Read the full transcript of our discussion with Gowher Rizvi on democracy, Rohingya refugees and freedom of the press.
Mehdi Hasan: Gowher Rizvi, following your party the Awami League’s recent landslide election victory in December, it does look more and more like Bangladesh is becoming a one-party state, does it not?
Gowher Rizvi: I’m surprised that you would say that, this has been said earlier by a number of people.
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Mehdi Hasan: So it’s not that surprising?
Gowher Rizvi: Uh no, but I’m surprised that you said it.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok.
Gowher Rizvi: Because as one who has studied politics, you will understand that just because a party has been elected three times, it is not a one-party state.
Mehdi Hasan: The reason you’re being called a one-party state is not just because you win lots of elections; as you say, many parties do that. It’s the margin by which you win. Just to be clear, of the 300 seats contested in the December election, how many seats did your ruling coalition win in parliament?
Gowher Rizvi: 288
Mehdi Hasan: 288 out of 300, how many did the opposition win? 288 to 7.
Gowher Rizvi: Let me put this question to you differently. Give me one good reason why the opposition should have been voted into power? They did not have a manifesto, they were ambivalent whether they were going to an election or not.
Mehdi Hasan: So you’re comfortable with 96 percent of the seats, that’s what you won, Sheikh Hasina is now winning the kind of percentage victories that Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un win. Ninety-six percent, you’re comfortable with that in a democracy, you’re fine with that?
Gowher Rizvi: No, I think the comparison is totally irrelevant. Here, there was 39 political parties contested in the election. Free and fair elections took place. A large number of international observers were there who saw it for themselves. Who would not vote for a government which has performed so brilliantly by any count?
Mehdi Hasan: There are many brilliant governments and they win 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent. OK, you say it’s a free and fair election, let’s deal with that point. As you know the European Union has said there were, quote, “significant obstacles, which have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote”.
Transparency International studied 50 constituencies in Bangladesh and found serious irregularities in 47 of them, including fake votes, ballot stuffing, voters barred from entering polling stations. The BBC have footage of a stuffed ballot box in the port city of Chittagong. Are the BBC and Transparency International just making this all up?
Gowher Rizvi: One of my closest friends is the head of Bangladesh Transparency International, so I’m not going to impute any…
Mehdi Hasan: So then deal with the report, 47 out of 50?
Gowher Rizvi: The election commission found irregularities in 15 or 19, I forget the exact number of polling stations. And when there, when you remember, there were 40,000 plus polling stations. So if 15, 15, if 15 or 19 irregularities.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s not that it’s 15 or 19, it’s that your friend’s organisation looked at 50 seats and 47 of them turned out to have irregularities, that’s something, I can’t do the maths off the top of my head, but that’s like 95 percent, it’s like your margin of victory.
Isn’t the problem that Human Rights Watch describes how opposition members have been arrested, killed, and even disappeared in the months running up to the election. There was a, quote, “atmosphere of fear”. One hundred and fifty opposition members were arrested just two weeks before the election. Surely that cripples your election campaign, if the government keeps arresting your members?
Gowher Rizvi: These were people who committed arson and killing in the months of January to March 2015. After that, they went underground. They hid. At the time of the election, they re-surfaced. There were allegations, criminal charges against them. And so when they re-surfaced they were arrested.
Mehdi Hasan: I just want to deal with some of the people you put criminal charges against in the opposition. You said that a man called Mintu Kumar Dars, a Dakha- BNP leader was charged with blocking a road in September 2018. The problem is he died in 2007. Isn’t this embarrassing for your government?
Gowher Rizvi: Of course it is embarrassing.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re throwing criminal charges at opposition members who are dead?
Gowher Rizvi: You know, when charges are made it is embarrassing, but one knows that in police investigation, in many societies, especially in developing countries, often have these short… shortcomings.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s not just the opposition that have borne the brunt of your government, the media have had some issues, I think it’s fair to say let me quote you, you said, “Civilisation cannot flourish without freedom of expression, censorship never works.” Which is a good line, but in practice, there have been numerous examples of media crackdowns.
Perhaps the most famous case is out of the photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was dragged from his house, by police, after documenting a student protest in August and then criticising your government, on this channel actually, on Al Jazeera English.
Sheikh Hasina, your prime minister described Mr Alam as “mentally sick”. Do you think he’s mentally sick or is he just a journalist trying to do his job?
Gowher Rizvi: Those who are familiar with the media in Bangladesh will know one thing. It is free, it is vigorous. Shahidul Alam was not arrested for appearing on Al Jazeera and making a comment. He was arrested for spreading disinformation which was inciting violence. Shahid is my very close friend.
Mehdi Hasan: Shahidul Alam told reporters outside court in August that he was beaten so badly by police that his tunic needed washing because of all the blood. He was jailed for 107 days and said he was tortured, is that how you treat your friends?
Gowher Rizvi: Listen, I have not said a word about his treatment, all I have said is Shahid is a close friend of mine, and when he was arrested I took it on myself to make sure that he was given proper medical treatment. His family was able to carry food for him.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, why did he need medical treatment?
Gowher Rizvi: Well not because of the beating that you said.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re denying that he was beaten by the police?
