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House of Commons Hansard
28 June 2016
Volume 612

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered the current situation in Bangladesh.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and I thank the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), for attending this very important debate.

    Let me briefly set out why we are having this debate and explain what I hope to cover in the time available to me. The current situation in Bangladesh has some relationship to the war for independence in 1971, but it is also very much the result of the seriously flawed general election on 5 January 2014. That election was flawed because the Awami League Government were manipulating the results. They refused to consider the creation of a caretaker Government and they put obstacles in the way of the opposition parties; indeed, they made it impossible for the opposition to take part satisfactorily. That is why the opposition rightly and understandably boycotted that election. As we now creep towards the next general election, we see that the same Awami League Government have become increasingly concerned that they will not win it through legitimate means.

    In debating the current situation in Bangladesh, I will talk about, first, the consequences of that flawed general election; secondly, what has been happening recently, particularly some of the atrocities that have taken place; thirdly, what we should anticipate happening next in Bangladesh; fourthly, why all this is relevant to the United Kingdom; and finally, what I hope the Government might consider doing in the near future.

    There is irrefutable evidence that democracy has now broken down in Bangladesh. I was in the country just a few weeks ago and I spoke with trustworthy non-governmental organisations. I learned that ballot boxes were now being stuffed with ballot papers for the ruling party in advance of local elections taking place; that opposition candidates were not appearing on the ballot paper when they should have been; that opposition candidates were being “persuaded” not to stand or campaign; and that there are also concerns about the politicisation of the electoral commission in Bangladesh. Added to those issues is the restraint on freedom of expression and the pressure being put on the free press.

  • The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech, even if it has only just begun.

  • Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

    On resuming

  • As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, is my hon. Friend aware of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the fact that it is having its annual conference in September, with 200-plus nations gathering in Dhaka, Bangladesh? Can the Minister do anything to assure UK parliamentarians who may wish to attend that conference? If we want to meet secular or atheistic bloggers, can we have some assurances on freedom of association? I am not too sure about that, in light of the terrible recent murders that have shocked the world. The fact that my hon. Friend was talking about the opposition and what may happen next reminded me of that point, which I wanted to make him aware of.

  • I am aware of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference that will take place in Bangladesh. It is a good forum for British parliamentarians and other parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth. It will allow them to be in Bangladesh and express some of the same concerns as my hon. Friend. The point I was making relates in particular to the press. The murder, torture and harassment of journalists is well known. Many are fleeing to Britain and seeking asylum here because of the threats and attacks.

  • I have been to Bangladesh on a number of occasions and once during an election period, and they have always been very violent affairs. What is it about this election that makes it different from those earlier elections?

  • I completely agree that politics runs passionately high in the country, but it is getting unbearable. Some of the points that I will touch on show that things are moving towards a serious situation of civil unrest, and that needs to be addressed. Tensions are perhaps more heightened than when the hon. Gentleman was in the country.

    I met Oli Ullah Numan, who came to the UK for the very reasons I described. He was a journalist who wrote disparagingly about the current Government. He soon started feeling that his life was under threat. Talking to him in Rochdale, I could see the stress and fear that his experience had caused him. Most upsetting for him was not that he was now separated from his wife and children, but that he feared for their lives because they remained in the country. Reporters Without Borders rates Bangladesh at 144th out of 180 countries on its world press freedom index and talks about how journalists there have to be very careful about criticising the Government or religion.

    If all that was not bad enough, on 4 May, the Bangladesh Government announced the setting up of a media monitoring centre. They are also taking steps to bring social media under similar forms of regulation to those for print and television. Indeed, the draft Digital Security Act provides for sentences of life imprisonment for anyone spreading negative propaganda about the 1971 war of independence or Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father. The Act also provides for the sentencing of anybody who deliberately defames someone or hurts their religious sentiment via digital media to two years in prison, replicating existing provisions in law. Another draft law, the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act, makes similar provisions.

