It is now two years since Bangladeshi barrister Ahmad Bin Quasem, also Called to the Bar of England and Wales, was forcibly abducted from his home, almost certainly by Bangladeshi government security forces.
Despite a tenacious campaign on his behalf by London-based barrister Michael Polak, his whereabouts and fate remain unclear. Indeed, his abduction is just one incident in an increasingly concerning tally of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bangladeshi government.
Ahmad Bin Quasem
Ahmad Bin Quasem had been representing his father Mir Quasem Ali before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh which was set up in 2010 by the ruling Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The overt primary mandate of the Tribunal is to try crimes committed by pro-Pakistani groups during the Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.
Ahmad Bin Quasem’s father, Mir Quasem Ali, had been a prominent member of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party and was convicted by the ICT in 2014 of ten charges, two of which carried a death sentence. When sentenced, Mir Quasem Ali became 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. Indeed, 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. The problems with the ICT have been as blatant as an occasion when a defence witness was abducted from the steps of the court only to be forcefully transferred to prison in India.
Further, these concerns about the ICT are exacerbated by reports of concerted harassment of lawyers representing parties at the Tribunal. Indeed, Mir Quasem Ali’s previous lawyer had been forced to quit citing hostile reaction to his participation in the case.
In this context, the abduction of Ahmad Bin Quasem, whilst representing his father before the ITC, can therefore be seen as a continuation and escalation of an alarming campaign to harass and intimidate lawyers in such cases. It is hard to imagine any task more solemn and onerous task than that faced by Ahmad Bin Quasem; representing a member of your own family in a capital case. For us lawyers, the notion that he was almost certainly abducted for taking on such a difficult brief is particularly abhorrent.
The circumstances of Ahmad Bin Quasem’s abduction on 9 August 2016 are chilling but to many in Bangladesh may be depressingly routine and unsurprising. The death sentence against father Mir Quasem Ali was still subject to legal challenge back in August 2016 when Ahmad Bin Quasem was abducted. Indeed, his forced taking was part of a series of apparently coordinated abductions; the third incident that month where the son of a Bangladeshi opposition leader had been abducted.
The abduction was foreshadowed on 5 August 2016 when a group of around eight men came to the apartment where Ahmad Bin Quasem was living with his wife and two young daughters. The family had moved to this apartment in Dhaka from his family home in Mirpur because of the harassment that they had been facing there. Four of the men were wearing RAB (Bangladeshi elite 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.
It was then four days later at around 11pm that Ahmad Bin Quasem was forcibly taken from the home where he lived with his family. His wife Tahmina Akhtar reported that a group of seven or eight men in plainclothes stormed into their house, of whom she said:
‘They did not have any arrest warrant. They merely told my husband to get ready and come with them for questioning… When he refused to comply, they dragged him to a white microbus and left.’
This operation followed the same modus operandi of other abductions by the security forces. Whether he was taken directly to prevent him from participating and commentating as a lawyer in his father’s case or as part of a general campaign of intimidation is impossible to know.
At the time of the abduction, Amnesty International was one of many organisations who called upon Bangladeshi authorities to release Ahmad Bin Quasem. They did so in a statement on 14 August 2016 concerning both he and Hummam Quader Chowdhury (the son of another opposition figure Salauddin Quader Chowdhury who had also been executed as a result of the ICT and one of the three abducted that month) Amnesty stated:
‘Bangladeshi authorities should immediately end the illegal detentions of Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem and Hummam Quader Chowdhury, arrested respectively on 9 August and 4 August… There is no question that Bin Quasem and Chowdhury are subject to an enforced disappearance in the custody of the security forces. Yet the government continues to deny having them…This is a practice which has unfortunately become completely routine in Bangladesh, and has to end.’
Noting that Ahmad Bin Quasem is a barrister of the Bar of England and Wales, the Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee Kirsty Brimelow QC said at the time:
‘BHRC is extremely concerned by reports that Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem has been detained by security forces, especially given his position as defence lawyer in his father's legal case… Lawyers must be free to represent their clients without fear of intimidation or violence, and states must act to ensure the safety of lawyers and human rights defenders.’
The British legal community have raised their concerns about Mr Bin Quasem’s situation and the international press has reported Mr Bin Quasem’s case and the problems with enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. The European Union has also raised the issue of enforced disappearances with Bangladesh and Mr Bin Quasem’s situation has also been the subject of questions in the UK Parliament.
Despite all this, in the two years since there has been no official confirmation of Ahmad Bin Quasem’s status and, notwithstanding the continuing anguish of friends and family, no news of his whereabouts or condition. He has not been charged with any offence. There are unconfirmed reports that he was initially held at the headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion, and was later moved to the headquarters of the Detective Branch. A ‘a diplomatic source’ has apparently confirmed that the government admitted to holding Ahmad Bin Quasem but was unable to offer any further information.
Despite the bleak circumstances, there remains hope that he is alive. This optimism is bolstered by the release in March 2017 of one of the other two sons of politicians abducted at the same time as Ahmad Bin Quasem, namely Humam Quader Chowdhury.
