Two high-profile Bangladeshis are enjoying political asylum in the UK, despite being convicted of corruption in their home country. Tracing their ideological links to war crimes, Tom Deegan questions the UK government’s policy of accommodating such characters
Mr Tarique Rahman is a very wealthy Bangladeshi citizen residing with his family in London in highly opulent circumstances. He is the current leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in exile.
But how did he acquire his vast wealth? Was it from growing those beautifully sweet juicy mangoes for which Bangladesh is renowned? No. It was from corruption.
Tarique Rahman was better known as ‘Mister Ten Per Cent’ when his mother, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was in power in Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006. These were fruitful years for Mister Ten Per Cent. That was because it was well known in Bangladeshi commercial and industrial circles that tenders for lucrative government contracts had to go through Rahman to have any chance of success and the cost was 10 Per Cent of the total value of the deal. Such practices are corrupt, of course, but he made a great fortune.
In February last year a court in Bangladesh sentenced 72-year-old former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to five years’ imprisonment for embezzlement. The case concerned the sum of Tk 21 million ($ 252,000) from funds of an orphanage trust. Her son, Mister Ten Per Cent, was also convicted of embezzlement in the same case and received a ten-year prison sentence. Four others were also convicted and given prison sentences. The matriarchal Khaleda Zia was released early on compassionate grounds and out of respect for her former position in society.
The caretaker government of the time allowed Tarique Rahman to travel abroad for medical treatment. But he did not return to Bangladesh to face justice. Instead he bought properties in London and applied for political asylum, claiming the cases against him – and there are many – are politically motivated.
Another charge against Rahman is that he conspired to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, then leader of the opposition, who was also the arch-rival for his family’s political ambitions. During the course of a political rally in Dhaka in August 2004, Sheikh Hasina and senior members of her Awami League Party, along with hundreds of supporters, were in an assembly hall when a large terrorist group attacked them with military issue hand-grenades. Twenty-four people died during the attack and several hundred more were wounded, with varying degrees of severity. Miraculously, Sheikh Hasina herself suffered only a relatively minor injury.
Investigations showed that these bombings were the work of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a group with close connections to the BNP and designated as a terrorist organisation by the UK, the US and many other countries. Forty-nine people were tried for the crime, including senior members of the police and intelligence services, as well as two former ministers. Of these, 19 were executed. Before his execution Mufti Hannan, who led this atrocious attack, named Tarique Rahman as the mastermind and quartermaster of the bombers.
Mister Ten Per cent was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. He was living in London at the time and applied for political asylum on the grounds that all the charges against him were politically motivated. The reality is, of course, that they are based on very strong evidence of criminal and terrorist activities.The Bangladesh authorities applied for extradition but the UK government granted him political asylum, as well as granting it to Colonel Shahid Uddin Khan, who was also wanted in Bangladesh. (More about him later.)
It seems that there is little justification for Tarique Rahman’s claim that political motivation lies behind his trial and sentence. But there is certainly a great deal of political motivation for the attack by Islamic terrorists and BNP fanatics to keep the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina out of office. That was the purpose of the attempted assassination. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, known as Bangabandhu (father of the nation).
Politics has played a major part in the affairs of Bangladesh ever since the War of Independence in 1971. The birth of Bangladesh was steeped in blood, mostly Bengali blood. A short potted history is required to understand the root causes of the divisions in Bangladeshi politics today.
The people of East Pakistan had been badly exploited by the Punjabi elite of West Pakistan ever since the partition of India in 1947. From then on, East Pakistan quickly became a colony of West Pakistan in a new sort of Raj. Just one year after independence the West Pakistani elite introduced an absurd ‘language law’ that sought to abolish the Bengali language. This language, so rich in poetry and literature, was disregarded in favour of Urdu, which was the catalyst for a ‘language resistance movement’ by the Bengali people that forced the abandonment of the policy in 1956. East Pakistan, which had a larger population than the West, nevertheless received only one third of government spending. Its revenues from jute exports went to the West and western Pakistanis looked down upon their fellow citizens because they regarded them as inferiors. Political power was focussed in the West.
