Ilias Ali

– in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 24th May 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South 6:00 pm, 24th May 2012

I am delighted that Mr Speaker has given me the opportunity to raise this important subject, and that Richard Fuller and my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) are here to discuss it.

I applied for this debate following a meeting in Bradford with members of the Bangladeshi community. While they wanted to discuss the current political crisis in Bangladesh, which I will come to shortly, their immediate concern was for the safety of llias Ali, a former member of the Bangladeshi Parliament and a key activist in the main Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist party. His family and friends are also concerned about his disappearance.

Mr Ali disappeared with his driver, Ansar Ali, less than a month ago on 17 April. Unconfirmed eye-witness reports suggest that they were pulled from a car at gunpoint and forced into a black minibus. The disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali is not the first such incident in recent months in Bangladesh, but it has been the catalyst for widespread protests throughout the country, including a number of general strikes. During the disturbances and protests, there have been further reports of deaths and disappearances at the hands of the police and security services.

Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971, politics in Bangladesh has been marked by brief periods of democratic government, but all too often they have been ended by military intervention, followed by a period of military rule. Although economic and political corruption have been rife, Bangladesh’s economic growth rates have been among the highest in Asia, and significant progress has been made in education and health policy under former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the BNP and the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

The political rivalry between the leaders of the two main political parties has dominated Bangladeshi politics since the 1970s. However, in 2007, following yet another state of emergency and the formation of a military-backed caretaker Government, both leaders found themselves under arrest on charges of corruption, along with more than 100 other politicians. Both leaders were subsequently freed by the High Court and allowed to lead their respective parties into the general election in December 2008. The Awami League and its coalition, under Sheikh Hasina, won a landslide victory in an election that international observers reported to be largely free and fair.

Following that election, and the attempts to eradicate corruption and clean up politics, there was optimism that a period of political stability would see the emergence of a truly democratic and pluralist Bangladesh. However, the recent political turmoil has put paid to that optimism, and there is concern that it could lead to another suspension of democracy in Bangladesh. The anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International, recently warned that a “growing partisan political influence” was

“eroding the capacity of the state to promote rule of law, justice, equality and basic human rights of the people”.

Although the disappearance of Ilias Ali has largely been the cause of the recent disturbances, it is unfortunately not an isolated incident. On 4 February, two student activists, Al Mukaddas and Mohammed Waliullah, went missing. They have not been heard from since. On 2 April, two BNP activists, Iftekhar Ahmed Dinar and Junaid Ahmed, were taken from their homes by plain-clothes police officers. Their whereabouts remain unknown. Two days later, on 4 April, a prominent trade union activist from the garment industry, Aminul Islam, went missing. He was found dead a day later.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I have one question for clarification. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Bangladeshi Government are deeply involved in the kidnappings?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South

I am not suggesting that. That is precisely the difficulty that exists in Bangladesh at the moment: there is no clarity about who is responsible, on one side or the other. I just want to highlight the fact that these people are missing, whatever the circumstances. It is the duty of the Government of Bangladesh to investigate those issues. I hope that the Minister—I am delighted that he is here—will exert some pressure, or at least tell us what we can do, because we have a large Bangladeshi population in the UK. I do not want to place blame on any particular body.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, for securing the debate and for the measured tone in which he is conducting it. This issue is one of concern to many of us who have a large number of Bangladeshi constituents, but also to parliamentarians who had the honour of meeting Ilias Ali when he came here in August 2011. It is absolutely right that it should be raised in this Chamber given the historical ties between the UK Parliament and Bangladesh.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South

I thank my hon. Friend, who is quite right. I know that other colleagues met Mr Ali when he was here. He is right also to mention the links that there have been between this country and Bangladesh for many years. We have supported it when it has been through problems such as drought and floods. I hope that, in difficult circumstances, that relationship will offer our Government an opportunity at least to press the Bangladeshi Government on the current issues. The huge Bangladeshi population in the UK and its contribution to our society warrant our taking those issues seriously and doing whatever we can to highlight them.