    All that is restricting a free press and attempting to quash any criticism of the Government. In addition, we are now seeing attacks on secular bloggers. In 2015, four were murdered: a gentleman called Roy in February, Rahman Babu in March, Bijoy Das in May and Chakrabarti in August. While al-Qaeda takes responsibility for some of the attacks, a group called Ansarullah Bangla Team also takes some responsibility. It has published a hit list that includes UK-based bloggers. On 6 April, a law student and blogger was murdered by a group linked to al-Qaeda. The Awami League Home Office Minister’s response was simply to tell bloggers to be careful what they wrote about. On 23 April, a university professor was hacked to death and Daesh claimed responsibility. On 25 April, two people were hacked to death, including the editor of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine, and again an al-Qaeda affiliate took responsibility. Then, on 30 April, a Hindu man was murdered and Daesh claimed responsibility. Those from the tiny Shi’a Muslim minority have also become prominent targets, with processions and their mosques facing attack. Last month, an elderly Buddhist monk was hacked to death. Religious minorities, writers, bloggers and publishers have continued to be attacked and murdered, and that has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Bangladesh.

    The breakdown in law and order continues with the gross violation of human rights. Amnesty International regularly reports on what it calls enforced disappearances, and it clearly holds the security forces responsible. It talks of officers in plain clothes arresting dozens of people but then denying any knowledge of their whereabouts. A survey of national newspapers conducted by the human rights organisation, Ain o Salish Kendra, indicated the enforced disappearance of at least 43 individuals, including two women, between January and September 2015. Of the 43, six were later found dead, four were released after their abduction and five were found in police custody. The fate and whereabouts of the other 28 is unknown. Human Rights Watch has also criticised the authorities’ use of excessive force, which includes the extra-judicial killings of opposition supporters. In particular, the Rapid Action Battalion is singled out as being involved in the extra-judicial killings and disappearances. Mass arrests are taking place, with experts stating that they are aimed not so much at Islamic extremists or terrorists but more at political opponents.

    If all that were not bad enough, the justice system is seen as biased and is being used to silence the Government’s political opponents, not least through what is called the International Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal has been condemned by the United Nations because it does not meet international standards. It is clearly politicised and is being used not to serve justice for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of independence but to provide political results. That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that both Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh National party leaders have faced the death penalty following flawed trials at the tribunal.

    Besides that, allegations are regularly made by the current Government against political opponents, tying them down in legal battles and constraining them through threats of police action and prison. As we steadily move towards the next general election in Bangladesh, the Government appear to be making more allegations, particularly against those political opponents who are particularly popular. Attempts are being made to use the judicial process to thwart the electoral chances of opponents such as Tarique Rahman and Khaleda Zia. It is as though the Awami League is trying to choose its opponents for the next general election. Indeed, the next general election could well be more corrupt and fraudulent than the last. We are observing Bangladesh collapse into chaos. As a consequence, we are also seeing a rise in Islamist extremism. The erosion of civic space, the demolition of democracy and the reduction of human rights are all causing a void that is being filled by fundamentalists.

    Unhelpfully, the Bangladesh Government often deny that Daesh has a presence in the country and have criticised foreign intelligence agencies and independent commentators who have suggested otherwise. Such a “head in the sand” mentality helps nobody, but neither does the mentality of Bangladesh’s high commissioner to Britain, who recently went on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and claimed, to the astonishment and disbelief of the presenter and audience, that some of the extremist murders are being committed by the Bangladesh Nationalist party. That can be bettered only by Bangladesh’s Minister of Home Affairs, who recently blamed Israel for some of the attacks. Let me be clear: it helps nobody to deny that there is a problem with extremism in Bangladesh, but it is deeply corrosive and haunting to play party politics with Islamist terrorism, as the high commissioner did.

