Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s leading opposition party the BNP, was this morning sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The on-going war crimes trials of numerous individuals who resisted separation has already caused disorder and violence across the nation, exposing deep divisions in Bangladeshi society. Following Chowdhurys sentencing, security has been increased across the country including in his home region of Chittagong, with potentially violent strikes and protests both for and against the verdict now expected.
Established in 2009 by the then recently elected Awami League (AL), the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been investigating and prosecuting individuals for involvement in genocide and mass killings perpetrated by those who rejected independence and collaborated with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. The 1971 war lasted 9 months, with eventual Indian intervention in favour of the separatists inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Pakistani army. The campaign was marked by brutality, mass murder and atrocities on both sides, but the Pakistani armed forces and their supporters are widely regarded as being among the worst offenders. The ICT has however faced accusations of human rights violations and a disregard of due process in its activities from various international organisations, with opponents within Bangladesh claiming the trials are politically motivated.
12 individuals have so far been indicted by the tribunal. 10 of these are members of Bangladesh’s leading (and now banned) Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while the other two are members of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Salahuddin Chowdhury is the first of the BNP members, and the first sitting MP, to be sentenced by the court. He was found guilty of 9 of 23 charges, including genocide, abduction, atrocities against Hindus and the forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and has been sentenced to death. He is expected to appeal against the decision.
So far, the court has also convicted four members (and two former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a political ally of the BNP. All have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment for killings committed during the war. Another 5 trials remain currently.
The trial has revealed deep divisions at the core of Bangladeshi society that stem from the country’s birth over 40 years ago. Each verdict from the ICT has been marked by large protests both for and against the decisions. Those opposing the verdicts have been led largely by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, with demonstrations frequently turning violent and leading to deaths and the necessitating robust responses from the security forces. Major protests in favour of the trial earlier this year led to widespread disorder across the nation, and the eventual banning of Jamaat-e-Islami party by the Supreme Court.
Anticipating disorder, the Bangladeshi government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the city of Chittagong, Chowdhurys home region from which he has been elected as an MP six times, as well as in the capital city Dhaka. Anger and violent disorder is expected, with the broader politically unstable situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Foreigners in Bangladesh should remain highly aware of the dangerous security situation, and the potential for all political demonstrations to turn violent extremely quickly.
In South East Asia, the vast majority of piracy incidents, and commensurately the level of law enforcement response and international attention, currently occur around the Straits of Malacca, in the numerous islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. However, Bangladesh has seen a continuing, and significant, level of piracy as well, though the most serious incidents are primarily targeted against local fishermen and similar. This has included two extremely serious incidents within the past month. Of particular concern is the pirate’s methodology – kidnap for ransom and a high degree of violence is extremely common.
Incidents against foreign vessels in Bangladesh take much the same form as in the rest of South East Asia. This involves opportunistic armed robbery against ships, almost always berthed in the Chittagong anchorage. Robbers, sometimes armed, board ships and attempt to steal stores, cargo and valuables. They commonly flee when confronted by crewmembers. The overall rate of piracy against foreign vessels however remains relatively low, with a small number of incidents each month, particularly when compared with Indonesia, by far the most afflicted country in the region. Rates have remained relatively stable and even seen a slight decrease in the past few years. A high degree of security awareness on behalf of law enforcement and shipping is widely credited with helping keep the situation under control.
It is attacks against local fishermen and trawlers in the Bay of Bengal that are a potentially a much more concerning phenomenon. There are numerous active pirate gangs that operate in Bangladeshi waters, particularly around the Sundarbans mangrove forest which was home to at least ten separate pirate gangs late last year. Other regions throughout the country, including along rivers far from the coast, are also plagued by pirate activity.