Gowher Rizvi: I did not deny that. Because I cannot deny it because I do not know what happened.
All I will say…
Mehdi Hasan: Is your friend mentally sick?
Gowher Rizvi: No.
Mehdi Hasan: Why did the prime minister say he’s mentally sick?
Gowher Rizvi: I have no idea about that. I don’t know what she had in her mind. But if somebody spreads disinformation which endangers life, which incites violence…
Mehdi Hasan: What was that disinformation, just before we move on?
Gowher Rizvi: That there were… uh… several people killed and whose dead bodies were hidden in Awami League office in Dhanmondi. Women were raped, no, no, that’s, wait, don’t, don’t say no.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, hold on.
Mehdi Hasan: Even if it was false you think it was worth locking him up?
Gowher Rizvi: I stand by my quote and I will go to my death saying the same thing, that without freedom of expression our civilisation will collapse. On the other hand, the government has responsibility to protect citizens.
Mehdi Hasan: Agreed.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s bring in our panel, who are waiting patiently to come in here.
I’m joined by Tasneem Khalil, a Swedish Bangladeshi journalist, author of Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia.
Tasneem do you think it’s fair to say that Sheikh Hasina is turning Bangladesh into a one-party state, into an authoritarian State as many journalists claim, especially in the West?
Tasneem Khalil: Yeah Mehdi, Sheikh Hasina has not only turned the country into a one-party state, and she has very successfully done that. She has very capable advisers like Dr Rizvi who had come on international television and very eloquently, you know, tried to defend her. But the truth remains that Bangladesh is a country where people are picked up from their homes, they’re abducted, they’re kept in secret detention. There is a programme of enforced disappearances.
People are extrajudicially executed. People are imprisoned in thousands. I mean we saw during the recent elections. Anyone who the regime thinks that is a problem they go after him or her with absolute viciousness.
Mehdi Hasan: And, just on his point about free and fair media, everyone in this hall would agree it’s a free, fair, vigorous media. You’re a journalist, you no longer live in Bangladesh, what’s your view?
Tasneem Khalil: Well, Bangladesh is a country where journalists are beaten mercilessly by the goons of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of Bangladesh Awami League. We have video footage. Of course, Dr Rizvi will say well one or two journalists getting beaten up, that’s, that’s nothing to care about maybe. But it’s, it’s a very, very dark situation.
Mehdi Hasan: OK before I bring back in Gowher Rizvi I’m going to go to Saida Muna Tasneem who is Bangladesh’s high commissioner to the UK and Ireland.
When you hear Tasneem speaking there, it’s a litany, thousands behind bars, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, it must make your job quite hard, defending the Bangladeshi government here in the West, here in the UK?
Saida Muna Tasneem: But Tasneem doesn’t even live in Bangladesh so you know he’s, he’s seeing Bangladesh from outside just like you’re doing.
Mehdi Hasan: Why doesn’t he live in Bangladesh?
Saida Muna Tasneem: I have no idea. So what I’m say is that …Bangladesh definitely, you know the history of Bangladesh and press freedom, if you look at the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s… even until 2000 there was just one private TV channel. Right now Sheikh Hasina in 2009, between 2009 and 2018, has opened up the media and 32 private TV channels every day 90 political talk shows, Sheikh Hasina has been criticised left and right. There are newspapers criticising Sheikh Hasina. In the parliament, she’s been criticised. So why wouldn’t Bangladesh have press freedom? She doesn’t need to put anybody’s voice down.
Mehdi Hasan: There are also people being arrested for criticising her too.
Saida Muna Tasneem: That’s a fraction, that’s a fraction, that’s a small fraction. That doesn’t mean that Bangladesh doesn’t have press freedom.
Mehdi Hasan: Before I bring in Abbas Faiz, Tasneem, very quickly, why don’t you live in Bangladesh anymore?
Tasneem Khalil: As a journalist, I cannot operate independently in the country. I would be abducted, I would be tortured, like Shahidul Alam my colleague.
Saida Muna Tasneem: And when was that, which period did he leave the country, before Sheikh Hasina came into office?
Mehdi Hasan: But he’s given many examples as well. Let me bring in, uh… Abbas Faiz, South Asia analyst at the UK’s Essex University, previously worked for Amnesty International for more than 30 years. Abbas, Tasneem mentioned enforced disappearances, something I’m going to bring Gowher Rizvi back on as well. Can you shed some light on what is going on in Bangladesh with these claims being made about people disappearing?
Abbas Faiz: Well what is happening in Bangladesh, under the current government’s watch is really very unacceptable. In terms of democracy, all the independent institutions of the state have been weakened to parliament, have become an extension of the government. And all of these things have happened by the support of people, intellectuals like Mr Gowher Rizvi who are actually falsifying the nature of the issues.
Now to just go back to the enforced disappearances. The way it happens that a group of plain-clothes officers go to the house of the people, they collect them, they take them away and then the police, the security agencies and all of those people, they just say that they don’t have any knowledge of them
Mehdi Hasan: Do you want to respond to Abbas Faiz?
Gowher Rizvi: I think if you are saying, Abbas, that this is a government policy, I fear you are mistaken. Government does not need to disappear people. Government have authority to arrest people if they feel somebody has done something wrong. And to remand them.
