Hospitality, Dhaka Style: Akhavan, Sloan and Another

In Democracy, Fair Trial, Human Rights, Independence of Judiciary, Politics on 4 March 2008 by Incidental Blogger Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

The injustices in the world are so overwhelming, so enraging, that it is unacceptable, indeed immoral, not to fight for justice with every bit of one’s strength.”

Today I have decided to write about the person who made the above statement. His name is Payam Akhavan, the renowned human rights lawyer representing Sheikh Hasina (former Prime Minister of Bangladesh). Last month, he was in Bangladesh on a five-day visit which attracted considerable media attention and controversy. His visit was followed by frantic PR campaigns orchestrated by the Caretaker Government and its civil society allies. Google the internet and you will find it replete with points, protests and spins involving this highly publicised visit. Incidentally, I am familiar with some of Dr Akhavan’s seminal works in the field of Genocide Prosecution and Prevention. I also had the opportunity to meet him in person. Today I would like to share some of my impressions about him and his work (including his involvement in Sheikh Hasina’s trial) which I hope would shed some helpful light on the controversies.

Because of the length of the post, I have divided it as follows:

· Profile of a human rights lawyer: the first impression

· Three embarrassing facts;

· Rebuttal of the spins

· Some concluding observations

Profile of a Human Rights Lawyer: the First Meeting:

Dr Akhavan’s track record as an internationally renowned human rights lawyer is now more than well established. Anyone with genuine interest in ‘war crime trials’ should be familiar with his works. It was sometime in the middle of last year when I bumped into one of Dr Akhavan’s human rights colleagues in a social event who informed me about his possible visit to Bangladesh. The whole thing slowly slipped my mind, until late January this year when I saw him on TV making his very first press appearance in Dhaka. It caught my attention when he made that famous “irony not lost” comment before the journalists, referring to (ab)use of Parliament compound as makeshift prisons for two former Prime Ministers of the country, both democratically elected. Almost coincidentally, a friend drew my attention to a speaker event by Payam Akhavan in Trinity College (Oxford University) co-sponsored by three other Oxford based entities, which I resolved to follow closely. The talk was scheduled immediately after his return from Dhaka, on a Saturday evening (2 February 2008), and my friend was kind enough to give me a blow by blow account of the event later.

I was told, the venue in Trinity College was packed with graduate students, undergrads, research fellows, Professors, and members of various Oxford based action groups. A few Bangladeshi faces were also there in their midst. Dr Akhavan spoke for an hour – on Rwanda, Uganda, Darfur, Sarajevo, Auschwitz, Nuremberg, Yugoslavia, Bosnia; on Huntingdon thesis and so called clash of civilisations. He spoke on how early signs of genocide are easily detectable and how well thought out interventions could prevent potential human tragedies. He spoke on strategies of genocide trials and the role civil societies could play across the world. He spoke of the prevailing double standards, the roles of multilateral institutions and their overpaid bureaucrats. Then he spoke about Bangladesh, 1971 liberation war, genocide and its denials, and petty definitional debates in the academia. Still fresh in his memory, he informed the audience about Bangladesh’s tradition of student movement, on how the ever-defiant young ones always stood up to mighty state machinery – ignoring torture, detention and persecution. When he finished, the ovation from the audience was sincere and animated, my friend reported. Great speakers, as I heard on many occasions, are not uncommon in Oxford but my friend reported it was a truly inspiring evening. It is not every day even Oxford has speakers with such pedantic depth, oratory skills and wide experience in human rights lawyering. Quoting one of the moderators, my friend told me: “he seemed like one of those (now near-extinct) human rights lawyers possessing the right mix of passion and strategic cunning.” His concluding remark: “a good combination of head and heart.”

Throughout his speech, Dr Akhavan recounted his experience with great awe and respect — particularly the indomitable courage of Bangladeshi people – referring to ongoing student-teacher movement in Dhaka University and the lawyers’ roles in the lower courts. It is particularly impressive that he somehow managed to capture the very essence of our people that makes them so special, sensing the very qualities (eg, emotion, courage, the unpredictable resoluteness, the simplicity, the decency) that come to our people so naturally. In my experience, few foreigners get that right, and that too from such a brief visit. The following quote probably explains why and how:

“As an Iranian Baha’i living in Canada, my fate was that of the perpetual minority, the subject of constant discrimination. While these were painful experiences in childhood, they awakened a passion for understanding and justice, for which I am very grateful. While ease and comfort or success and social status can often lead to complacence, suffering and struggle can push us to excel.” (quoted from one of his interviews).

