Why the allegations raised in the Al Jazeera film still stand.
Prothom Alo cracked a story which Netra News had been chasing but could not confirm — that the Bangladesh government had secretly given an order in March 2019 to remit the life sentences imposed on the fugitives Haris and Anis Ahmed, the two brothers convicted of murder. Here are ten things readers should know about it.
1. It was secret — very secret
The government and the Ahmed brothers have done everything they can do to keep this order secret. They have had multiple opportunities to inform the public about this but have failed to use them. They did not respond to Al Jazeera’s letters offering them the right of reply before the broadcast of the film, nor have they said anything in the weeks since then. Even the prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor, Gowher Rizvi, when questioned recently by Deutsche Welle, did not mention anything about remission — either he did not know about it or he did not want to reveal it. And both the home and law Ministers told Prothom Alo that they were not aware of the government order. Even as of today, the Bangladesh Police and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police appear unaware of the order — as both their websites advertise that Haris is a wanted man.
2. For the government it was preferable to continue to describe Haris and Anis as fugitives
The extraordinary secrecy of the order — and the failure for any of the parties to cite the remission order — suggests that the government actually preferred the two men to be considered fugitives, rather than for it to come out that they were beneficiaries of a secret remission deal.
Although this seems rather peculiar, the decision by the government to give these two men the extraordinary benefit of this order — even though they were fugitives and likely because they were the brothers of the Chief of Army Staff — raises very serious questions about abuse of power, nepotism and impunity at the heart of the Bangladesh state.
3. Haris and Anis had not been acquitted
The latest press release from the Inter Services Public Relation Directorate (ISPR) suggests that the two brother were “acquitted”, as it reads:
“On March 29, 2019, the wedding reception of the son of the Chief of Army Staff was held where distinguished and eminent personalities attended. Worth mentioning that, before that, both the brothers of the Chief of Army Staff (Anis and Hasan) were acquitted of the conspired, planned and fabricated cases through proper judicial process. As a result, none of his brothers were convicted or absconding on the day of the wedding reception where they attended. They appeared at the ceremony as fully acquitted and no case was pending against them at that time.”
This is not true. They have not been acquitted, they remain convicts — and were convicts at the time they attended the wedding reception. Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1898 (CrPC) only allows the government to “remit” sentences. It has no bearing on the guilt of the person, which remains.
4. Governments rarely use the remission power
Netra News spoke to a number of senior jurists in Bangladesh and none of them knew an example of where the power in section 401 of the CrPC has previously been used generally, let alone for fugitives. The provision may well have been used before, but it is certainly the case that the use of this power is rare.
5. Legality of secret remission order under question
There remains significant uncertainty about whether the order itself is even lawful, since these men are fugitives. Prothom Alo quotes the lawyer Shahdeen Malik as saying that in his view it would be illegal to use the power under Section 401 to remit the sentence of a person who was a fugitive. He made even stronger points when he spoke to Deutsche Welle. This position appeared to be supported by the home minister himself who is also quoted by Prothom Alo: “A fugitive criminal does not get any legal rights. In order to get legal rights he will have to surrender.”
Section 401, however, does not explicitly exempt fugitives from becoming beneficiaries of this power — so the legality of its use in relation to fugitives would depend on the courts considering the extent to which common law principles of due process could inform how this power should be used. We may see this played out in court, if a legal challenge is launched.
6. The reason given for the order
The secret order states that remission was being given as the “charges that were plotted and fabricated in a planned manner to fulfil political conspiracies and malice.” In Bangladesh, this is a claim that, of course, is often justified, but one would certainly expect that those making the claim would present their arguments in court. It should be noted that Tofail Ahmed Joseph (the third brother who was convicted) did make that very claim in court, and it was rejected at both the trial, high court and appellate division levels. Anis Ahmed also made the argument and it was rejected at the trial and high court levels – though he did not present the argument at the appellate level as after he lost the High Court appeal he absconded. And of course, Haris Ahmed never attended court — and never presented the argument.
7. For Haris, there were two life sentences for which he got remission
The Al Jazeera film dealt with the murder of Mostafizur Rahman Mostafa in May 1996 , in relation to which both Haris and Anis received life sentences. The remission order did not just deal with these sentences, but also a life sentence imposed on Haris for another murder in September 1995 of Abu Morshed, a student activist of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
In this second case, Haris’ brother Joseph was also convicted and — as in the case of Mostafa murder — received a death sentence. Joseph’s death sentence for the killing of Mostafa was commuted in 2015 and he was pardoned in 2018. But it is not clear from the Prothom Alo report how Joseph is free from the second conviction and sentence.
8. Al Jazeera allegations in film remain intact
The remission order was given in March 2019, meaning that Haris and Anis were officially fugitives until then. It was in 2014, five years before then, that General Aziz orchestrated sending his fugitive brother, Haris, on a fake identity — including false birth certificate, marriage certificate, false passport and false bank statements — to Europe and setting up a business using these documents. It was before 2019 that Aziz had all his communications with Sami, the whistleblower, and travelled to Hungary to meet his brother. And all the secret filming undertaken by Al Jazeera which uncovered how Haris made his money, obtained government contracts, used Rapid Action Battalion to do his dirty work, remains explosive, whether or not he was officially a fugitive at the time.
9. ISPR confirms Haris’ false identity
In its new statement, ISPR confirms a key piece of information. In referring to the two brothers, it refers to Haris Ahmed as “Hasan.” Hasan is the name in the false identity created to allow Haris to travel around the world on a fake passport(s) and to set up businesses. A fake birth, education, and marriage certificate were created, in order to allow Haris to become Hasan, and under this new fake name on the basis of the forged documents, he obtained a National Identification Document, a passport, as well as a bank account.
In mentioning the name of “Hasan”, ISPR seems to have admitted that Haris now has the new “fake” identity of Hasan. Is it time for the authorities to actually investigate this? Perhaps the authorities could also investigate the fake identity created by Tofail Ahmed Joseph. In August 2020, Netra News reported how he has created a passport in the fake name of Tanveer Ahmed Tanjil.
10. A story of impunity
The story of the Ahmed brothers is a tale of impunity — in which three brothers of the most powerful man within the country’s armed forces have either received a pardon or have had their sentences remitted for the crime of murder. Two of these brothers never spent a day in prison following their convictions for murder.●