Abbas Faiz: But what about the responsibility to protect them?
Mehdi Hasan: Are you denying that people like Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, Hasan Ali, Shafiqul Islam Modhu, who in front of their families in many cases were taken by plain-clothes police officers, on CCTV in one case, were they not taken?
Gowher Rizvi: I am going to say again.
Mehdi Hasan: Are you denying that?
Gowher Rizvi: No. It was deplorable if this is true, if this were to happen. But other names are also given. The same set of people have resurfaced and are openly moving around in the society.
Mehdi Hasan: But not all of the names
If the British government and the US government and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and Bangladeshi Human Rights Groups are all saying it, that people are being disappeared, shouldn’t you investigate that?
Gowher Rizvi: Of course we will investigate.
Abbas Faiz: Independently
Mehdi Hasan: I want to ask you about the War Crimes Tribunal set up in 2010 by the Bangladeshi government to bring justice for the atrocities that were committed during the War of Independence in 1971. At first, these tribunals were welcomed by the international community, however, in recent years the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, they’ve all raised serious concerns about the fairness of these trials, in particular, the use of the death penalty. You claim to be part of a progressive party, but you’re overseeing tribunals that the International Commission of Jurists says do not adhere to international standards of a fair trial and due process.
Gowher Rizvi: Let me first ask you, is there…
Mehdi Hasan: Why is it every time I ask you a question you want to ask me one back? That’s not how this works.
Gowher Rizvi: No because, because you have raised the question of international practice, international standards.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you not like international standards?
Gowher Rizvi: No, no, no, I am going to ask you is there international gold standard, no, there isn’t! What exists is in every country, the countries have set up their own codes and where you compare the code is with the normal high court and the appellate division.
Was the process followed in the tribunal in any way inferior to our high court and our supreme court? No, Bangladesh was the only country which tried war criminals and gave them full right of representation. Full evidence was placed into the hands of their defence lawyers. They were allowed to bring in as many defence lawyers as, as necessary.
Mehdi Hasan: And witnesses?
Gowher Rizvi: And witnesses.
Mehdi Hasan: What about witnesses who were abducted from outside the court prior to testifying?
Gowher Rizvi: Now I don’t know about that particular thing.
Mehdi Hasan: I mean the International Commission of Jurists says defence witnesses have been abducted and intimidated and there are credible allegations of collusion between the government, prosecutors and judges. Isn’t it the case that Sheikh Hasina just wants to get guilty verdicts and therefore cut corners?
Gowher Rizvi: First you, first you tell me it is not of international standards. When I tell you that the standards followed in Bangladesh courts were higher than what had happened in Nuremberg Trial, is as good as any.
Mehdi Hasan: I don’t remember anyone accusing the Nuremberg Trials of abducting witnesses outside the court.
Gowher Rizvi: No other international tribunal gave an opportunity for appeal, not only appeal, it also gave, Bangladesh rules gave an opportunity for judicial review. If after all these things you say…
Mehdi Hasan: I’m not saying, I’m saying international jurists are saying it, who know their stuff. OK, let’s move on, there was a lot of opposition between, quote-unquote, “secularism and Islamism” in Bangladesh. In just three years between 2013 and 2016, as you know, there were 10 brutal murders of atheist bloggers as well as other activists. Is there zero tolerance for extremists who kill bloggers from your government?
Gowher Rizvi: Indeed yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Then why did the, after the death of one blogger Avijit Roy in February 2015, why did Sheikh Hasina’s son, an adviser to the government, he said your government, quote, “can’t come out strongly for him as they don’t want to be seen as atheists”.
Another minister, Shahriar Alam, said that while these attacks are not acceptable, at the same time we expect people to stop criticising the Prophet. From a supposedly secular government, that’s a pretty intolerant, some would say cowardly, approach to the murder of your own citizens.
Gowher Rizvi: I’m not going to defend the statements made by others, you can ask them.
Mehdi Hasan: But they’re your colleagues, you’re not here to be solo Gowher Rizvi, you’re here representing the government of Bangladesh.
Gowher Rizvi: What I am going to say to you is government does take very strong action against all crimes, including crimes against bloggers. But what is often not recognised is that there is also another law in the country which says that you can be punished for insulting religious belief or hurting religious sentiment.
Mehdi Hasan: Is that your version of a blasphemy law?
Gowher Rizvi: That is what a blasphemy law is.
Mehdi Hasan: So how can you say you are a secular government, secular country?
Gowher Rizvi: Of course we are secular.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re locking up bloggers for offending religious sentiments, how is that secular?
Gowher Rizvi: I don’t know as yet of which bloggers has been arrested for.
Mehdi Hasan: Rasel Parvez, a blogger who fled to Japan after being arrested.
Gowher Rizvi: Was he arrested for…
Mehdi Hasan: For insulting religious sentiments yes.
Gowher Rizvi: If you are, if you are going to, if you are going to incite violence by insulting.
Mehdi Hasan: No, no, no, come on, there’s not incitement. I’m asking you, are you a secular country if you lock up bloggers for offending Islam, yes or no?
Gowher Rizvi: I do have to as a member of the government say that if public safety is endangered, governments have a responsibility.
