It has been two years since Bangladeshi barrister Ahmad Bin Quasem, who has also been called to the Bar of England and Wales, was forcibly abducted from his home by Bangladeshi Government security forces.

Ahmad’s abduction is just one incident in an increasingly concerning tally of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bangladeshi Government.  The International Community must stand up against the repression by the Bangladeshi regime.

Ahmad Bin Quasem

Ahmad Bin Quasem, or Arman as he is known to friends and family, is a barrister who was representing his father Mir Quasem Ali before the International Crimes Tribunal (“ICT”) which was set up in 2010 by the ruling Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.  Mir Quasem Ali was convicted by the ICT in 2014 and sentenced to death becoming the seventh opposition leader to be given a capital sentence, amplifying local and international concerns that the ICT has been used to further political objectives.[1] The appeal hearings were ongoing when Arman was abducted by the government.

An associate of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina confirmed that Mr Bin Quasem’s enforced disappearance by the security services was authorised by the Prime Minister[2] and in secret recordings of a high ranking RAB Officer obtained by Sveriges Radio[3] the Officer explained how enforced disappearances operate and the fact that the fate of those seized is decided by those ‘high up’ within the government.

The abduction

Late on 5 August 2016, a group of around 8 men came to the apartment where Mr Bin Quasem was living with his wife and two young daughters. Four of the men were wearing RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) uniforms. They introduced themselves as members of the RAB and sat with Mr Bin Quasem in the living room where they asked him basic questions about the living arrangements at the apartment and from whom it had been rented.

The abduction occurred at around 11pm on the 9th of August 2016 when a group of 8 or 9 men attended the apartment and demanded that Arman’s wife and sister tell them where he was.  Mr Bin Quasem then went to the door, and the men told him that he had to come with them. They then gave Mr Bin Quasem 5 minutes with his family then began banging on the door again. The man who was in charge of the group gave a hand signal and the other men stormed into the apartment.  Despite Mr Bin Quasem’s wife and sister trying to shield him from the men and prevent them from taking him, the men pulled them away and grabbed him, dragging him to the stairs and out of the house. Mr Bin Quasem was placed in a mini-bus which was driven away. This abduction followed the exact modus operandi of other abductions by the security forces in Bangladesh.

A breach of domestic and international law

Mr Bin Quasem has not been charged with any offence and his abduction and continued detention by the Bangladeshi government is contrary to the Bangladeshi Constitution and Bangladesh’s obligations under international law. Unfortunately, forced disappearances are common in Bangladesh under the current Government and hundreds have been disappeared since 2009.[4]  Human Rights Watch’s report, ‘We Don’t Have Him’: Secret Detentions and Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh, found that at least 90 people were victims of enforced disappearance in 2016 alone[5] and Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar, reports that between January 2009 and October 2017, at least 402 persons became victims of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.

Actions

The British legal community have raised their concerns about Mr Bin Quasem’s situation[6] and the international press has reported Mr Bin Quasem’s case and the problems with enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.[7] The European Union’s EEAS has also raised the issue of enforced disappearances with Bangladesh[8] and Mr Bin Quasem’s situation has also been the subject of an official UK Parliamentary question by Shabana Mahmood MP answered on 30 January 2017 by Alok Sharma MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.[9]  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also spoken out for Arman.[10]

On 24 February 2017, the UNHCHR’s Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances called on Bangladesh to ‘act now to halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances in the country’ and to immediately reveal the whereabouts of Mr Bin Quasem.[11] The Working Group’s message was endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Despite the request from these United Nations bodies, the Bangladeshi Government has refused to respond, viewing itself as being free to operate outside the norms of international law and diplomacy.

Response to Channel 4 News Broadcasts

Channel 4 featured Arman’s case during its news broadcast on 28[12] and 29 November 2017[13] and 13 December 2017[14]. The broadcast of 28 November 2017 showed the Channel 4 reporter asking questions at a public rally on 25 November 2017 to Ms Siddiq MP, the niece of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Labour Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Kilburn, which Ms Siddiq chose not to answer. Before the show was aired on 28 November 2017 Bangladeshi police attended the family property in Dhaka where Arman’s elderly mother, sister, wife, and two young daughters were residing. This was seen as an attempt to intimidate them into calling for the news segment not to be broadcast. On the day following the first broadcast around 20 heavily armed police officers attended the property. After this fact was reported on Twitter they left around an hour later but not before an ominous warning was given by the Officer in charge: ‘This time we are going and leaving you. But we will make sure if there is any such news come next time we will not be good like this time and our face you will not get to see like today.’

Ms Siddiq and her team have refused to comment about this intimidation or do anything to ensure that Arman’s elderly mother, sister, wife, and two young daughters are not threatened by the Bangladeshi security services. Responses from the Labour party, which has in the past had close links with the Awami League and described itself as a sister party have also been unsatisfactory with the Labour Party establishment seeming interested in discussing this matter when there is media focus on it with this interest disappearing rapidly once the media coverage subsides. This behaviour calls into questions the genuineness of the Labour Party’s pledge to ‘put human rights at the heart of foreign policy’. [15]

The Commonwealth

As a member of the Commonwealth, Bangladesh is required to comply with the Commonwealth Charter which expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies, to be committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to believe in the rule of law as an essential protection for the people of the Commonwealth.[16]

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has the power to suspend a country from the Council of the Commonwealth (as it has done on a number of occasions[17]) if they do not comply with Commonwealth’s values. Despite using this power before, the Commonwealth has failed to speak out on enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. As the Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Scotland QC heads of on a trip which includes a visit to Bangladesh[18] it is hoped that she will remedy her past silence and speak out for Arman as a fellow lawyer and Commonwealth citizen.