Some of the Bradford-based business people and entrepreneurs from the Bangladeshi community have said to me that they want to go back to Bangladesh and invest there, but feel that their ability to do that is being threatened. Surely that must be a concern.

I acknowledge that many colleagues have raised concerns about the situation in Bangladesh, and the specific case of Ilias Ali, with the Minister. My hon. Friend Mr Cunningham and the hon. Member for Bedford have both done so.

I do not want to get into giving out blame, but some people are blaming the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion for the disappearances and killings. The RAB was formed to tackle corruption and organised crime, but it is increasingly being linked with political abductions and, worse still, political assassinations. I hope that we can get to the bottom of that, because it is causing concern. I do not want to point the finger of blame, but the RAB has been mentioned a number of times when people have raised the issue with me.

Tonight’s debate is about trying to find out what routes our Government can take. I know that it is difficult for them, but I ask the Minister to highlight what action they have taken so far to raise the matter with the Bangladeshi Government, what diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear and what further action our Government can take.

I particularly urge that political and diplomatic pressure be brought to bear to achieve the following. First, we need to establish the immediate whereabouts of Ilias Ali and Ansar Ali, in the hope that their safe return to their families can bring some stability to the current crisis. We need to establish the whereabouts of the other activists who have disappeared, as identified by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We need to try to find a way to get a truly independent inquiry into the recent deaths of protesters and an immediate end to the forced disappearance of political activists, and we need to help the Bangladeshi Government and others re-establish the rule of law and freedom of expression and respect the independence of the judiciary.

It is estimated that there are 500,000 Bangladeshis living in the UK, and I know that the Minister will appreciate how concerned that community is about the situation that is developing in the country. I hope that he can assure them that the UK will bring to bear whatever pressure it can to ensure a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford 6:08 pm, 24th May 2012

I join the thanks to Mr Sutcliffe for securing the debate, and I thank him for his kindness in giving up time so that others may speak.

I met Ilias Ali for the first time six years ago, and I last met him in Sylhet 14 days before his disappearance on 18 April. The hon. Gentleman talked about the larger political issues, but I would like to talk on more of a personal level. I am greatly saddened by Ilias Ali’s disappearance and greatly frustrated by the Government of Bangladesh’s inability to identify what has happened to that Member of Parliament. Like many other Members, I call on our Government to do as much as they can.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 17 April and was grateful to receive his reply. He stated:

“There are a number of possible explanations for the disappearance of Mr Ali. Bangladesh law enforcement and security agencies have strenuously denied in court that they hold Mr Ali. This is why we have called for a full investigation.”

Like the hon. Member for Bradford South, I would like to hear from the Minister what progress has been made.

When I met Ilias Ali, we talked about two things, the first of which was his concern for the safety of others involved in politics—it was the day on which one of the youth leaders in Sylhet for the Bangladesh Nationalist party had disappeared, and Mr Ali was holding a press conference. The second thing he talked about was his idea for the future and the recognition that a new generation of Bangladeshis wanted a Government who understood the true meaning of democracy and who were prepared to support the growth of enterprise and freedom in their country, to enable it to break out of the cycle of poverty that marks much of its past.

In that spirit, I ask the Government to demand of Bangladesh the same standards of democracy as we expect here, and not to assume that democracy can be held to a lower standard in other countries because that might have happened in the past. Ilias Ali was not only a Member of Parliament, but an incredibly important member of his party and a major hope for many Sylhetis, both those whom he had represented and those in the wider community.

On the policy side, I urge the Minister please not to treat this situation as business as usual in our dealings with Bangladesh. Please will he keep this matter on his board of importance and look at what our Government can do? I can only pray for the safe return of my friend; I hope the Minister can press for more urgent action.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:11 pm, 24th May 2012

It is a pleasure to follow Richard Fuller. He, my hon. Friend Gavin Shuker and I are active members of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I commend my hon. Friend Mr Sutcliffe for securing this important debate. It is a great reassurance to see the Minister in his place, and I am glad to see him, because he has gained a solid reputation since his appointment and helped me on several occasions. The fact that he will reply for the Government in the debate gives us great reassurance on the importance of the matter for them.