Mehdi Hasan: That’s a, that’s an excuse that many governments use. You say that you are a secular party and secular government. You say your opponents the BNP the Bangladesh National Party are theocratic, you say they’re in bed with Jamaat-e-Islami, quote-unquote, “Islamists”. But some would say that you’ve gotten into bed with some pretty extreme groups too. The Hefazat-e-Islam Movement. You’ve given in to some of their pretty extreme demands.
You even refused your party to condemn them when they recently attacked the education of teenage girls in Bangladesh, why?
Gowher Rizvi: Maybe compare like with like, Jamaat is a political party. Hefazat-e-Islam is not a political party.
Mehdi Hasan: Irrelevant to my question.
Gowher Rizvi: No it is relevant I am coming to that. It is a student’s movement.
Mehdi Hasan: So was the Taliban.
Gowher Rizvi: It’s a student’s movement. There are 1.4 million students studying in madrassas controlled by the Hefazat group. The government is trying to bring them out to modernise their curriculum. To make them employable, to train them in modern sciences and education so that they become employable and keep away from radicalism.
Mehdi Hasan: No one is saying you shouldn’t talk to them, it’s about giving in to their demands. You say that you’re modernising their curriculum, they seem to be having more impact on your curriculum. They asked for 17 stories and poems to be removed from school textbooks, you agreed. They asked to move a female statue representing justice from the Supreme Court, you agreed. They condemn the education of teenage girls, your minister said that’s fine, it’s free speech. You are just appeasing them while telling the world you’re secular.
Gowher Rizvi: Well does it not bear to reflect on the fact that there are more women today in secondary and primary schools than there are men, is that a restriction?
Mehdi Hasan: So do you condemn this group for saying that, you condemn them for saying that teenage girls shouldn’t…
Gowher Rizvi: Our policy is condemning them.
Mehdi Hasan: No that’s not, that’s not true, your deputy minister for education refused to condemn them. He said whoever has made the comment it’s his personal opinion.
Gowher Rizvi: I am condemning you, I am condemning.
Mehdi Hasan: Good to hear.
Gowher Rizvi: And I am saying that it is exactly against the government policy.
Mehdi Hasan: OK let’s go back to our panel. Tasneem Khalil do you accept that this is about bringing the madrassas and bringing these groups forward, modernising, getting jobs, what’s your position on the, the relationship between…
Tasneem Khalil: Hefazat-e-Islam came to prominence back in 2013, after the murder of the blogger, and their demand was capital punishment for anyone who would criticise Islam and atheist. They would carry placards saying that you know, kill atheist like you would kill dogs and cats. That is Hefazat-e-Islam. And now Sheikh Hasina has been declared as the mother of Qawmi, students in Bangladesh who have very questionable ideas. I am not sure how Islamic they are even.
Mehdi Hasan: Saida Muna Tasneem is here, the high commissioner, what’s your response when you hear, for example, it’s not just atheist bloggers, there are many minorities in Bangladesh who are upset. The secretary of the Bangladesh Buddhist Federation said that when Hindus, Buddhists and Christians face abuse in Bangladesh there is no one to turn to for justice. That’s quite damning isn’t it, from minorities in your country.
Saida Muna Tasneem: It’s actually quite baseless. I think Sheikh Hasina’s party has been the most secular party that Bangladesh has ever witnessed. It’s very clear that her policies in her previous government she had five cabinet ministers who are Hindus and Christian and Buddhists. And in this cabinet, she has at least three cabinet ministers, full cabinet ministers who are Hindus and Buddhist. After the Ramu incident, if you recall, Sheikh Hasina has rebuilt 19 Buddhist temples. Has Myanmar built one temple, one masjid…
Mehdi Hasan: I mean if Myanmar is your benchmark for minority treatment we’re in serious trouble.
Saida Muna Tasneem: Of course not. Of course not.
Mehdi Hasan: But it’s not just Buddhists though, it’s Buddhist leaders, Hindu leaders, Christian leaders, they’re all saying, “we feel under fire”.
Saida Muna Tasneem: I wouldn’t agree with that, I wouldn’t agree with that. Why does she empower women? She empowers women to marginalise extremist forces, and that is how Bangladesh is doing so well economically.
Mehdi Hasan: Abbas Faiz is here, what do you make of Gowher Rizvi’s argument that the government has tried its best and the High Commissioner’s argument that it’s improved things in terms of protections for minorities, protections for atheist bloggers, is that fair? Have there been massive improvements do you think in recent years?
Abbas Faiz: Well, protection from the minorities, no, the government hasn’t done enough at all. let, let Dr Rizvi tell me how many people have been tried and convicted for setting fire on the homes of the Christians, for attacking Hindu minorities, for…
Mehdi Hasan: Good question.
Abbas Faiz: Yes
Abbas Faiz: None have been brought to justice.
Gowher Rizvi: You have raised a very important issue. Minorities have often been victims of persecutions. But, to say that under this government there has been persecution of minorities, please I urge you to go back to your sources, I urge you to go back to it. The most authoritative voice on this is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian association.
Abbas Faiz: They are, they have told me that, exactly that.
Gowher Rizvi: I don’t know what they have told you.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Gowher Rizvi: They have come to the prime minister and they have thanked her. Never in the history of Bangladesh, minorities have enjoyed as much freedom, as…
Mehdi Hasan: Just to be clear what’s the number though? Just what’s the number of convictions?
Gowher Rizvi: That I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing. When you are next visiting Dhaka, I will be glad to tell you.
Mehdi Hasan: All right. On that note. We’re going to have to take a break.
Do join us on Head to Head for Part Two with Gowher Rizvi where we’re going to be talking about the Rohingya issue and we’re also going to hear from our very patient audience here, in the Oxford Union, after the break.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Head to Head on Al Jazeera English.
My guest tonight is Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
In recent years, Gowher Rizvi, one of the biggest challenges Bangladesh has had to face has not come from the inside, but from the outside. From neighbouring Myanmar more than a million Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh, it’s very admirable that your country has taken in so many refugees.
But here’s what I don’t get, you’ve called what’s happening in Myanmar, ethnic cleansing. Your boss, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called it: “tantamount to genocide and crimes against humanity”.
And yet your solution to the crisis seems to be to try and send the refugees back to Myanmar, it makes no sense really.
Gowher Rizvi: That is the end solution. That these people belong to Myanmar, they want to go back home and they must go home. However, what we have also said is we will only send them when the, when the conditions are safe and people will go back voluntarily. Very few governments in the world, let alone a developing society, host a million refugees. And then say, we will, we would like you to go back only when the situation is safe. No, of course, the problem doesn’t lie on Bangladesh side. It lies on Myanmar’s side.
Mehdi Hasan: Agreed.
Gowher Rizvi: And what else can Bangladesh do? The responsibility lies with the international community that they must insist on making Myanmar safe for the return of the refugees.
Mehdi Hasan: Agreed. In the meantime though, you say, we won’t send them back while it’s not safe, which is good to hear, and yet in November, there were reports covered by international media, covered by human rights groups, that you were trying to send them back against their will.
Security Forces were deployed to some of the camps in Cox’s Bazar, refugees were told that if they didn’t leave, they would stop receiving rations, they would be blocked from working with NGOs. The UN put out a statement saying, do not send them back against their will.
That’s what you were trying to do in November though?
Gowher Rizvi: No. Let me clarify. What we had said was those who want to voluntarily return. Because Myanmar government criticised us, saying that Bangladesh is preventing the return, forcibly preventing the return of Rohingyas who want to come back. So, we said, if those who would like to leave voluntarily may go. People refused to go voluntarily we did not push out, we did not force.
Mehdi Hasan: The UN referred to terror and panic in Cox’s Bazar at the imminent risk of being sent back against their will.
Gowher Rizvi: I, don’t know from where this statement came, but the UNHCR person from Bangkok with whom I work, very, very, very closely, we worked in concert. There was never, ever a question of any forcible repatriation.
Mehdi Hasan: And that is the policy of the Bangladeshi government?
Gowher Rizvi: That is the policy and this is the policy the prime minister has announced again and again, including in the United Nations.
Mehdi Hasan: There’s also a plan right now, I believe, from your government to send thousands of these refugees to a place called Bhasan Char, an island three hours from the mainland, which is particularly prone to cyclones and severe flooding. Human rights groups have warned that it could become an island prison.
Gowher Rizvi: OK. The whole of coastal region is prone to cyclones, storms, tidal surges, so that island is not anything different from the rest of the coastal belt.
Second thing is, on the one hand, we are under an enormous pressure from humanitarian organisations, that there is congestion in these camps. These camps have become unsafe. Create more space for them, so that they can live better.
We have developed an island, put protections against surges. We have built cyclone shelters there, but most important of all, we have said to these international organisations, go and see it for yourself. And then these people if they voluntarily some of them want to be relocated there, they are welcome to be.
Mehdi Hasan: So the Guardian got footage of the island and what’s been built there in November 2018, and they found that families will be housed in rooms which measured two metres by two and a half meters which have small barred windows. It does kind of sound prison-esque.
Gowher Rizvi: Well, have you been to the Cox’s Bazar camp?
Mehdi Hasan: No.
Gowher Rizvi: If you had been to that camp, I can assure you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t have quoted that. Because that accommodation created in Bhasan Char is far, far superior to the current existence of the temporary shelters in which they’re living.
Mehdi Hasan: You could allow some other countries to take some of these refugees off your hands, but you don’t seem to be letting them. The Bangladeshi government refused exit visas to Rohingya refugee women who had been offered asylum in Canada under a specific programme designed to take care of victims of sexual violence.
Why would you do that?
Gowher Rizvi: When did this happen?
Mehdi Hasan: In 2018.
Gowher Rizvi: I don’t know why this happened, but let me give you a larger explanation. The larger explanation is that there is a fear that if third country settlement begins to happen and we don’t know how many people Canada was willing to take.
There are a million people; if you want to take 50 or 60 people, all it does is it creates hope to those who are left behind in Myanmar, that if you can reach the camps of Bangladesh, you may be resettled in that third, that is the argument, you may refute it.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s not a good, it’s not a good argument though is it?
Gowher Rizvi: You may reject it.
Mehdi Hasan: You say, the people in Myanmar are facing genocide, if you’re facing genocide, you want to get out. It doesn’t matter whether you go to Canada for not.