Or the following:

“I learned that human rights is about our inherent dignity, our shared humanity, and that fighting for the dignity of others is as much about recognizing our own dignity. We cannot be fully human until we see other people’s struggles as our own.”

In all, it was an inspiring encounter.

Three Embarrassing Facts:

Since that meeting, I came across some disturbing information which I would like to share with the readers:


Although Dr Akhavan received overwhelming support from lawyers and human rights activists generally, there were attempts from parts of Bangladesh civil society trying to convince Dr Akhavan that his client “Sheikh Hasina was indeed very corrupt.” Perhaps they meant to suggest that her case is not appropriate for human rights intervention. The manner in which they used their standing (as prominent civil society leaders) – to mislead a fellow human rights defender – is very unsettling. I knew standards have fallen among sections of Bangladesh civil society over the last year but I never figured the extent of its decay until now. It is not the issue whether Sheikh Hasina was corrupt or not. The questions that need to be asked are: Does she have the right to fair trial? Does she have the right to due process? Does she deserve equal protection of law? Does she have the right to legal representation of her choice? The answer is ‘yes to all’. As a citizen of Bangladesh, these are her fundamental rights. The persons who tried to convince Dr Akhavan otherwise, should have known better. [Read here ]


This never came before the media. During Dr Akhavan’s stay in Dhaka, security officials (euphemism for DGFI) paid him visits pressuring him to quit representing Sheikh Hasina. They threatened him with “dire consequences” if he fails to comply with their “instructions.” This is reprehensible; whoever advised the government to do that did a great disservice to the country. To be honest, I found it incredible that there are DGFI officers stupid enough to actually think that they can threaten and intimidate a high profile human rights advocate such as Dr Akhavan. Knowing what our security forces are capable of (eg, Cholesh Richil, Tasneem Khalil, Anwar Hossain) – I have no reason to doubt this information’s authenticity. I am glad that Dr Akhavan is not the kind of person to be deterred by such threats. I remember him reflecting:

“in our line of work, having enemies like this (eg, government) is reassuring as it constantly reminds us whether or not we are in the right track; for me, it meant that I must be doing something right !” (referring to a situation in Uganda).

William Sloan, the other renowned Human Rights Lawyer in Sheikh Hasina’s legal team, also received similar treatment in the hands of DGFI. As UNB reports:

“the government didn’t allow international human rights lawyer William Sloan to hold press conference in Dhaka on February 22 as he came to Bangladesh on tourist visa . . . As a tourist, it was only logical for him to see different paintings according to the country’s existing law. ‘But, without doing that, Sloan, also president of the American Association of Jurists, the Canadian chapter, attended dinner with lawyers, gave interviews to private media and also sat in meetings with politicians as well as university teachers though he was asked not to engage in such activities,’ it said. The government clarification said, being a foreign tourist, no one could deliver e speech about a country’s political and sub-judice matters.”

What the above press report does not mention is that Sloan was detained in his hotel room at Sonargaon Pan Pacific with armed guards outside, preventing him from attending the scheduled press conference. The above government statement exemplifies application of law at its craziest which deserves a thorough rebuttal. I may do that in future if I feel necessary. Or maybe, I should not even bother to dignify such utter nonsense with a response since the matter is apparently more about power (and its abuse) than text of law and its due application. Read here the IADL (International Association of Democratic Lawyers) press statement in New York.


The Caretaker Government issued instructions to all its embassies abroad to prevent Dr Akhavan getting Bangladeshi visa in the first place. Incredible, is it not? However, he somehow managed to obtain a ‘tourist visa’ through a contact. The decision of the government was ill-conceived to begin with. It is also very embarrassing for all of us. (NOTE: The same story repeated when William Sloan, also had to settle for a tourist visa).

Rebuttal of the Spins:

A considerable amount of half-truths, lies and spins have been circulated by the representatives of this Caretaker Government. Most of them do not deserve notice, let alone rebuttal. But, for the sake of record, perhaps rebuttal of some is essential. So I would use one newspaper’s (Prothom Alo) spins as an example.