The matter has been raised with me by a number of organisations and constituents. Most recently, I had a meeting in the Devons road mosque in Bromley-by-Bow, organised by Abdus Sardar, a former mayor of Tower Hamlets. More than 50 constituents of various Bangladeshi political persuasions wanted to raise the matter of Ilias Ali’s disappearance and the general political climate in Bangladesh. I yesterday had a meeting with Justice for All, at which some 20 people from various constituencies—leaders of their Bangladeshi communities—raised this matter.

I shall declare my interest: I am a supporter of Bangladesh, as are all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. However, questions are being asked. When Secretary of State Clinton was in Bangladesh recently, she raised the matter directly with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. There is international concern about what is seen as a deteriorating situation in Bangladesh.

The Labour party has a closer association with the Awami League—we are sister organisations—but has great respect for the Bangladesh Nationalist party. I criticised both the Bangladesh Nationalist party and the Awami League when they boycotted Parliament after losing elections, but Bangladesh is a young democracy. We have a mature democracy, and we make mistakes. Bangladesh has had democracy only since 1971, and it makes mistakes. It is the British Government’s role to help, support, and give succour to, Bangladeshi democracy. There is support on international development and for infrastructure, and support from the Foreign Office is critical.

In the recess debate only a few moments ago, we heard a number of colleagues say that Britain’s role in helping Commonwealth countries to develop is significant. We need to ensure that we are there for them. Tonight’s debate is significant. It demonstrates that we are interested in Bangladesh. Some 20% to 25% of my constituents’ families originate from Bangladesh. We want the British Government to continue to play a positive and active role. I am keen to hear from the Minister, because there is no disagreement on either side of the House. We want a safe, secure, democratic Bangladesh that has an enviable growth rate of between 6% and 8% a year. Its strategic place in the region makes it important to the international community.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

The hon. Gentleman has made an extremely important point. Subsequent to the disappearance of Ilias Ali, there have been several hartals—national strikes—and business leaders in Bangladesh have called for the two parties to come together to stop them. Does he recognise the close correlation between promoting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh, and maintaining its growth rate? Without the first, it will not achieve the second.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman makes a critical point. I hope that both the main political parties in Bangladesh—there are many other parties, of course—understand that they cannot have economic growth and international respect without the democratic foundations we all want entrenched there. I am sure that that is what they want. My meetings with the Bangladeshi high commissioner—colleagues have had similar meetings—demonstrated Bangladesh’s commitment to the objective of a free, fair, open and transparent democratic Bangladesh moving forward economically. As we all know, it is one of the five poorest countries in the world, has twice the population of Britain, is two-thirds the size of England and a chunk of it is under water a third of the year. The challenges it faces are massive compared to our problems—and we know how difficult our problems are. I am grateful to the Minister for being here, we are keen to hear what he says and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 6:16 pm, 24th May 2012

I thank Mr Sutcliffe not only for securing this important debate, but for how he introduced it. I commend to any friend of Bangladesh the comments made by him, Jim Fitzpatrick, my hon. Friend Richard Fuller and Gavin Shuker for how they characterised their support for Bangladesh—not partisan, but based on a knowledge and affection for the country and a respect for their constituents of Bangladeshi origin and how the latter feel about their own country. The way they put their concerns is a model for those outside of how Members on both sides of the House can deal with a difficult issue, recognising its huge sensitivities. I hope that I do not fail to live up to the way in which they set out the case.

The hon. Member for Bradford South described the incident and the responses to it, and rightly set out the difficult background. It is not an isolated incident, and it is drawn not from a background of enormous political stability, but from difficult circumstances in which personalities often overshadow the issues that need to be dealt with. Hon. Members were honest in not pointing the finger of blame in a situation where the circumstances are still unknown. They recognised, however, that even though the circumstances are unknown, people need to know, because a healthy democracy and society need to move away from a culture of disappearances and similar incidents. The hon. Gentleman set out the matter very clearly.