Gowher Rizvi: OK. I did not, I’m, I’m saying sir, I said this is one, another argument that has been.
Mehdi Hasan: And what about the argument that you could’ve let more in earlier. It was admirable to let in a million people in the last couple of years, but Rohingya refugees have been fleeing the violence there for years now, as you well know, and yet you were turning them back between 2012 and 2016. Bangladeshi border guards were turning away refugees in the hundreds. Many of those people who were turned away probably died.
Gowher Rizvi: Go one step back. We already had three-quarters of a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They have been there since the late, mid-1990s. So, to say that we turned some back. Which country has allowed so many people into their…
Mehdi Hasan: And I said that’s an admirable position. What I’m wondering is, given you’ve let these people in, given you said they’re victims of genocide, in hindsight at least, do you look back, Gowher Rizvi, and say you know what, I wish we’d let more in earlier. We could’ve saved more lives.
Gowher Rizvi: These, what happens is when they came, we have border guards, they are trained to prevent people from coming in. That was their reaction. When this came to the high-level decision, I was present in the meeting that day, all the security forces, argued that we should hold them back, our prime minister said no, this is a humanitarian crisis, open the frontiers, let them in.
And I think this is the only unique example, possibly Angela Merkel was another, where a million people nearly were allowed in, to the country.
Mehdi Hasan: Fair enough. Let me ask you this, last question before we go to our panel and then the audience. You said, Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court…
Gowher Rizvi: Indeed.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you think Aung San Suu Kyi, who I know you know personally, do you think she should face an international tribunal as well for her role in this genocide? Or at least her role in denying and covering it up?
Gowher Rizvi: Whoever is involved should be faced with the International Court of Justice. There is no doubt because this was premeditated genocide.
Mehdi Hasan: So you think there could be a case against Aung San Suu Kyi as well?
Gowher Rizvi: It would, it would be against the entire government or any member of government that aided and abetted in this process.
Mehdi Hasan: Would you like to see her on trial?
Gowher Rizvi: Now you are asking me to comment on a friend. And I, I always have a soft spot for friends and I will hold back.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Interesting choice of friends tonight.
Let’s go to our panel of experts who are waiting here in the Oxford Union.
I’m joined by Abbas Faiz who is a South Asia analyst at UK’s Essex University. He previously worked for Amnesty International for more than 30 years.
Abbas, as a Human Right’s activist and specialist, how worried are you about the fate of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh today? What’s your view?
Abbas Faiz: I mean it is, commendable, what Bangladesh has done. But that is not enough. They have got to actually sort a very strong movement within the international community to ensure that the pressure that is needed to be placed on the government of Myanmar is done. The government of Bangladesh is not doing all of that.
Mehdi Hasan: Saida Muna Tasneem is here, Bangladesh’s high commissioner to the UK and Ireland. You’ve also served on Bangladesh’s National Taskforce on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Abbas says you’ve done well, but not enough.
Saida Muna Tasneem: We have done excellent. We’re the only country in the world who’s giving maximum protection to the Rohingyas. Why isn’t the world doing enough? That should be your question, not what Bangladesh is doing enough.
Bangladesh is a country which… We are at least… Bangladesh is the least developed country. We’re, we’re the most densely populated country in the world. We are sharing our food and space and sovereign space with the Rohingyas.
We have given six thousand acres of land for Rohingyas. We’re protecting 60,000women who were raped and gave babies, 70,000 babies who are rape babies. We’re providing support and shelter to those babies.
We’re providing health, education, you know, healthcare, prenatal, postnatal, to women who were sexually violated in Rakhine State. The question is, why isn’t the world doing enough? Would the United Kingdom….
Mehdi Hasan: Good question.
Saida Muna Tasneem: Would the United Kingdom be ready to take one point one million refugees?
Mehdi Hasan: I think we know the answer. No.
Saida Muna Tasneem: Would any other countries be ready to do that?
Mehdi Hasan: That’s a good question. I think we know the answer.
Let me bring in, Tasneem Khalil who’s a Swedish Bangladeshi journalist, author of Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia.
Tasneem you’re a critic of this government but it’s very difficult to disagree with what the high commissioner is saying there. They’ve done a lot for the Rohingya refugees. This is Sheikh Hasina’s finest hour.
Tasneem Khalil: Mehdi, genocide is not something where we just, you know, like, have a competition of who has done enough and who has not, not done enough. And I would like to ask a direct question to, Dr Rizvi here. I mean, you say that you want to see Myanmar tried at the International Court of Justice for genocide.
You, on record, said it is a genocide, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said it’s a genocide, now, what is stopping you from referring this case to the International Court of Justice under Article 9 of the Genocide Convention?
Gowher Rizvi: I think the answer is obviously no, we haven’t done it. But, you know, a government which has its hand full, training, feeding, providing healthcare. To say why the government has… Of course, we will do. Of course, we will do.
Mehdi Hasan: Thank you! We’re going to wrap this up and let’s go to our audience. Raise your hand. Let’s go to, let’s go to the gentleman here in the front.
Audience Participant 1: I represent Ahmad Bin Quasem, He was disappeared by the Bangladesh Special Forces RAB, in August 2016. With all the evidence pointing to, to this being done on the direct orders of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He’s only one of hundreds who have been disappeared. Now, these disappearances have been noted by UN human rights bodies, international human rights organisations, the international press and foreign embassies.
When will the Bangladesh government stop pushing the ridiculous line that the disappearances are not happening? And when will these men be released so they can return to their families?
Gowher Rizvi: When the disappearances happen it, it is deplorable. But I have also said, that this is not a government policy of removing people.
Mehdi Hasan: So where is his client?
Gowher Rizvi: I wouldn’t know. Since you are, since you are the lawyer, you tell us, where is your client, you tell us.
Mehdi Hasan: Go on, do you want to respond?
Gowher Rizvi: And, and with, with proof.
Audience Participant 1: There is credible evidence he was being held in Dhaka Cantonment, a military base in the middle of Dhaka. And that’s credible evidence from foreign embassies, and your government knows where he is. No one believes that you don’t. You don’t even believe. You don’t even believe that.
Gowher Rizvi: Well thank you for the statement, but you have said nothing. You have just made a statement…
Mehdi Hasan: You, you asked him a question, he told you where he thinks he is. Now it’s your job to go check it out, you’re the government, he’s not.
Gowher Rizvi: I will check it out. I am prepared to check it out. But you know, when you use the word credible, well, I have to take your word for it.
Mehdi Hasan: You want the cell number as well? I mean come on.
Gowher Rizvi: He would give me some information.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s go back to the audience. Gentleman here in the front.
Audience Participant 2: Thank you, I covered the Rana Plaza factory collapse and the aftermath of that and…
Mehdi Hasan: Back in 2013.
Audience Participant 2: 2013, which was a convulsive event and which created a lot of promises from the government. I’m just curious because it seems that now, as thousands of workers are demanding fairer wages and have not been allowed to be unionised, they’re being shot at, beaten up and summarily sacked from their jobs.
Mehdi Hasan: This is a recent protest you’re referring to?
Audience Participant 2: Yes. And despite, just two days after the election, the government gave a 75 percent tax break to factory owners and in a country which has the highest growth rate amongst rich people in the world.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Gowher Rizvi: I don’t know if you have been back since you covered Rana Plaza? Enormous changes have taken place. To begin with, Bangladesh is now fully compliant with its commitment to the ILO Convention. Bangladesh constitution fully allows unionisation. There are no restrictions to it. Working with Accord and Alliance we have improved and made all the factories safe. We are insisting that the owners provide a minimum healthcare in the factories and as far as the government is concerned, there is no restriction whatsoever on unionisation. So what has happened since then?
Mehdi Hasan: Do you regret that it took the deaths of hundreds of innocent people for these changes to come about on your watch?
Gowher Rizvi: You know, tragically often, a war, a tragedy, forces, pushes the momentum and the speed at which changes take, take place. So, yes, in that sense, it was a tragedy did uh, propel us to move fast.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Lady there, second row.
Audience Participant 3: What are the challenges and vision of present government in Bangladesh after this landslide victory?
Gowher Rizvi: Well our uh plans and uh visions are very, very straight forward. We have numerous steps. By 2021, we want to become a middle-income state, by 2030, we want to complete and fulfil sustainable development growth to the extent as possible. And by 2042, we want to be a developed country.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let’s go to the lady here in the front.
Audience Participant 4: Hi you spoke about Shahidul Alam, I’m the niece of Shahidul Alam.
Gowher Rizvi: Yes.
Audience Participant 4: We’ve sat here and heard you say that there’s freedom of expression in Bangladesh, but you know what happened to my uncle, your friend, for scrutinising the government, perhaps not in a dissimilar way from what’s happening now as a journalist, the way that Mehdi is a journalist also scrutinising your government.
We’ve all listened and laughed and debated about everything that’s happening, but the reality is that Bangladesh is a living nightmare for thousands of people. You deny it, but there are torture, there is torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, the ugliest face of the human condition. And if you’re saying that everyone’s lying, then I think you’re insulting people. I am asking you as a human being, how do you feel about this? Are you comfortable with this? I’m not asking as a politician, I’m asking you as a human being.
Gowher Rizvi: OK. I will, I would like to give you a direct answer. I… I would really like to give you a direct answer. I understand your pain. And I will also say, with great respect to my friend, Shahid, that… and to compare with what this journalist is doing, asking a question, is unfair.
As I said earlier, he was not arrested, and I don’t think one should be arrested, for his journalistic work, but for spreading disinformation. Well, second thing, second thing I want to say, you’ve just said, that life is a living hell in Bangladesh.
Do you have any idea how the quality of life for millions of people have improved in the last 10 years? How millions of people have moved out of extreme poverty and are living? How Bangladesh has achieved higher social indices in all respect compared to all…
Mehdi Hasan: You, Gowher Rizvi, no, no one is disputing the economic record but you, you are on record, you are on record saying that development, development is not the same as democracy.
Gowher Rizvi: Of course.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re the same, you’re the one who said that.
Gowher Rizvi: I said these two go hand in hand.
Mehdi Hasan: Exactly.
Gowher Rizvi: And you cannot exclude. So I’m coming to that. But you said it is living hell for thousands of people. I am telling you, their lives have improved. That is not to say that if there is a breach of human rights, if there is arbitrary uh arrest of people that we justify and we applaud. Absolutely not. And that is what I said, the prime minister’s current agenda, high emphasis is on the question of governance and when I say governance it is a shorthand for all the thing that you, all of us aspire to, full liberty, freedom of expression, you know, a real qualitative improvement in life.
Mehdi Hasan: But just on her particular question, do you personally, as someone who’s not a politician, your whole, the majority of your life you haven’t been a politician, you were an academic, a scholar, you were teaching the people about the world.
When you read these reports from academics, from scholars, from human rights activists, all making the same claims about enforced disappearances, crackdowns on the press, torture, it doesn’t bother you at all?
Gowher Rizvi: Of course it bothers me. As I said it is deplorable if these are, where, where these things are true. And I also said to you, whenever this information has come to me, and I will not, I cannot at this moment divulge names, I have done everything personally, humanly possible to make sure. Including in the case of your uncle, which I do not want to say it publicly.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Uh, let’s go back to the audience. Yes, gentleman here in the tie.
Audience Participant 5: Just a direct question to Mr Rizvi. He is an adviser to the PM and he is a very intellectual man, but does he call, that when there is a crackdown on opposition and there is an extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances, even the opposition party doesn’t have any freedom to gather free assembly or anything, they cannot speak. Is that called democracy in Bangladesh?
Gowher Rizvi: What has happened was not a crackdown. What happens is, again, this is the law of the land, that if you want to hold a public meeting, you need to secure the permission of the police department so that adequate facilities are provided. But, what, where the difficulty arose, when two parties decide on the same day to hold their meeting in the same venue. Now which police force in the world, will allow two rival…
Mehdi Hasan: That’s a very specific response. Let’s go back to the audience.
Audience Participant 6: Doctor Rizvi, you’ve, you’ve already answered a couple of questions on the enforced disappearances, and some of the other human rights violations and you’ve used the term deplorable. Why have you refused to engage with the UN special rapporteurs and working groups when they’ve tried to engage with you on this issue and all you do is flatly deny the existence of these?
Mehdi Hasan: That is true what he said, UN special rapporteurs are on record.
Gowher Rizvi: I can, let me ask my colleague.
Saida Muna Tasneem: We are working very closely with UN special rapporteurs. Geneva…
Abbas Faiz: But have you invited them to visit the country?
Saida Muna Tasneem: They always request us to come to the country, we always allow that. I don’t know of any record when we didn’t allow them.
Mehdi Hasan: And are you gonna take them to some of the prisons we heard mentioned earlier where some of these people might be held?
Saida Muna Tasneem: Actually UN special rapporteur has visited Bangladesh’s prison once.
Audience Participant 6: It’s not a question of inviting them. There have been complaints, there have been requests made by the special rapporteurs that your government has not replied to and not engaged with in any way.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Just before we finish. One last couple of questions from me, very quickly. You’re an adviser to Sheikh Hasina, you’ve been for years. You represent her here on the international stage, you know that she is now widely considered by many people, many journalists, many governments, to be leading Bangladesh towards an authoritarian destination.
You may not agree with that view, but you know that is the view of many people. Do you feed that view back to her? Does she care? Because there’s a quote from her son where he says that she thinks it’s a badge of honour to be called authoritarian.
Gowher Rizvi: Well, what he was saying is, Lee Kuan Yew has been called an authoritarian person, the prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad has been called. So he was putting it in that context. My point is this, yes, these things have been said, we have heard it, we have heard it and we hear it again. I think the reality is very different. We have had regular elections. Not only at…
Mehdi Hasan: No, no, you’ve made this point. I’m asking about her, what is her attitude when you tell her, this is what people say to me, you’ve travelled around the world and people raise these complaints? What do you say to her?
Gowher Rizvi: She reads the newspapers, she reads… gets her…
Mehdi Hasan: Does it bother her?
Gowher Rizvi: Her daily briefing and she knows that this is not what she is.
Mehdi Hasan: And does it bother you? You’re an academic, a scholar, you, people have a lot of time for you. You’ve taught at Harvard, Oxford, before you joined this government, do you ever think, you know what, this is hard work going around defending Sheikh Hasina, time to head back to academia?
Gowher Rizvi: I can tell you one thing… I, while I would love to do that, let me say to you, I am truly delighted to be able to stand and speak for a person who has qualitatively changed the lives of millions of people in Bangladesh. That is… and, as she has promised herself that she is going to address many of the questions that have been raised.
So, I think we should applaud her for what she has achieved. We should give her the credit where the credit is due. And to start believing that somewhere in the middle, because some people say she is very good, some people say she is very bad, some people take the middle, no. Let’s be little bit more…
Mehdi Hasan: But you have no plans to retire any time soon?
Gowher Rizvi: Well, I’m 70. I am 70 this year.
Mehdi Hasan: Well congratulations.
Gowher Rizvi: Thank you. And I have writing aspirations but at the same time, I’m very privileged and honoured to serve Sheikh Hasina.
Mehdi Hasan: Gowher Rizvi thank you very much for joining me on Head to Head. That’s our show! Head to Head will be back next week. Thank you.