed in a legal battle with Al-Jazeera?

2. After the documentary was released, why was the matter of the sentences being remitted not revealed until 15 February? The matter was being discussed around the whole country, yet the law minister said no one wanted to know about it. Can this be credible? Could ISPR not even reveal the matter before the 15th?

3. He told Deutsche Welle that Prothom Alo had not properly published his statement on 15 February. In an interview on the same day he had said that he hadn’t seen the gazette notification. So how did he get to know about the sentence remission? When did he get to know about it? How did he ascertain when the decision was made to issue the pardon? He had told Prothom Alo he did not know if anyone’s sentence had been pardoned and that he had no idea about the matter. If he had been misquoted, why did he not object after the report was published?

4. After claiming that they were victims of political harassment because of being Awami League activists, and also after having being their lawyer, it is hardly plausible that he could not remember their names. Yet in reply to Prothom Alo he said that he was unaware of the pardon. Is that so?

5. As he had been the lawyer of these convicted persons, how prudent had it been for him, as law minister, to give his approval to their sentences being pardoned, all the more so where the government took unprecedented advantage of legal interpretation? Is the matter of conflict of interest not effective anymore in our governance?

6. How can the remission of Anis and Haris’ sentences be compared to the pardons granted on special festive occasions? The convicts apply for such pardon from within jail to the prison authorities, which means they are not fugitives and that they have surrendered to the law. So how can such applications made without surrender get the law ministry’s approval?

7. In the case of those who are granted presidential pardon and released during festivals, the magnitude of their crimes is taken into consideration and this does not apply to those convicted for rape or murder. Exceptions are only made in the cases of those who have served most of their sentence terms and qualify for pardon due to their good behaviour and work while in jail. Is there any precedent in independent Bangladesh where such a sentence of a fugitive has been remitted?

8. How can a convict facing two sentences be granted pardon twice? Is there any such precedence in the country, even in the subcontinent?

9. In May 2018 following an appeal submitted by the mother of the three sentenced brothers, the sentence of Tofail Ahmed Josef was remitted. Surely it is not a normal happening that exactly 10 months on, the same mother puts in an appeal for the other two sons who are absconding. Did the government take the decision on far-reaching political considerations to grant such a rare appeal to pardon three brothers of the same family? Won’t this set a precedent for future governments to abuse power?

10. Did the other associates convicted in the same two cases receive the same pardon? Or are they not Awami League men? In their case were the cases not a matter of political harassment?

It may be recalled that when Awami League came to power in 2009, it decided to withdraw the cases against the party leaders and activists, terming these as politically motivated. A committee had even been formed, headed by the former state minister for law Qamrul Islam, to sort out these cases and in accordance to the committee’s recommendations, over 100,000 persons accused in over 7000 allegedly politically motivated cases, were acquitted of charges. Josef’s case was under trial at the Appellate Division at the time and in 2017 the Appellate Division commuted his sentence from death to life term imprisonment. The question is, what sort of political harassment case was this that it was not included in the over 7,000 politically motivated cases?

The statements coming from the ministers and the army headquarters so far are riddled with factual flaws and discrepancies. This is creating further apprehensions. It is hoped that the government takes immediate steps to dispel such fears

The fact that the two brothers Haris and Josef made passports and national ID cards with false information is also a punishable criminal offence according to the law. Tofail Ahmed Josef was released from jail on 27 May 2018. He first had a passport made on 13 May 2018 in the name of Tanveer Ahmed Tanzil. And Haris Ahmed made a false passport while fugitive and both of them changed their photos and addresses in their passports. The passport department is an institution under the home ministry. The passport act maintains that any person facing a minimum two-year sentence will not be issued a passport for five years. But they got their passports while one was a fugitive and the other in jail. The law says that having a passport with false information is a punishable offence and also that such a passport will be cancelled. Neither the passport department nor the home ministry has issued any explanation regarding this offence so far, not have they said anything about measures being taken in this connection. Can we not ask why this crime is being condoned? It is not difficult for anyone to discern the answers to these questions. Special privileges for special people.

According to the statements of the army headquarters and the army chief General Aziz, his brothers have been acquitted as they have received government pardon. The unfortunate fact is that this statement is not at all legally acceptable. Only the court has the authority to acquit any sentenced person. The constitution has not even given the president the power to acquit a sentenced person of his criminal charges. Article 49 of the Constitution says, “The President shall have power to grant pardons, reprieves and respites and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority.” There is no scope here for acquittal.

It is understandable that blood ties with brothers cannot be denied. But if someone is vested with the vital responsibility of the security of the state, it is naturally expected that he will bring criminals under the law. It is not the responsibility of the army, as an institution, to give an explanation to the questions centering his relations with his brothers. Can we confidently say that the reputation and respect earned by the army through its professionalism and efficiency in peacekeeping around the world, is now not at risk?

This risk must be resolved immediately. The statements coming from the ministers and the army headquarters so far are riddled with factual flaws and discrepancies. This is creating further apprehensions. It is hoped that the government takes immediate steps to dispel such fears.

*Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

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