I shall first deal with the incident concerning Mr Ilias Ali and then say something about our relationship with Bangladesh generally and what we hope to do for a country that is special to the United Kingdom. I share the House’s concern about the disappearance of Mr Ali, an organising secretary for the Bangladesh Nationalist party and former MP for Sylhet, who has been missing since 17 April. We understand that his abandoned car was discovered by police in the early hours of 18 April, close to his home in Dhaka. Mr Ali’s driver is also missing.

Colleagues were interested to know what we have done. The British high commission in Dhaka has been in regular contact with members of the Bangladeshi Government and the Bangladesh Nationalist party in the weeks since Mr Ali’s disappearance. In meetings with the Prime Minister’s office and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have made representations to the Government of Bangladesh urging them to do all they can to locate Mr Ali and to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance. Hon. Members may be aware that during a press conference on Wednesday 9 May, our high commissioner to Bangladesh and ambassadors of eight other European countries called on the Bangladeshi authorities to conduct thorough investigations into disappearances, including that of Mr Ali. We do not know who is responsible. That is why we have pressed for the most rigorous inquiry.

At my request, FCO officials have provided me with a list of more than 20 meetings and phone calls made in the last month in connection with this incident. In addition, I will be visiting Bangladesh in the near future.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

Before the Minister says what he may be doing and asking for when he goes to Bangladesh—which I am pleased he is doing—can he tell the House whether the Government have offered the Bangladeshi Government support from our police in investigating the disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali? If that has not happened, will he offer that support, and if it has, can he say what the Bangladesh Government’s response has been so far?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

So far that request has not been made. This is a sovereign matter for the authorities of Bangladesh. Should a request be made, we will give it every consideration, but this is an important matter for the Bangladeshi authorities to deal with themselves. I will be going to Bangladesh in the quite near future. I fully intend to reinforce the concerns of the House and would be surprised if the authorities in Bangladesh had not been able to read this debate and colleagues’ comments by the time I visit.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

I appreciate the Minister giving way a second time. I would like to press him a little further. I understand the difficulties with sovereign responsibilities when other countries wish to investigate such matters, but the British Government have offered support in other situations. Under the circumstances, will he at least consider making that offer to the Prime Minister in Bangladesh when he is there?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I would be grateful if, in accordance with the trust that colleagues accorded me at the start of the debate, my hon. Friend left me to make a judgment when I am there dealing with the authorities. It is clear to me—not only from the comments of colleagues in this debate, but from the letters I have received from a number of Members of Parliament and the comments made by members of the Bangladeshi community in the United Kingdom—that there can be no doubt among the authorities there about the great concern aroused not only by this case in itself, but by its context, given other cases. That allows me, I think, to have a frank discussion with the authorities, as well as with representatives of all the political parties in Bangladesh, about the issues; but for now, perhaps I might be given the opportunity to make a judgment about more practical support when I am there.

Colleagues will know that, as has been mentioned, opposition parties responded to the disappearance of Mr Ali with a programme of public demonstrations and hartals, which are enforced general strikes. In associated violence, sadly, a number of people have died. Since then, some 33 members of the Bangladesh Nationalist party have been arrested for an alleged arson attack. There are accusations that the arrests were politically motivated. Colleagues who have studied the situation in Bangladesh over many years will recognise that a lot of personal and historical baggage drives that country’s political discourse. We will not speculate about the identities of the victims and perpetrators in this series of unfolding events. What I will say—I am reinforced in this by the comments that all colleagues have made—is that we regard this form of politics as a problem. It is in Bangladesh’s interests that its politics be practised primarily in Parliament, not in the streets.