Confirmation of security services involvement
Recently news emerged of a secret recording of high ranking RAB officer obtained by the Swedish Sveriges Radio, where the officer explained how forced disappearances operate and the fact that the fate of those seized is decided by those ‘high up’ within the government. This suggests that the fate of Ahmad Bin Quasem may, in reality, lie in the hands of the small inner circle of the ruling Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Channel 4 News
Channel 4 News is one of a number of news organisations that has sought to publicise Ahmad Bin Quasem’s case in various news broadcasts. The broadcast of 28 November 2017 showed a Channel 4 reporter asking questions at a public rally on 25 November 2017 to Tulip 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.
Perhaps more significantly, before the broadcast 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. The timing suggests this was 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. 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.’
The ‘positive’ side to this (over) reaction is that it gives some indication of the Bangladeshi government’s sensitivity to the case and the publicity surrounding it, providing perhaps some encouragement that it may yet respond to further publicity and action by governments and campaigning bodies.
The campaign for Ahmad Bin Quasem’s release
Instructed by his family, barrister Michael Polak of Church Court Chambers has been spearheading the campaign to have Ahmad Bin Quasem released and has travelled to Bangladesh in order to speak to various ambassadors in Dhaka.
Mr Polak emphasises that the continued detention without trial of Ahmad Bin Quasem is 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, enforced disappearances are common in Bangladesh under the current Government and hundreds have been disappeared since 2009… Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar, reports that between January 2009 and October 2017, at least 402 persons became victims of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.’
Mr Polak considers that there is more that can be done by prominent people within the UK to speak out against the abduction and to support the safe return of his client:
‘His family is very worried about Mr Bin Quasem’s health and treatment in detention… it is imperative that all those within the UK with the ability to assist in securing Mr Bin Quasem’s release do so.’
In particular, he considers that there are figures within the British Labour Party who may be in a position to influence what happens to Ahmad Bin Quasem. He states:
‘Ms Tulip Siddiq, for instance, is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is her maternal aunt… It is clear that Ms Siddiq MP has a close relationship with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and other important government figures in Bangladesh.
‘Whilst we do not hold Ms Siddiq MP responsible in any way whatsoever for the actions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it is believed by the international diplomatic community and Bangladeshi commentators that positive contact between her and Sheikh Hasina on this issue would likely result in Mr Bin Quasem being freed. Indeed, it could only help. We strongly encourage her and any others in the United Kingdom with a position of influence to speak up for the release of my client.’
Commonwealth Meeting Day of Action
On 19 April 2018 Mr Polak and others involved in the ‘Free Arman’ campaign (He is commonly known by his friends and family as Arman) launched a day of action to coincide with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London. The campaign made use of three digital ad-vans with Ahmad Bin Quasem’s photo with the messages ‘Barrister disappeared in 2016’, ‘PM Hasina has the key to his freedom’, and ‘Demand Action from the Commonwealth’ that travelled around the Commonwealth venues and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) where the Bangladeshi Prime Minister was addressing a crowd and answering questions from what seemed to only include pro-regime journalists. Meanwhile, those with a more critical position, such as Bangladesh expert David Bergman, were excluded.
This campaign delivered a message that the Commonwealth must raise Bangladesh’s clear breaches of the Commonwealth Charter in its frequent use of enforced disappearances which amount to a Crime against Humanity. The Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group, can suspend countries or threaten to suspend them if they do not comply with the Charter but has, so far, failed to make any public comment on the situation in Bangladesh.
Michael Polak says he is disappointed with the Commonwealth’s response and also with that of the British Labour Party which he says has been disappointingly lacklustre, especially given their pledge to bringing ‘human rights to the heart of foreign policy’. He noted that Jeremy Corbyn’s MP office ‘only seems to be interested in communicating with me when Channel 4 is reporting on the case and does not respond as soon as that coverage subsides.’
The continuing significance of the campaign
The detention without charge of Ahmad Bin Quasem for nearly two years is a continuing outrage. We lawyers have a duty to stand up when a fellow lawyer is abducted as a direct consequence of seeking to advance the cause of their client in an unpopular case. Indeed, such action represents an abhorrent and fundamental breach of a cornerstone of the rule of law; that lawyers should be able to represent clients freely and without fear of interference or oppression from the state.
We should continue to campaign on Ahmed Bin Quasem’s behalf and encourage those in power in the UK, or all with influence in Bangladesh, to raise the issue of his disappearance with the authorities and to call for his release. The matter of enforced disappearances, which amount to a Crime against Humanity when part of a widespread and systematic attack, is a matter which ought to be of top priority for the international community.
Indeed, there is a moral duty to speak as loudly and forcefully as we can to the authorities in Bangladesh; to remind them of their fundamental duties under the rule of law to protect and safeguard lawyers and to allow them to participate in trials without interference.
It is high time for Ahmed Bin Quasem, barrister of the Bar of England and Wales to be released.
Those interested in helping with the campaign or finding out more should contact Michal Polak at email@example.com or at www.freearman.com.
Kevin Dent is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill