Monday, November 30, 2015

Why does the Bangladesh government continue to ban Facebook?

To what extent does the Bangladesh government's continued suspension of Facebook have anything to do with containing violence or stopping those intent on committing terrorist acts from communicating with each other?

Probably not very much, if at all.

One should perhaps give the government the benefit of the doubt that its original decision to restrict Facebook immediately after the appellate division on 18 November finally confirmed the execution of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury and Mujahid, each of whom were leading members of opposition political parties, may well have been security related.

Whilst, the alleged risk of widespread and planned violence perpetrated by supporters of these two men was undoubtedly overblown by the media (much of which has been reporting dubious claims of alleged plots told to them by often unnamed detective branch officers) there has in the past been violence following decisions relating to the International Crimes Tribunal.

This was particularly the case  following the sentencing of Sayedee to the death, where protests resulted in dozens of deaths (though many/most reportedly at the hands of law enforcement agencies themselves in response to the unrest.)

Moreover, the unrest was reportedly in part incited by the distribution on Facebook of photoshopped pictures of the moon with images of Sayedee's face on them - an indication of his supposed innocence.

So the governments decision to immediately restrict the use of Facebook, as well as its messaging service which the country's intelligence agencies reportedly do not have the capacity to access, may well have been reasonable.

However, any risk of violence that there was would have quickly subsided a few days after the executions.

Eleven days later there seems to be no continued security justification.

The militants or violence instigators who supposedly were using the Facebook messaging service to communicate with each other, would very quickly have moved to other forms of encrypted communication which are very widely available, or would otherwise have set up widely available work-arounds.

Indeed, the Facebook ban did not stop the recent attack on the Shia mosque, again claimed by Islamic State, which caused the death of one person.

So what purpose might the continued Facebook ban have? It appears to be useful for the government in two ways.

Linking the security threat to the opposition parties
First the ban helps to bolster the government's claim that recent violent attacks in Bangladesh are the responsibility of the opposition parties - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (of which Chowdhury belonged) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (for which Mujahid belonged).

Ever since the killing of the Italian citizen, Cesara Tavella, at the end of September 2014, the government has sought to blame this and the other various killings claimed by the Islamic State upon these two opposition parties, and has been using its law enforcing authorities to support this position.

In particular the government has tried to argue that the attacks claimed by Islamic State were not done by operatives linked to the Syrian based organization, but by people - from the BNP and the JI - seeking to stop the war crimes executions.

The continuation of the Facebook ban, which was initiated to deal with a security threat triggered by the execution of a BNP and a Jammat Leader, helps support the government contention that it it these parties (seeking revenge for the executions of their leaders, or simply trying to impede the process of trials) who are country's real security threats, and not Islamic State or others.

Stopping the publication and distribution of dissent
The second and possibly more significant reason is to prevent the publication and distribution of critical commentary about the government and contemporary politics in the country.

Bangladesh's media now has become highly restricted. The country's largest advertisers have been banned from advertising in Prothom Alo and the Daily Star, the country's leading Bengali and English language newspapers respectively, causing them significant income losses, in an apparent attempt to intimidate them, and force them into line or indeed out of business.

Other independent papers have also read the writing on the wall. Investigative journalism critical of the government's activities is now rarely seen in any newspaper - and it certainly has now become impossible for newspapers to publish critical commentary on the International Crimes Tribunal. Bangladesh TV is controlled to an even greater extent - with those seen as critical of the government rarely being invited to speak on the chat shows, the only place that Bangladesh television had allowed some kind of critical commentary on the government's conduct.

In this situation, Facebook had become a key place where Bangladeshis increasingly turned to write, read and distribute critical commentary. The social media site had turned into an important space for critical writing and reading on Bangladesh politics.

The Bangladesh government has for some time been concerned about Facebook as a place for dissent, and threats around the International Crimes Tribunal (perhaps initially justified) provided it an excellent opportunity to close it down on a more permanent basis.

The continuation of the banning of Facebook is just a reflection of the government's desire to control all forms of perfectly legitimate dissent in Bangladesh.

Don't expect the government to open it up soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Articles on the police investigation into the murder of Cesare Tavella

On 28 September, the Italian national, Cesare Tavella was shot to death with eye-witnesses pointing to the involvement of three people, two of whom were on a motorbike. Islamic state claimed responsibility for the murder, though the government says that this is not true.

The police authorities have arrested five people - the three people who they say were present at the scene of the murder, the person who provided the bike (all four of whom have provided confessional statements) and the alleged financier of the operation, who is the brother of an opposition party ward commissioner who has been out of the country since April this year.