As opposed to the opportunistic ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies that target foreign vessels in port, piracy targeting local fishermen tends to involve kidnap for ransom as standard. The most common period for attacks is between April and August, the fishing season. The scale of this activity is also dramatic. In addition to regular demands for protection money, often from numerous different gangs, attacks are commonplace. According to the local District Fishing Trawlers Owners Association (DFTOA), between January 2011 and November 2012 over 1000 fishing trawlers were attacked, with thousands of fishermen taken hostage for various periods. This reportedly led to ransom payments totally $1.28 million. In August 2012, over 60 fishermen were taken hostage in a single incident, while the first 3 months of this year reportedly saw 90 attacks in one coastal region alone. Last month, (August, 2013) in two separate incidents over 30 fishermen were taken hostage. Attacks of this scale are standard, and occur monthly.
The law enforcement response to these activities is of varying effectiveness. Last year, a large co-ordinated operation between the Coast Guard and Navy led to the release of nearly 40 hostages, while police operations in the past weeks in response to recent incidents saw several pirates killed in shootouts and secured the release of two-thirds of the hostages. However, the long term effectiveness of this law enforcement activity remains doubtful – many locals report that the pirates simply remain dormant and re-emerge after the operations. Alternatively, they flee across the border into India, where a lack of regional co-operation makes it difficult to apprehend them. The Bangladeshi navy and coast guard are weak – the coast guard has only 11 boats, most nearly 3 decades old and several unusable during the monsoon season. The effect on the economy can be huge – with coastal fishing contributing 30% of the nation’s total catch, during 2012-2013 this had dropped from 108’000 metric tons to 39’000.
Particularly concerning is the high level of violence that occurs in these incidents. Pirates are usually armed, and beatings of captive fishermen are a common occurrence. Murder of hostages is also frequent, with many killed every year either during or after attacks. In a single incident in April of this year, 31 fishermen were tied up and tossed overboard to drown after being robbed by pirates.
While currently this activity does not commonly target international vessels, the trend is particularly concerning. With growing rates of low-level, violent hostage taking and piracy throughout the Bay of Bengal, combined with a lower level of international attention and a weaker law enforcement presence than in other regions of South East Asia, the phenomenon has the potential to evolve into one of substantially greater threat. Some analysts believe Bangladeshi pirates will become a threat to global shipping within the next two years. While currently the threat to international vessels does still remain relatively low, a high level of security awareness should be maintained by all vessels in the Bay of Bengal.
In a stunning defeat for British Prime Minister David Cameron, British lawmakers voted late on Thursday against military action in Syria. Despite the surprise vote outcome, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Holland announced that the UK vote did not change their resolve for firm action against the Syrian Government, which has been accused of using chemical weapons on its own people. Despite reports earlier in the week suggesting that a Western strike on Syria was imminent, questions have been raised about the quality of the intelligence linking Assad to the attack.
Despite Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) releasing evidence on Thursday stating that chemical weapons had undoubtedly been used on August 21, adding that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, late Thursday night the UK government was defeated in its bid for a “strong humanitarian response” to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The UK government was defeated by just thirteen votes in a 285-272 result in the House of Commons. Minutes laters, Prime Minister Cameron told lawmakers that “it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action…I get that, and the government will act accordingly.” Shortly after the surprise result, British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond confirmed that Britain would not be involved in any military action, further noting that he expected “that the US and other countries will continue to look at responses to the chemical attack.”
According to reports, seven hours of debates in the House of Commons had revealed deep divisions on whether military strikes against Assad’s regime would deter the further use of chemical weapons or simply worsen the conflict. Sources also indicate that the specter of the Iraq war also came up a number of times during the debate. Although the Prime Minister had made the case for targeted strikes, insisting that Britain could not stand idle in the face of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century,” he was faced with strong resistance from the opposition Labour party and by many within his own Conservative party, who expressed fear that Britain was rushing to war without conclusive evidence that Assad had gassed his own people. Russia, which has close ties with the Assad government, has welcomed the UK’s decision to reject a military strike.
US and France May Act Together
Cameron’s defeat significantly raises the possibility that the United States may act alone against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which it states is responsible for horrific gas attacks that are believed to have killed at least 355 people in the Ghoua area, which is located on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus. However even before the surprise British vote, the White House had already signaled that it was ready to act regardless of UN or allied support.