Conclusion

The last week has involved major turmoil in Bangladesh with a mass student protests against road traffic deaths.[19] Many of those protesting ended up being attacked by government aligned militias whilst law enforcement looked on or actively assisted the militia.[20] Since this time,  many students have been apprehended by the security services and there are fears that they will be subject to torture or disappearance.

Speaking out about the government response to the student protests was the well-known photojournalist Shahidul Alam[21] who commented on Al Jazeera Television[22] about the Government’s repression of the protestors and other heavy-handed actions such as limiting the availability of the internet in an attempt to prevent the dissemination of videos of the attacks on protestors.  He stated ‘I think the Government has miscalculated. It certainly felt that fear was enough, repression would have been enough, but I think you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.’ In the perfect example of the very repression that he was describing in the interview, shortly afterwards, a large number of Detective Branch Police Officers dragged him from his home and refused to tell his wife where they were taking him.[23] Although Mr Alam has now been brought before the court and charged with making ‘provocative comments’[24] its seems that he may have suffered torture in the interim period.

This attempt to intimidate those who dare to speak out against Bangladeshi government repression is not unique. In July, Mahmudur Rahman, a former newspaper editor was set upon by 100s of ruling party activists[25] after being release on bail in case where he is charged with defamation for making ‘derogatory remarks[26] against the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her niece, Tulip Siddiq MP. This behaviour by the government and those operating on their behalf is part of the same series of intimidatory behaviour suffered by Mr Bin Quasem and his family, with the aim of trying to ensure that nobody challenges the government, the Prime Minister, or her family out of fear for their own safety and the safety of their family.  This unlawful and unconscionable behaviour resulted in Mr Bin Quasem’s enforced disappearance in August 2016 and has left his two young daughters without a father and his wife without her husband. Surely now the time has come for those who claim to believe in human rights and the rule of law, whether that be the Commonwealth, the Labour Party, or other states, to speak out against this repression and to help Mr Bin Quasem, his family, and all others suffering under an increasingly illiberal and vicious regime.

We beseech those with the power to release Mr Bin Quasem or the influence to place pressure on the Bangladesh government to do so to ensure that he is returned to his family unharmed. We respectfully request that a full independent investigation is conducted into the circumstances of Mr Bin Quasem’s abduction, detention, and treatment in custody.

Michael Polak

Barrister

Church Court Chambers

Toby Cadman                                                            

Barrister

Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers

Note: Michael Polak and Toby Cadman act as Counsel to Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem and his family and have filed Communications with the UN Special Procedures Branch in Geneva.

Please see www.freearman.com for updates on the campaign.

Media enquiries may be made to m.polak@churchcourtchambers.co.uk or clerks@guernica37.org

[1] there has been widespread criticism of the ICT for a lack of fairness and due process by groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[2] https://thewire.in/south-asia/secret-detentions-bangladesh-intelligence-sheikhs-hasina

[3] https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6665807

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/disappearances-plague-bangladesh-171208160532558.html; https://www.voanews.com/a/human-rights-group-for-missing-persons-in-bangladesh/4141462.html

[5] https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/06/we-dont-have-him/secret-detentions-and-enforced-disappearances-bangladesh

[6] http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media-centre/news-and-press-releases/2016/august/bhrc-and-bar-council-raise-concerns-over-abduction-of-bangladeshi-lawyer

[7] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/16/bangladesh-is-vanishing-the-opposition/ ; http://churchcourtchambers.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2389_001-2-2.pdf

[8] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/17657/eu-bangladesh-sub-group-good-governance-and-human-rights_en

[9] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-questions-answers/?page=1&max=20&questiontype=AllQuestions&house=commons%2clords&member=3914

[10] https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2017/03/bangladesh-man-released-from-long-secret-detention/

[11] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21220&LangID=E)

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=E5_jIpcu0_0&app=desktop

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8SklwN-ss8&feature=share&app=desktop

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMUSqjSaSYA

[15]https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjk-8f2oeHcAhVhEpoKHaJtC44QFjABegQICBAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.policyforum.labour.org.uk%2Fuploads%2Feditor%2Ffiles%2FWhat_Labour_Stands_For.pdf&usg=AOvVaw122Td2JRBjQwykrfV1gId4

[16] http://thecommonwealth.org/sites/default/files/page/documents/CharteroftheCommonwealth.pdf

[17] http://thecommonwealth.org/sites/default/files/inline/SuspensionHistory.pdf

[18] http://thecommonwealth.org/media/news/commonwealth-secretary-general-visit-bangladesh-brunei-and-sri-lanka

[19] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-45080129

[20] https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/news/181143/How-BCL-attacks-were-carried-out

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/08/the-guardian-view-on-shahidul-alam-bangladesh-should-let-him-go

[22] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9j3EgLm62Q

[23] https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2018/08/06/driks-shahidul-alam-detained-by-police-family-claim

[24] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/06/famed-bangladeshi-photographer-held-over-road-protest-comments

[25] https://rsf.org/en/news/bangladeshi-opposition-journalist-nearly-lynched-ruling-party-activists

[26] https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/news/180209/BCL-men-attack-Mahmudur-Rahman-in-Kushtia