    Britain and Bangladesh have very strong ties. We trade heavily with each other. We rely heavily on the Bangladesh garment industry. We have the largest Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe. We enjoy the cultural experience that Bangladeshis bring to Britain—indeed, we rely heavily on Bangladeshi chefs to cook our national dish, chicken tikka masala. Bangladesh relies on aid from Britain, and on the remittances that are still being sent home. We share space and understanding within that great institution, the Commonwealth. I have grave concerns for the people of Bangladesh. The problems seem to be escalating. Human rights abuses are increasing dramatically. State violence is becoming extreme. I am worried that the country is steadily slipping towards civil unrest and, potentially, civil war, which is why I suggest that our Government take further action.

    What more does the Minister think can be done? I accept that the Foreign Office has recently designated Bangladesh a human rights priority country, but more pressure needs to be applied. What more can the British Government do to press Sheikh Hasina’s regime to start holding free and fair elections and to move towards a free and fair general election? Do the Government believe that some of our aid budget for Bangladesh is going into institutions, such as the Election Commission Bangladesh, that are clearly politicised and favour one party over another? If so, what should be done? Does the Minister have any concerns that weapons or equipment from the UK may be used by the security forces to suppress political activists, restrain political liberty and reduce freedom of expression? Does the Minister agree that it is now appropriate to consider sanctions against Bangladesh? Perhaps we should at least refuse entry to the UK for those in Bangladesh who are clearly responsible for some of the abuses we are discussing.

    I know that there will always remain a very strong bond between Britain and Bangladesh. Indeed, our relationship allows us to be critical friends. The time has now come for the British Government to be a little more critical and a little less friendly to the current Bangladesh regime.

  • I shall call any other Members who wish to participate, but I should indicate to them that there are only around three to four minutes before I call the Minister to respond to the mover of the motion, who will wind up the debate at the end. If more than one Member wishes to speak, they should understand that if they are to be fair, there is limited time for them to make a representation. I call Rupa Huq.

  • Sir Alan, it was my intention only to make an intervention about the bloggers and the fact that the Charter of the Commonwealth, by which the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association abides, ensures the fundamental freedom of association. I am particularly interested to hear from the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government are making representations to the Government in Bangladesh to ensure that fundamental right when the conference takes place in September.

    As you have given me the floor, Sir Alan, I would like to echo some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) about the Bangladeshi diaspora. I am one of three Members of Parliament of Bangladeshi origin in this House. My hon. Friend painted a rather depressing portrait. I believe it was George Harrison who wrote a song about Bangladesh being a terrible mess. Some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend seem to give weight to that opinion, although it was expressed only in popular song. It is a country that has been monitored on many fronts: democracy, human rights and freedom of association. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s speech.

  • Of course the hon. Lady is a senior politician in this place and she knows the rules. Debates in Westminster Hall operate under strict timetables. The mover of the motion has indicated that he wants the Minister to reply to the questions he posed. If any time is left, it can be granted to other Members, but we now have to move on because we are approaching the witching hour, when the Minister has to be called.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this important debate and commend the consistent commitment he has shown to Bangladesh, both as a member of the all-party group on Bangladesh and as an MP representing British nationals of Bangladeshi heritage. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for her contribution. As the Minister with responsibility for bilateral relations with Bangladesh and for the Commonwealth, I will try to address as many of the points raised as I can in the time available.

    As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong. That relationship is enhanced, and British society as a whole is enriched, by the diaspora community. As a close friend of Bangladesh and fellow members of the Commonwealth, we care deeply about what happens there, both now and in future. We want Bangladesh to develop into an economically successful country that maintains its Bengali tradition of respect and tolerance for people of all faiths and backgrounds.

    In June last year, the House debated Bangladesh against a backdrop of political unrest, the brutal murders of bloggers, and allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Since then, there have been more attacks against minority groups and those who hold views counter to traditional values and beliefs. Responsibility for many of the attacks has been claimed by Daesh, or by groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. As has been pointed out, there has also been pressure on opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist party, and on dissenting voices in the media and civil society.