In response to yesterday’s UK vote, US National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden stated that “we have seen the result of the Parliament vote in the UK tonight,” adding that “as we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States…he believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.” The White House did indicate however that despite the UK vote, officials in the US would “continue to consult” with the UK over Syria, describing London as “one of our closest allies and friends.”
While no further comments in regards to a decision on military action against Syria were made by the Obama administration, a defense official confirmed on Thursday that the United States Navy had deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean. According to the official, the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, is “in the Mediterranean, heading and moving east” to relieve the Mahan. Although he did specify that both ships may remain in the region for the time being, he did not indicate how long the Mahan would stay in the area before returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, which it left in December 2012. The other destroyers in the region, which include the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, are currently criss-crossing the region and may launch their Tomahawk missiles towards Syria if directed so by the US President. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is currently on a week-long trip to Southeast Asia, has stated that US forces are in place and “ready to go” if Obama hives the order, however he stipulated that no such decision has yet been made.
Meanwhile on Friday, French President Francois Hollande announced that a military strike on Syria could come by Wednesday, and that Britain’s surprise rejection of armed intervention would not affect his government’s stand on the issue. In an interview to Le Monde daily on Friday, Hollalde stated that “France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime.” The French Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday for an emergency Syria session. The President’s remarks signal that his government may seek military action alongside the US.
Bashar al-Assad Responds
With Western states and the United Nations debating possible military action against Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Thursday that his country will defend itself against what he called Western “aggression.” According to Syria’s Sana news agency, Assad told a group of Yemeni MP’s that his country would defend itself against any aggression, noting that “Syria, with its steadfast people and brave army, will continue eliminating terrorists, which are utilized by Israel and Western countries to serve their interests in fragmenting the region.”
Meanwhile the situation in Damascus remains tense. Reports have indicated that senior military commanders are reportedly staying away from buildings thought likely to be targeted if a Western intervention is launched. Furthermore, many of Damascus’ residents have begun to flee the city in fear of an impending attack. Although witnesses have reported long lines of cars loaded with suitcases that have been waiting at the main Masnaa border that crosses into Lebanon, Syria’s state television is portraying citizens as going about their normal lives, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of military strikes. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011, which has also produced at least 1.7 million refugees.
UN at a Deadlock
The United Nations continued to be deadlocked in regards to the case in Syria, with diplomats indicating that the views of the five permanent members remain “far apart.” On Thursday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held new talks on the Syria chemical weapons crisis, however no apparent progress on UN action was achieved. According to officials, the 45-minute meeting is the second to occur since Britain proposed a draft Security Council Resolution that would allow “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. After concluding the meeting, none of the envoys from Britain, China, France, Russia or the US made any comments as they left. However diplomats have noted that there had been “no meeting of minds,” during the session as Russia and China are on one side while the US, UK and France remain on the other.
Meanwhile UN Inspectors headed out on Friday for their last day of investigations. Security officials have indicated that they were going to a military hospital in an eastern district of the Syrian capital. Samples taken during their site visits will be tested in various European laboratories in order to examine whether an attack took place and what form it took, however the inspectors‘ mandate does not involve apportioning blame for the attacks. Preliminary findings are expected to be delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend.
Shadow of Iraq
With the US mounting its power in the region, a number of critics have sparked a debate about whether or not the conflict in Syria could turn into another Iraq if a decision to launch military action is agreed upon.
As the US and France now look to find a diplomatic consensus on the issue without the UK, a number of critics have identified elements that echo those that occurred in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. With a number of components being present in both cases, specifically the work of weapons inspectors; the intelligence gathered to make the case; and denials from the regime at the centre of the issue; Iraq is very much on the minds of those international officials who have expressed level-headed caution over Syria.