Prothm-Alo writes: “(Payam’s) depiction of Sheikh Hasina’s case as ‘baseless’ – is essentially racist. It is a reflection of Payam’s blatant white supremacist attitude (nogno shetangwo ashfalon) towards third world societies.” (translated from Bengali)

First of all, I am particularly disappointed with Prothom Alo’s editorial desk for running such a sub-standard piece, both in terms of language and content. Supposedly, some nameless “Special Correspondent” penned the piece but I am really astonished to note the use of language which is poor in standard and taste. I have many reservations about the roles of Prothom Alo and its editor and none of them ever involved poor writing. This led me to assume that perhaps the piece was written elsewhere and Prothom Alo was ‘asked’ to run it. I invite the readers to compare the Prothom Alo piece with the regular fodder published in Amader Shomoy or Dainik Sangram. If you do, I am sure you would also agree with me that the Prothom Alo piece echoes the writing style of those newspapers. It reads as something written from DGFI’s desk, by some half-educated official with a massive inferiority complex. I am sorry to use these strong words but if you listen to the interrogators in the torture/confession CDs (released as a result of “accidental” leaks) of Awami League leaders Sheikh Selim or Abdul Jalil, I believe you would also realise the elements of truth in my suggestion. [Read here and here]

Secondly, accusing Dr Akhavan as ‘white supremacist’ is probably the most ridiculous comment I have heard recently. To begin with, Dr Akhavan is an Iranian Baha’i whose family migrated to Canada as dissidents. No stretch of imagination allows describing him as a ‘white Westerner.’ Also, anyone with elementary knowledge of recent world events knows that some of the Western countries were responsible (read Noam Chomsky’s interview here, particularly the part on Shah) for the sufferings and persecutions of Payam’s people in Iran. Therefore, I would consider Dr Akhavan the most unlikely person to play trumpet for the Western governments. No need to take my word; read here and here for details. This however, brings us to an interesting point. If we really have to point fingers at people who are doing the Western governments’ biddings, perhaps we do not need to look further. Given that the current military backed Caretaker Government had special blessings from powerful Western Governments from day one, I would think that its supporters (eg, in the civil society) should be the first to be labelled as the ‘yes men’ and their Western instructors as the ‘arrogant Supremacists.’ Many times in the past, their arrogant prejudices have influenced resolutions along the following line:

that ‘democracy’ is something exclusive to their own (superior) citizens, and not for (inferior) citizens of the third world; because, ‘they’ are not good / fit enough for its ‘Western brand.’ (see Jyoti and Rumi’s comments here)

Post 1-11 Bangladesh would be a good example of the above analogy. We observed, how these Western instructors ended up sponsoring missions to launch ‘new brand’ of democracy – customised for third world societies such as ours – with Four Star Generals as political philosophers, and with civil society representatives joining ranks of the army of mindless zombies. If this is not “Western arrogance,” what is? If this is not servility to the West, what is? In this light, I would advise Prothom-Alo/DGFI to be very careful before accusing others. [Note: this is not the view I fully subscribe to but it can be shown as an example how Prothom-Alo/DGFI’s own ill-conceived accusations can be thrown back at them].

Thirdly, is it not significant that no such piece was ever published in any of the English dailies? Was the government trying to regain its ‘face’ by using spins while at the same time did not want the English speaking world to find out about its treatment of Dr Akhavan? I leave the readers to make up their own minds on this.

A couple of other objectionable points were also there in the Prothom-Alo piece but I would stop here. For the record, they are problematic on so many levels that perhaps we should leave them for a different post.

Some concluding observations


Dr Akhavan commented: it is a military coup masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign,” referring to the so-called initiatives of the Caretaker government. After thirteen months of them in power, can you really pretend to believe it is otherwise?


My message to the part of the civil society that is strengthening the hands of the military controlled administration would be: it is still not too late; not everything is lost. “There is a way to be good again”. Be ‘good,’ and people of Bangladesh may forgive you one day. Remember the mess Pakistani civil society created by lending support to Musharraf’s regime eight years ago. Bangladesh’s case is more similar to Pakistan than you may think (read here and here). We beg you, please do not repeat their mistakes.


The saddest bit is that at a time like this two foreign lawyers are more vocal compared to many of our own home-grown veteran human rights defenders. And we did not treat them well in Bangladesh. Sigh!