    Peaceful, credible elections are the true mark of a mature functioning democracy, and all political parties share a responsibility for delivering them. The UK will continue to engage constructively with all parties in Bangladesh, and with international partners, to work towards that end. It is generally recognised that a shrinking of space for democratic challenge and debate can push some towards extremist alternatives. I am deeply concerned that the recent appalling spate of murders is becoming an all-too-common occurrence. The Prime Minister discussed our concerns with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, on 27 May in Tokyo, highlighting the fact that extremist attacks risk undermining stability in Bangladesh. I also raised those concerns with the Bangladeshi high commissioner on 24 May, and our high commissioner in Dhaka regularly discusses these issues in meetings with the Bangladeshi Government.

    I welcome the commitment by the Government of Bangladesh to bring those responsible for recent extremist attacks to justice. We have also made it clear, in public and in private, that justice must be done in a manner that fully respects the international human rights standards that Bangladesh has signed up to and which, as a member of both the Commonwealth and the UN Human Rights Council, it has pledged to uphold.

    Mass arrests and suspicious “crossfire” deaths at the hands of the police undermine confidence in the judicial system. Investigations must be conducted transparently and impartially, irrespective of the identity of the victim or the alleged perpetrator. Anyone arrested should be treated in full accordance with due process and Bangladeshi law. It is also important to explore the root causes of the attacks involving international links.

    We urge Bangladesh, as a vibrant, modern and rapidly growing democracy, to protect and promote freedom of expression as one of its core values. Prime Minister Hasina has repeatedly extolled the secular, tolerant nature of Bangladesh. Her Government must be unequivocal about protecting the rights of all citizens, including those who express different views or lead different lifestyles. The victims themselves should not be blamed.

    As recent events in the United Kingdom, France, the US and elsewhere sadly show, Bangladesh is not alone in having to face the scourge of extremist violence. All countries must stand together to combat extremism and terrorism. This is not a challenge to be faced in isolation. We can and will do more to engage with the Government of Bangladesh on areas of shared concern, such as counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and the promotion of human rights for all. At the same time, our development programme—still one of our largest—continues to address some of the root causes, including poverty and economic marginalisation.

    The threat of terrorism and extremism affects us all. It should not be faced alone, and it is incumbent on us all to work together to promote tolerance and acceptance. The protection of human rights is a core value of the UK and of the Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton asked about the CPA meeting later in the year in Bangladesh, and I urge the new secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, to visit Bangladesh as soon as she can in order to assess the situation for herself. We will continue to encourage the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to deliver on her commitments to tackle terrorism, to protect human rights and to do so in a way that is compliant with the rule of law and due process, which is in both our interests. Bangladesh has a long-term vision to be a peaceful, prosperous and developed nation; the UK shares that aspiration and wants to be a friend of a vibrant, stable and economically successful Bangladesh.

    I again thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for the opportunity to debate the issues, and I thank all other hon. Members for their contributions.

  • I thank hon. Members for their contributions and interventions, and I thank the Minister for his response to the issues that I have raised. Without doubt, we all want to see solutions to the problems that are obviously occurring in Bangladesh, and I am pleased to hear that the Prime Minister spoke to Sheikh Hasina as recently as last month.

    I still have some concerns. We are fast approaching CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which will be held in London in a year or two. I hope that more progress will be made in Bangladesh before we get to that stage. Finally, we are left with three questions that the Minister still needs to answer: first, is any British aid being used in a partisan way; secondly, is there use of any weapons or equipment to suppress political opposition; and, thirdly, at what stage would Britain consider sanctions against Bangladesh, if the situation does not improve?

  • May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, when he goes over his deliberations in Hansard tomorrow, that he might take the view expressed by Ms Huq and contact the CPA to warn it that this matter came up in the course of his debate? He could ask the CPA to ensure that all precautions are taken in the event of the conference taking place.

    Question put and agreed to.