Here are four articles published in New Age newspaper concerning the police investigation. (Also see here an overall analysis of the investigation)

‘I was threatened with crossfire’, accused tells family (New Age, November 11)David Bergman and Muktadir Rashid
Another man accused of the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella in Dhaka has told his family that he gave a confessional statement to a metropolitan magistrate as he was ‘brutally tortured’ and ‘threatened with cross fire.’
Four relatives of the accused, Rasel Chowdhury, met him on Saturday in Kashimpur Central Jail where he had been remanded two days earlier by a metropolitan magistrate after confessing to his involvement in the murder on September 28 of the Italian NGO worker in Gulshan’s diplomatic zone.
On October 26, along with three other men, Rasel was presented to the media and accused of involvement in the murder of Cesara. Police said that all the four were arrested the previous night, though witnesses claimed that the men were picked up separately two weeks earlier between October 10 and 15.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tavella Murder: 5 'arrests', 5 secret detentions, 4 'confessions

MA Matin, at the magistrate court
On Thursday, 5 November New Age published an article on the alleged pick up by law enforcing authorities of MA Matin, the brother of MA Quayum who law enforcement authorities alleged was the master-mind behind the killings of the Italian NGO worker in Dhaka at the end of September.

In front of many eye-witnesses, including shopkeepers and local people, at about 7.30 pm on Tuesday the 20 October, as he was on his way to say his prayers, Matin was pushed into a microbus van just around the corner from where he lived by men in plain clothes.

As the article went to press, 15 days after this detention, Matin was still missing - presumably in the secret and illegal detention of law enforcement authorities.

However, early that very morning - somewhat miraculously - the police suddenly announced that "the detective branch has arrested MA Matin in connection with Tavella murder from Benapole, Jessore tonight while [he was] trying to leave the country."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

An article on Egypt, should turn Bangladeshi heads

Bangladesh is indeed far from being Egypt and vice versa, but I have for some time noted certain similarities in the deployment of political power by the respective regimes. 

The hard 'secular' leader, brooking no oppression, repressing the political opposition (particularly the Islamist voices) squeezing freedom of speech, using illegitimate elections to stay in power, all with little dissent from 'the west' as Islamic militancy is their greatest enemy.

The Guardian has a great piece published a few days ago, written in the context of General Sisi's visit to the UK. 

And this particular  extract should really turn heads in Bangladesh - as it could almost be written about here.

"In Egypt the regime has polarised the country and suffocated all avenues of peaceful expression and dissent through politics, civil society or media, leaving many dead, disappeared, imprisoned, hiding or exiled. The anti-protest and anti-terrorism laws have left no space for any meaningful dialogue in Egypt, let alone dissent. This is not only true for the demonised Islamist camp: the crackdown has reached every voice of opposition across the ideological and political spectrum. However, the current environment is fertile ground for radicalisation, as many disenfranchised young Egyptians find themselves questioning the ideals of freedom and democracy that they once cherished when they see the free world silent in the face of Sisi’s repression. The government continues to allocate every resource to suffocating any political opposition instead of effectively combating extremism."

The seven questions the Netherlands PM should ask Sheikh Hasina

The Bangladesh prime minister arriving in the
Netherlands on a three day trip
Netherlands has become the first European (or indeed 'Western' country) to invite the Bangladesh prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on an official visit since the controversial 5 January 2014 elections.

Bangladesh, as a country, has much going for it with an economy motoring along at 6%, and a government with big dreams of moving the country to a middle income country.

At the same time, however, the human rights situation has perhaps never been worse - certainly not since the return of democracy  in 1990. As Human Rights Watch has recently put it: the country has a ‘large number of chronic and serious human rights violations which fly under the radar on the global scene.’

So, whilst the Netherlands ministers discusses important things as cooperation on dealing with flooding in Bangladesh, and other development collaborations, perhaps they can also take the time to at least ask her questions on these seven issues

1. Media Freedom

The country's military intelligence DGFI, which the prime minister controls, has ordered the major telecommunications and consumer companies to stop advertising by in the country's two leading independent newspapers, The Daily Star and Prothom Alo.

What are you going to do to stop this significant infringement of the freedom of the media and intimidation of these papers?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Twelve things you need to know about the recent killings in Bangladesh

Four men, accused by police of killing Italian NGO worker, Cesare Travella in Dhaka on 28 September,
were detained secretly and illegally for between 10 and 14 days before being presented to the media.
In a country where torture by police is systemic, can one believe their 'confessions'?

The twelve points below attempts to analyze what is going on in Bangladesh in relation to:

  • the murders in late september and early October of two non-Bangladeshis, and the bombing of a Shia procession (which resulted in deaths of two Bangladeshis) in mid-October - all of which have been claimed by Islamic State (IS);
  • the Bangladesh government's claim that IS does not exist in Bangladesh and there was no involvement of Islamic State in any of these incidents;
  • the various claims made by the Home Minister and anonymous police sources that BNP and Jamaat leaders are behind the killing.
  • the recents arrests by the Bangladesh government of four people whom they claim were behind the first murder; and
  • the connections, if any, between these killings - and the murders early this year, and indeed just this week, of so called 'aethist bloggers' and their supporters;

1. Understanding the chronology leading up to the killing of Cesare Travella

It is important to understand the chronology of events leading up to the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella who was shot to death in Dhaka's diplomatic zone on 28 September.