But in the general election of 1970 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won an overall victory and expected to be able to form a government over both halves of the country. West Pakistan’s generals had other ideas, however. Whilst apparently still negotiating with Sheikh Mujibur about the formation of a new government they plotted to wipe out the Awami League and all its leading elements. In March 1971 they launched what became known as Operation Searchlight and the West Pakistani army began the systematic murder of all known Awami League leaders and activists. Hundreds were awoken from sleep by the sound of the gunfire that killed them. Sheikh Mujibur was arrested and transported to a prison in West Pakistan where he remained until the end of the ensuing conflict. The Hindu minority of East Pakistan were also attacked and many murdered in the first few days of Operation Searchlight. The civil war lasted for some nine months, during which time huge numbers of Bengali people were murdered and more than ten million fled into neighbouring states of India. The Bengali resistance movement became known as the Mukti Bahini and within a few months they were inflicting serious losses on the Pakistani army. Pakistani officers told their men to rape Bengali women so that the babies born would be good Muslims. That is a factually proven aspect to this terrible period in the history of Bangladesh.
What is important to understand is the fact that not all Bengalis supported the Awami League or the Mukti Bahini. The Muslim League and the Bihari minority living in Bengal sided with the West Pakistani generals in the conflict. In many instances they also carried out atrocities against Bengali people and it is that legacy that divides Bangladesh to this day.
Geographically, Bangladesh is surrounded by India. More than ten million Bengali refugees were housed in makeshift camps in the bordering Indian states. India was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees and, although the United nations did give some help, most of the burden fell upon India. India helped the Mukti Bahini with weapons and support bases inside India from where they could strike at West Pakistani forces. Eventually, Pakistan attacked India in the west and the war came to an end quite quickly. The Indian army made short work of Pakistan’s army in the west and an alliance of Mukti Bahini and Indian troops quickly forced a surrender of Pakistan’s army in the east. Bangladesh was born.
There were many thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by West Pakistan’s army and their local allies during this conflict in 1971. The terms of the cease-fire required India to repatriate all Pakistani troops without recrimination. So, Pakistani officers and men who had raped and murdered civilians could not be called to account. But local Bengali supporters of the Pakistani army who had also committed war crimes could have been brought to justice.
Sheikh Mujibur was released and allowed to return to form the first independent Bangladeshi government. He decided to adopt an early ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ doctrine. No prosecutions took place. Sheikh Mujibur, from then on referred to as Bangabandhu, needed to rebuild his shattered country. Almost every bridge in Bangladesh was destroyed and its agricultural and industrial production had collapsed because of the civil war. He needed foreign help, especially from the Muslim world.
However, Sheikh Hasina, his daughter, thought that justice should be done and she vowed to bring some of the worst of these war-criminals to justice. Many of these criminals had resumed an active political presence in the country as members of the BNP and some had achieved high office and wealth. They had a strong motive to try to kill Sheikh Hasina before she won the expected victory in a general election. That is probably why Tarique Rahman and his BNP friends organised the hand-grenade bombings.
History shows that Sheikh Hasina did bring many of the worst war-criminals to justice when she became prime minister. Several were executed for murders they had perpetrated in 1971, including members of Jaamat-e-Islami, and others were sent to prison.
Another criminal residing in the UK is one Colonel Shahid Uddin Khan. He has recently purchased two houses in London worth an estimated £1.5 million. The source of his money is very uncertain but the Bangladesh authorities believe he is a terrorist quartermaster who provides weapons and assets to jihadi groups.
Khan was tried by a Bangladeshi military court martial in 2005 on many different criminal charges including fraud and misappropriation of money. He was found guilty and dismissed from the army (cashiered). Later he was involved in forging the signatures of company directors on documents intended for fraudulent dealings. Observations conducted by the police and intelligence services over time revealed he was in regular contact with extremist organisations. Further criminal activities were revealed over the period of the investigation. These activities involved terrorism, rape, anti-state activities and money laundering. More recently, a police raid on one of his residences in Dhaka uncovered a cache of illegal arms, explosives, counterfeit currency and jihadist material. New charges have been laid against Khan but he has applied for political asylum and cannot be extradited to Bangladesh as long as he holds that status.
Bangladesh is a democracy. It has a judicial system similar to that of the UK and it maintains friendly relations with the British people. It also has a good trading relationship with the UK but granting political asylum to two wanted Bangladeshi criminals can only lead to a tarnishing of those good relations in future. The UK government should review the decision to grant political asylum to people who have clearly engaged in purely criminal behaviour.