WIKILEAKS BANGLADESH – II

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RAB, Counter-Terrorism and Pursuit of Democracy

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Members of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) ©Munem Wasif/DrikNews

IT HAS been nearly two weeks since WikiLeaks leak of diplomatic cables from US Embassy, Dhaka revealed that US Ambassador James F Moriarty had urged the prime minister’s energy adviser, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, to award contracts to Asia Energy, Conoco Philips and Chevron.

As I argued in `WikiLeaks Bangladesh – I: People’s Resistance to Global Capital,  Govt Collaboration is Vindicated’ (December 27, 2010), subsequent events reveal that those in position, i.e. those within the government, complied. So did the opposition, by remaining silent. By not publicly disavowing policy decisions taken earlier.

A critical analysis of WikiLeaked diplomatic cables reveal a shared interest between the two major political parties and their respective leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, whose bitter political rivalry has led influential sections of both national and international media to dub them `battling begums.’

They reveal a shared interest between—and this probably evokes a sense of deep shame for the nation—the party which leads the nation’s desire for trying war criminals of 1971 (the Awami League), and leaders belonging to the party who are to be tried for having committed these crimes (the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh).

The public is given to understand that the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jamaat-e-Islami are unlikely bed-fellows, but closer analysis reveals their unity in serving the interests of global capital, against the interests of impoverished, oppressed local communities in Phulbari, against asserting national control and ownership of mineral resources.

No official reaction to the WikiLeaked energy cable, still. Other exposés seem more pressing. The creature comforts in Khaleda Zia’s Dhaka Cantonment home from which she was evicted. Signs of “opulence,” says Sheikh Hasina.

Meanwhile, the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports demands that the US ambassador be declared persona non grata, that the prime minister’s energy adviser be sacked (December 30, 2010).

WikiLeaked diplomatic cables further reveal that the British government has been training the Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh’s paramilitary force, described as a “government death squad” by Human Rights Watch, in “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement” (Guardian, December 21, 2010). That Moriarty thinks RAB is “best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Since the revelations, the British government maintains it has provided “a range of human rights assistance” to RAB, while the head of RAB’s training Mejbahuddin says, no. Not to his knowledge. At least not since he took charge last summer.

The BNP-Jamaat led four-party alliance government established RAB in 2004. Barrister Moudud Ahmed, minister for law and parliamentary affairs, dismissed extra-judicial deaths as “technicalities”, not “killings.” They make people “happy.” The trial of extra-judicial killings was an Awami League electoral pledge but since coming to power, its position has veered between denial (home minister Sahara Khatun, former state minister for home Tanjim Ahmad Sohel Taj), and necessity. Shipping minister Shahjahan Khan said, some incidents of trial are not possible under the laws. Extra-judicial killings will have to continue.

The Awami League has obviously forgotten those who were earlier cross-fired. It has forgotten Mohammad Mohimuddin Mohim, a central Bangladesh Chatra League leader, `encounter’ed in November 2004. It has forgotten what Mohim’s sister asked Lieutenant Colonel Emdad, commander of RAB-7 Chittagong, “My brother, before you murdered him, did he have any last wish, any last word?” Caught offguard and visibly shaken, he replied, “Our politicians, for them, we have to kill our children” (Forum, December 15, 2006). The WikiLeaked cables help further our understanding : our politicians, bolstered by the support of US, UK (and Indian) governments, for them, “our children” have to be killed.

Moriarty did express reservations about RAB because of its gross violation of human rights. Fake reservations, given the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, its escalation, the Af-Pak war, under Obama. Millions killed, nations ravaged. Fake, given Moriarty’s own track record. As US Ambassador to Nepal (2004-2007), in response to paramilitary death squad killings in Terai, he said, it was a reason for “optimism.” His main concern? The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was “running out of bullets” (Reconstructing the Nation. Imperial Designers at Work, New Age, December 22, 2008).

Bolstering RAB would further strengthen counter-terrorism operations in Bangladesh; shared concerns, as WikiLeaks reveals,  of Indian, American and British governments (January 14, 2009). Pleased at the Awami League’s landslide victory, the Indian High Commissioner reportedly said, “improving security cooperation would be the top Indian priority.” RAB should not be “disband[ed].”

But as Jude McCulloch points out, terrorism is notoriously difficult to define, it’s definitions are selectively applied, what we view as terrorism is largely shaped by counter measures (International State Crime Initiative 2010). During the past decade, counter-terrorism in the `war on terror’ has been linked to state crimes : crimes of aggression, torture, police crime, corruption, state corporate crime. Counter-terrorism frequently causes more harm than the violence it purportedly addresses. It fuels political divisions and conflicts which underpin the violence it is said to be countering. It becomes part of an escalating  cycle of violence as violent expressions by non-state actors are justified by the state’s response through counter-terrorism measures.

Counter-terrorism laws have served as a pretext for imposing far-reaching restrictions on civil liberties, cracking down on political dissent, pervasive secrecy, indiscriminate detention, arrests and torture. Since September 11, 2001, Chinese authorities have re-categorised separatist acts involving the use of force as “international terrorism,” not simply criminal actions. Repression has intensified in Egypt, hundreds arrested or detained on suspicion of being opposed to the government, possessing “suspicious” literature, or, for peacefully demonstrating against the occupation of Iraq, Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Civilians, including professors, medical doctors, other professionals, are tried in military courts, or emergency and regular state security courts.  Many are accused of “terrorism.”

In liberal democracies, `war on terror’ policies have been aimed at undoing workers’ power in the workplace, forbidding airport security personnel the right of unionisation, branding workers who refuse to accept wage and benefit cuts as “unpatriotic”; targeting environmental activists, anti-globalisation movements. Former British prime minister Gordon Brown invoked “anti-terror legislation” to freeze assets of bankrupt bank Icesave, when Ireland initially refused to compensate British customers’ who lost savings due to bankruptcy (Aradau and van Munster 2010). Analysts speak of  a fascist shift in the US, in the context of what Naomi Wolf describes as, being “at war” in a “long war,” a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe (Guardian April 24, 2007). Sweden, long upheld as a model liberal democracy, adopted wiretapping laws in 2008 allowing authorities to spy on international calls, faxes and e-mails. Ironical, writes journalist Tasneem Khalil, since he had fled to Sweden, away from the police state of Bangladesh after being detained and tortured by DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) personnel during the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008).

The DGFI has been implicated in torturing Jamil Rahman, a British citizen, in December 2005. He and his wife were taken to the DGFI headquarters, held in separate cells (Guardian, May 26, 2009). Rahman was stripped naked and beaten. He was threatened, his wife would be raped and murdered, her body would be burned. Released after confessing to being the mastermind behind July 2005 underground and bus bombings in London, Rahman alleges, two well-spoken Britons, claiming to be MI5 officers would be present during interrogations, leaving the room when he was tortured. On occasions, three men, allegedly from Scotland Yard, an American woman named Mary, were present during interrogations. A Bangladeshi intelligence officer told Rahman, they were “only doing this for the British.” Rahman’s two year long ordeal began during the BNP-Jamaat coalition rule, it continued into the Fakhruddin-led emergency period. In June 2009, Lord West, UK state minister for security and counter-terrorism, while launching first UK-Bangladesh Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism in Dhaka, said “we have worked to build the capacity of Bangladeshi agencies involved in counter-terrorism work…” Is capacity-building a euphemism for out-sourced torture? (On Forced Marriage and Insourced Torture. The Loving Face of British Imperialism, New Age, July 20, 2009).

The DGFI features in WikiLeaked cables too. The military’s intelligence agency reportedly supported the idea of Islamist terrorist group Harkatul Jihad Al Islami (HuJi) joining mainstream politics through forming the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) before the 2008 general elections. According to a news report, at an IDP held Iftar party, guests included Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor, weekly Blitz and a campaigner for awarding official recognition to Israel. “If Hizb-ut Tahrir,” said Choudhury, “banned across the countries and had role in the Bali blasts, and anti-Liberation forces like Jamaat-e-Islami can operate openly, why can’t IDP?” (The Daily Star, September 29, 2008).

WikiLeaked cables, cautions Andrew Gavin Marshall, must not be taken at face value. They should be placed within a wider context and understanding, so that we can better inform the information itself. We must remain critical of all sides and all actors (Global Research, December 6, 2010).

Three bombs went off on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12, 2002 causing the deaths of 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians. A radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was blamed. Some of its members were convicted, 3 were sentenced to death. Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, in a television interview in October 2005 said, he has “grave concerns about links between Indonesian authorities and terrorist groups.” The JI had placed the original bomb in the nightclub, but the second, larger car bomb outside, “had been organised by authorities,” suggesting that either “the police…or the armed forces” may have planted the bomb. He also stated, “the orders to do this or that came from within our armed forces, not from the fundamentalist people.” The TV program also reported that one of JI’s key individuals behind its formation was an Indonesian spy; the President continued, “there is not a single Islamic group either in the movement or the political groups that is not controlled by (Indonesian) intelligence.” (Andrew G Marshall, GeoPolitical Monitor, November 15, 2008). (Is it irrelevant to mention that another former president, Francesco Cossiga of Italy, thinks that 9/11 was an inside job?).

According to Sayed Abdullah, Indonesian intelligence expert, the CIA and Israeli Mossad had infiltrated JI. Assisted by Australian Special Action Police (SAP) and MI5 of England, they worked jointly to “undermine Muslim organisations in an attempt to weaken Muslims globally.” The 2002 Bali bombings was “an operation clearly financed and assisted by the CIA and Mossad, [which] made use of Muslims to carry out the final act,” who were not innocent either as they “took [their] bait” to “avenge against the US war on the Muslims in Afghanistan.” Abu Bakr, spiritual leader of JI, linked to the Bali bombings, later executed, said, it was the work of the CIA; a belief confirmed by several senior Indonesian National Intelligence Agency officials.

The repercussion of the bombings? It ensured Australia’s support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the wider `war on terror.’ After the bombings, the Australian government said, “Australians may have to sacrifice some freedoms to help fight terrorism.” The executions led JI leaders to say, there would be “retaliation.” Marshall writes, it’s also likely to increase recruitment into radical Islamic groups.

Siddique ul-Islam, widely known as Bangla Bhai, leader of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB, formed in 2003) was finally captured by RAB on March 6, 2006. Nationwide bomb attacks on August 17, 2005, and successive suicide bomb attacks had shocked and outraged the nation. He was executed on March 30, 2007. He told the judge, “The government had engaged us to invite the ulema community for establishing Islamic laws. But now it [has] punished us under worldly laws. What is the punishment this government deserves?… Our trial has been conducted hastily… Why the government is hurrying and why it is afraid?” (The Daily Star, May 30, 2006)

Bangla Bhai had wanted to speak to the media, a request denied. I wonder what tale he would have told us. I wonder how many directions his fingers would have pointed at. Maybe he had to be executed to cover up the real relations of ruling, irrespective of who governs, whether the AL, or the BNP, or the military-installed caretaker government, and to conceal their global backers, who increasingly feel threatened by our aspirations for democracy.

Published in New Age, Monday January 3, 2010

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