On Saturday 26 September, Cricket Australia announced it had received advice from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that it had “reliable information to suggest that militants may be planning to target Australian interests in Bangladesh.”

- During the day on Monday, 28 September, UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office revised its travel warning to Bangladesh. Prior to that day, the warning had only stated that 'there is a general threat from terrorism,' but on the 28th, the travel warning was re-drafted to state specifically that 'In late September 2015, there is reliable information that militants may be planning to target western interests in Bangladesh.

- On the same day, the US also revised its travel warning to state 'There is reliable new information to suggest that militants may be planning to target Australian interests in Bangladesh. Such attacks, should they occur, could likely affect other foreigners, including U.S. citizens'

- Both the British High Commission and the US embassy say that these warnings were drafted during the day of the 28th but only uploaded shortly after 7pm - which was after the murder of Cesare, but before they had come to know about it. One assumes that the basis of these warnings was the same intelligence in the hands of the Australian government.

- At about 6.15 pm on Monday 28 September, the Italian Aid worker, Cesare Tavella, 50, was shot dead on Road 90, of Gulshan 2, an upmarket part of the capital city on a road that is technically part of the diplomatic quarter.

- on the very same evening, ISIS issued a statement, which was first reported by the SITE intelligence group, claiming responsibility for the killings. An informal translation of the ISIS statement states that:
"this is an announcement by the soldiers of the Khilafat in Bangladesh that we killed a crusader after our soldiers followed him in Dhaka and shot him using silencers till he was dead. This is a warning to all nationals of crusader nationals : you will never find security in Muslim countries. And the rain starts with one drop."
So, the killing of Cesare came soon after the Australian, United States and United Kingdom governments received information that 'militants' - short hand for 'Islamic' terrorists - were planning a violent act against foreigners in Bangladesh and then within hours of the murder it is reported by Site International (see below) that Islamic State had claimed responsible for the killing.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Blogger killings: Justifying the unjustifiable

A Facebook status published today of someone whom I do not know (and shall not name) sought to justify the killings yesterday of Dipan and the attack on Tutul, both publishers of Avijit Roy. The status has since been removed, so I paraphrase :
"I have no sympathy for those bloggers that have been killed. The Gonojagaron Mancho have brought it upon themselves by calling for the hanging of people, despite an unfair trial process. They deserve what they get."
This is so wrong, on many levels. There is simply no way that one can justify the 'blogger killings' on the basis that the people killed may have been part of a political demand that those convicted of crimes before the International Crimes Tribunal should be hung.

The men who killed the 'bloggers' - or their publisher - simply decided on their own that these people had committed some sort of crime for which they deserved to be killed. And then they killed them. That is entirely beyond the law and judicial system. There is only one word for it. And that is murder.

Yes, the Gonojagaron Mancho have called and are calling for hanging of those convicted of war crimes - but they do so only at the end of a judicial process in which charges are laid against the accused; where the charges for which the men are accused allow for the death penalty; after a trial has taken place in which witnesses are summoned; and a conviction is given by the court and an appeal process is permitted.

Whatever the inadequacies of the process - and in my view there are many - the Mancho's calling for the hanging of those who have committed these crimes (though in my view misplaced) is a million miles away from killing, or supporting the killing of bloggers, who have not committed any crime, have not been subject to any judicial process, and have not been charged for an offense that allows the death penalty.

It may be the case that calling for hanging following a perceived unfair process, has allowed Islamic extremists and others to think that they are then justified in murdering those who support the calling for the hanging (as indeed this Facebook status shows). But any attempt to link the two is totally unjustified.

The Facebook status - which I guess reflects the views of a considerable section of those who are critical of the International Crimes Tribunal - is very revealing.

It shows clearly that these people - pro-Jamaati, in the main, I imagine - are only critical of the International Crimes Tribunal because they are supporters of the accused who are to be subject to the death penalty - and not because they are interested in due process in any principled way.

These people are not concerned about fair trials, or rights of the accused as such - in fact they are  quite happy for the bloggers to be killed without any judicial process at all. If their patrons or parties came back to power in Bangladesh, I would put my bottom dollar that they would lose any interest in due process and would be happy to see the government prosecute unfairly those people who are their political enemies. And indeed put them to death.

Of course, this is not to say that the criticisms of the tribunal, held by these same supporters of the accused, are not correct. Only that they are deploying the arguments opportunistically, and they would be quite happy with the current ICT process if their political enemies were the accused.