Hon. Members have rightly raised broader concerns about human rights in Bangladesh. We welcome the Bangladesh Government’s assurances that they are committed to protecting human rights, and I recognise that progress has been made across a range of social development indicators. However, I note that reports, including from Bangladeshi human rights organisations, continue to suggest high levels of disappearances, abductions, extra-judicial killings and torture. The Foreign Secretary himself raised our concerns when he met the Bangladesh Foreign Minister on 16 April. Such issues are a standing item in our discussions with the Bangladesh Government.

Improving human rights, democracy and the rule of law are also integral parts of the United Kingdom’s development assistance programme in Bangladesh, which includes projects to support access to justice, to improve political participation, and to promote accountable and transparent government. To give one example, over the past five years we have supported the establishment of 20,000 community police forums, enabling access to more equal and fairer police services for 5 million people. UK support over the next three years should increase access to community-led legal services from 35% to 50%.

During my forthcoming visit to Bangladesh, I expect to meet the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, to see some excellent UK-funded projects and to meet young people with high aspirations. That is the positive side of our relationship with Bangladesh. I shall also take the opportunity of my visit to raise the difficult subjects that have formed the core of our debate today. I plan to use my visit better to understand Bangladesh and to discuss with the country’s political leaders what it would take to make sustained progress on human rights and ensure that the country is on a path to free, fair and participatory elections by early 2014.

We have a strong, broad and long-standing relationship with Bangladesh, which is important to both countries. We were the first European country to recognise Bangladesh, and, as colleagues have already mentioned, some 500,000 people of Bangladeshi heritage live in the United Kingdom. We are also the largest cumulative investor in Bangladesh. Given this close and multifaceted relationship, it is right that we should look at Bangladesh’s problems, a number of which have been highlighted in today’s debate, and conclude that it is all the more important that we engage.

Colleagues have mentioned the fact that Bangladesh is a young democracy and that its standards need to be high. I agree with both those statements. There is no doubt that democracy is struggling there because of the country’s historical baggage. It is therefore essential that we give our total support to those who are engaged in promoting democracy and working hard in the most difficult circumstances.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister announced that he is to visit Bangladesh soon. He might know that my wife, Dr Sheila Fitzpatrick, and I worked with Voluntary Service Overseas in Bangladesh. If he has an hour to spend with VSO when he is there, I am sure that he would be welcomed and shown the connections that VSO has made between London and Dhaka.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I hope I am not giving too much away by saying that, in the past, my legs have been treated by the hon. Gentleman’s wife—and very well treated they were, too. If she is doing VSO work there, that is a very good deal for Bangladesh. I have no idea how flexible my programme will be, or where she might be, but we can discuss that later. I will certainly get a message to Sheila, given the tremendous work that she does.

Let me conclude by saying a little about democracy in Bangladesh. It is essential that we do all we can to get the balance right. We do not want to be compromised, or compromising, in relation to high standards, but nor do we want too much pressure to be placed on those who are struggling and seeking to do the very best they can in the circumstances. To achieve a strong, stable, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh, it will need independent and accountable institutions and a functioning Parliament at the centre of political debate. We strongly encourage all parties to engage in constructive politics, for the good of the citizens of Bangladesh. The British Government have consistently stated that it is for Bangladesh to decide how to manage its national elections, but it is essential that they are free, fair and peaceful.

This House, and Parliament, have a role to play. When I visit countries abroad, I am always struck by how much this House is looked up to in so many parts of the world and by how much visits by colleagues are valued. The opportunity for parliamentarians to speak to parliamentarians, and for candidates to speak to candidates, about what is expected and what can be done matters much more than statements from Ministers and the like. I am sure that we will have a role to play in encouraging that democracy.

The importance of the incident that has been highlighted today cannot be overestimated. The British Government are making rigorous efforts to ensure that the best possible investigation is carried out, and we will continue to do so. We will press the authorities to reveal as much as they possibly can about what they are doing. We recognise that all parties have a role to play in this, and no fingers of blame can yet be pointed. I look forward to reporting back to colleagues in due course, after I have made my own visit.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you the very best for this brief recess.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.