With UN inspectors still in Syria conducting an investigation, Britain’s case for military intervention in Syria is based on a “limited but growing body of intelligence,” which suggests that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack. An intelligence dossier that was released by the Prime Minister, which was used by Cameron to form the basis for the case to attack Syria, depicts the JIC indicating that the chemical attack was “probably” delegated by Assad to one of his commanders, however the JIC was unable to establish the motive behind last week’s attack. In a letter written by JIC chairman Jon Day to the Prime Minister, the chairman concluded that there are “no plausible alternative scenarios” other than the attack being an attack of the Syrian regime. The two-page letter was accompanied by a short summary of the intelligence case, which runs to just 313 words. The summary is also dated as the “JIC’s assessment of August 27 on reported chemical weapons use in Damascus,” however it is not known why later intelligence, if it exists, was not included in the document.
With the JIC’s findings being debated in yesterday’s House of Commons’ session, remarks made by David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, depict that British MP’s are hesitant to base their decision for military action in Syria solely on the intelligence that is available. During yesterday’s debates, Davis stated that “we must consider, being where we’ve been before in this House, that our intelligence as it stands might be wrong because it was before and we have got to be very, very hard in testing it.” Echoing the weeks of debates in the lead up to the 2003 war in Iraq, it is clear the officials in the UK and elsewhere are willing to wait for more intelligence and the UN inspectors findings before making any other decisions.
Meanwhile officials in the US have also admitted that they have “no smoking gun” proving that President Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons. While US intelligence sources indicated yesterday that its agencies had intercepted communications discussing the chemical attack between officials in Syria’s central command and in the field, it is understood that these remarks do not clearly implicate Assad or his entourage in ordering the use of chemicals.
Mali’s presidential elections have been won by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after his rival admitted defeat just one day after the second round of elections were held.
Although official results have not been announced, former Malian Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse conceded defeat against ex-Prime Minister (1994 – 2002) Keita on Monday, announcing that he had “went to see him to congratulate him and wish him good luck for Mali.” His defeat came hours after electoral and security sources had indicated that Mr. Keita had pulled ahead with two-thirds of the votes counted after Sunday’s second round of the election. This was confirmed by Mr. Cisses’ spokesman, who indicated that his candidate had admitted defeat after it became clear the Mr. Keita had won the polls in Gao, which is the largest town in northern Mali. Both Mr. Keita and Mr. Cisse had lost out in the 2002 presidential elections to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March of last year, just weeks before the end of his final term in office. Mr. Keita will now face the daunting task of rebuilding a country that is still reeling from more than a year of turmoil.
During weeks of campaigning, Mr. Keita became known for his blunt speech, his refusal to compromise and his reputation for toughness. Throughout his campaign, he vowed to unify Mali if elected, stating that “for Mali’s honor, I will bring peace and security. I will revive dialogue between all the sons of our nation and I will gather our people around the values that have built our history: dignity, integrity, courage and hard work.” His top priority will be to secure lasting peace for northern Mali, which has seen five violent rebellions since the country gained its independence from France in 1960. The 68-year-old will now oversee more than US $4 billion (£2.6 billion) in foreign aid promised to rebuild the country after a turbulent eighteen months. The new government which he will lead will also be obliged to open peace talks with the separatist Tuareg rebels within two months following a ceasefire that enabled voting to take place in the northern regions of the country. Cementing national reconciliation will likely be a challenge for the newly formed government as many in the southern regions of the country continue to be hostile towards funneling more of Mali’s already scarce resources to a region they see as being responsible for the country’s plight. In turn, there is a continued unease between a number of ethnic groups, not only between the north and south, but also within the north itself.
The European Union’s election observation mission has given the elections a positive assessments, stating that it complied with international standards in “99 percent” of Mali’s polling stations. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has welcomed what she calls “a credible and transparent” election. A statement released by her office also noted that the EU pledged to support efforts to “build a durable peace and restore national unity” in the West African country. Meanwhile the United States has signaled that it was prepared to resume aid to Mali following the election. Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, hailed Mali’s interim government for “securing a peaceful and orderly environment in which Malians were able to vote,” further adding that “we’ve made clear that following the return of a democratically elected government, we will seek to normalize our foreign assistance to Mali.” The United States was legally forces to suspend military aid to Mali after the coup in March of last year.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.