If not the prime minister’s, then whose men are they?

As the country’s defence minister, the prime minister is rightly centre stage in Al Jazeera’s documentary.

If not the prime minister’s, then whose men are they?
Screenshot from the film "All the prime minister's men": Composite showing Haris Ahmed attending an Awami League rally; and, Sheikh Hasina.

Al Jazeera Investigative Unit’s documentary on the shadowy activities of the chief of Bangladesh’s army has drawn the ire of ministers and supporters of the ruling Awami League. But there is perhaps one issue which galvinises the criticism more than anything else, and that is the title of the film: “All the prime minister’s men”.

Ironically their claim that nothing in the documentary establishes any direct link with alleged wrongdoings to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already proven hollow following the latest statement made by the army chief, General Aziz Ahmed. On February 16th, in his first public statement he said, “This army chief has been appointed by the honourable prime minister of Bangladesh government. Demeaning the army chief means demeaning the prime minister.” It was this core point — that Prime Minister Hasina appointed General Aziz due to his personal loyalty and as a pay-off for his brothers’ role as her henchmen — that was the focus of the documentary.

General Aziz’s comments came following the revelation by the Prothom Alo newspaper that two years ago his two brothers, Haris Ahmed and Anis Ahmed, had received a remission on their life sentences while they were on the run. Among the two, the younger one, Haris, had a second life sentence in a previously unknown second murder case and that also resulted in a sentence remission.

All these steps were taken in great secrecy, with even ministers responsible for law and order being kept in the dark. It only came to light amidst the controversy centering around the Al Jazeera documentary. The Prothom Alo investigation was further substantiated by the second press release issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR). Contesting Al Jazeera’s claim that both the brothers, wanted by the police, had attended a wedding reception held at a top security, highly protected military recreation centre while they were fugitives, the ISPR for the first time asserted that both of them had availed clemency beforehand.

A few hours later General Aziz himself made the same argument to journalists and claimed that his brothers were exonerated from charges which he termed politically motivated and false. Remission, however, does not exonerate the convict from the guilt, it only removes the requirement of the convict to serve the sentence.

The granting of remission is particularly intriguing as the youngest of the three brothers, Tofail Ahmed Joseph, whose death sentence was commuted by the appeals court to life term and freed by the president after serving 20 years prison term, also had a second conviction for a separate murder which remained unreported in the media until Prothom Alo broke the story. It remains unclear what has happened to that conviction. It certainly seems that the general and his siblings — the Ahmed clan — are the most blessed brothers of Bangladesh.

The only representative of the Bangladesh government who has faced foreign media over the issues raised in the Al Jazeera documentary, Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told Deutsche Welle’s’ “Conflict Zone” programme that nothing in the film proves any corruption by the prime minister and the naming of it proves ill-intention of the broadcaster who, he claims, has a history of portraying Bangladesh and its leader negatively.

But, the problem in his reasoning is the crucial fact that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina retains the portfolio of the defence minister, and thus she is the only person who has the sole authority over all the affairs of the armed forces. Neither the statements issued by the ISPR, nor any official of the government, so far has contested the telephone conversation between General Aziz with one of his friends, obtained by Al Jazeera, in which the general was heard describing what the prime minister had told him and what his murderous brothers had done for her.

Rizvi further argued that the general could not be blamed for his brothers’ crimes. But, he has conveniently forgotten that every government appointment and promotion — civilian and military — are subject to rigorous background checks by the police and other agencies to ensure that they do not have any criminal past and links. It is hard to believe that any such checks for General Aziz would not have revealed his illegal contacts with his fugitive brothers.

Under the existing rules and regulations, the army chief needs pre-departure authorisation of the prime minister before every foreign trip including private holidays. His documented visit to Kuala Lumpur seems suspicious as he was seen travelling like a civilian. It, thereby, raises questions about whether the trip was authorised or a serious breach of service rules. In his comments to journalists he claimed that his Kuala Lumpur trip was personal in nature and he believed accepting protocols during private excursions was not right. But, Al Jazeera has filmed him using Bangladesh High Commission’s diplomatic cars during the trip and it also raises questions about the role of the Bangladeshi envoy in the city.

There is no doubt that corruption in the government has in recent years been at its peak and that the laundering of ill-gotten wealth abroad is setting new records. The unmasking of the general’s corruption can therefore be seen as a lesser offence than the gravest crime of allowing his fugitive brothers to exploit his position to expand their turf using the state’s security apparatuses, the DGFI, RAB and police. What the documentary has exposed is only comparable to the mafia portrayed in fiction movies.

The statement issued by the Police Association too has not addressed the fact that the current police chief, Benazir Ahmed, who previously led the most dreaded force RAB, needs some explaining about his casual and cordial relationship with a convicted killer, Joseph. Joseph is the youngest brother of General Aziz whose remission of sentence by the president was alleged to be a much needed step to facilitate his ascension to the top job of the army.

In all previous crises, be it political or economic, minor or major, ministers frequently credited the prime minister for providing guidance, solutions and leadership. Drawing from those statements, it is only natural to conclude that the reactions from the government so far do have the approval of the prime minister.

Is it conceivable that the muddled explanation issued by the ISPR came without the knowledge of the prime minister (defence minister)? Can the army or any other security agency of the government procure a highly controversial and expensive surveillance technology and equipment without her approval?

Bangladeshi media is in no position to raise these critical questions of public interest due to the suffocating environment prevailing in the country. Editors of at least two national newspapers, the Daily Star and the Dhaka Tribune, in their editorials have explained their inability as to why they could not publish the contents of the widely viewed documentary.

Ironically, the spontaneous rush by sycophants and loyalists to declare “I am prime minister’s man” badge in their social media profiles is another proof that indeed there are beneficiaries of the regime, and quite a good number, all of whom are prime minister’s men. The Al Jazeera broadcast exposed only one clan that is headed by General Aziz Ahmed and shows that the prime minister’s dependence on them is so great that she is unable to cut her ties.●