Sorry, Payam! Sorry, William!


5 Responses to “Hospitality, Dhaka Style: Akhavan, Sloan and Another”

  1. Since my post, I have received the following queries which need to be addressed:

    The queries:

    – Why a man of Payam’s ideals or standing would want to defend Sheikh Hasina (an accused in a corruption trial) in the first place?
    – What has human rights got to do with a corruption trial?
    – Is there any provision in Bangladesh law for a foreign national to plead for an accused in our courts?
    – Is it reciprocally true for other countries?
    – Payam was on a tourist visa. Was it not a violation of law for him to comment or act professionally?

    My response (in no particular order):

    As far as I am aware, Bangladesh Bar Council’s practice rules do not permit a foreign lawyer to “plead” in any local court ‘without permission from the appropriate authority,’ which in this case would be the Bar Council. Having said that, there are couple of points to be considered:

    1. If you read Payam’s mandate carefully, you will find in his statement (see the link in my original post) that: (a) he is acting as Sheikh Hasina’s “international counsel,” and (b) he acknowledged that her existing legal team is competent enough to handle her corruption case. Legal representation of choice is a fundamental human right and Sheikh Hasina can choose anyone to represent her (arguably from any planet). It is all about reliance, trust and one’s faith in another’s ability to defend or represent properly. Payam is not “Pleading” for Sheikh Hasina in the strict sense, the rest of her legal team is. Basically, “pleading” involves standing before a court and formally submitting motions and arguing before a judge. Payam is/was not doing any of these. It was, however, perfectly within his capacity to be a part of SH’s legal team as “a human rights consultant” or lobbyist, because the team needed someone with his background and expertise in human rights matters. In that respect, even a doctor, an economist, a scientist, or even a linguist can be a part of her legal defense team. Also, you must have noticed that none of the other members in Sheikh Hasina’s team is known for their expertise in international human rights law. So someone like Payam had to fill that gap since none of our home grown human rights defenders were available, ie, they were either afraid to represent her or were playing for the other team.

    2. The scope, however, remains that a Judge, invoking “inherent powers” under the law can allow anyone to plead in his/her court. Similar provisions were examined in other jurisdictions and now there are dozens of precendents on this in both sides of the Atlantic, allowing even non-lawyers to conduct cases. It is obviously not ideal (if you are a defendant in a murder trial, you would obviously want a professional to defend you), but not prohibited either. Anyway, having observed this Caretaker administration for the last 14 months, we probably have reached that point when we can safely say that all these (nitty-grittys) have nothing to do with law but everything to do with power (and its abuse), as I have argued in my post. So let’s be realistic.

    3. Now, about getting permission from the appropriate body: professional courtesywise, it should have been extended to Payam, assuming that this is a government capable of acting fairly and transparently. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, one must be really naive to expect that our professional, legal or administrative bodies are able to deliver decisions independently without fear or pressure.

    4. I heard arguments – what a human rights lawyer is doing in a corruption trial like this in the first place ? I admit, her’s is not a case under international human rights law (strictly speaking). Again, there never was any such trial anywhere in the world depicted as “human rights trial” per se. Human rights norms are something that are raised and argued in trials–that is how it works. You must have noticed that trials famous for their human rights dimensions tend to assume many different shapes or forms: sometimes they come as genocide cases, sometimes as domestic violence cases (even as murder cases when the murderer is a battered woman), sometimes as a civil suit (eg, defamation, libel, privacy etc), sometimes as election disputes. In Sheikh Hasina’s case, the human rights angle emerged out of the corruption allegations against her, for the way her case was handled from day one. For God’s sake, we even have extended the benefits of human rights to a known war criminal like Golam Azam in relation to his citizenship trial ! (A blog has already been written on the point explaining how and when Sheikh Hasina’s trial became a human rights trial). For example’s sake, don’t you find it odd that Sheikh Hasina was not granted bail in her case (and how flawed that case is!). On principle bail-denials apply when the accused is a flight risk. Was it not Sheikh Hasina who actually insisted on coming back to Bangladesh and face allegations head on? Does it look like the profile of a flight-risk accused ? And do please look at the other side. You would see that known war criminals like Mujahid and Nizami (with mass-murder allegations hanging over their heads) are roaming freely in the country and travelling abroad. Don’t you find that infuriating?

    Hope the above answers the questions.

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