Tulip’s silence on disappearances in Bangladesh

British MP Tulip Siddiq, a member of Bangladesh’s ruling family continues to say nothing about the country’s enforced disappearances – while campaigning for release of Nazanin.

Tulip’s silence on disappearances in Bangladesh
Bottom row: pictures of Tulip Siddiq with daughter and husband of Nazanin Zaghari Radcliffe, and Tulip in parliament (photos by Dominic Dudley/PA Photos/Alamy). Top Row: Photos of Bangladesh's disappeared (photos by Suvra Kanti Das/Sipa USA/Alamy)

Iran and the United Kingdom are the main actors involved in the detention in April 2016, and the release six years later, of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the dual national British-Iranian charity worker, now back in London. Her detention in Tehran is a tragic story about the Iranian government holding Nazanin as a hostage within its criminal justice system to force the UK authorities to pay it the £400 million which they owed Iran.

Nazanin was initially imprisoned in 2016 for four years in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, with some time spent in solitary confinement, then suffering a further two years under house arrest before the UK authorities found a way to pay their debt. It is difficult to fathom how difficult those six years must have been for Nazanin, who was released earlier this week.

However, Nazanin’s story does not just involve Iran and the UK. An important part is played by Bangladesh since Nazanin’s member of parliament — and one of her key advocates — was Tulip Siddiq MP, now widely applauded for the steadfast support she gave her constituent.

Tulip Siddiq is of Bangladeshi origin, but that is not the reason for the country’s connection to the detention of the Iranian dual national.

Nazanin’s story includes Bangladesh because Tulip is a member of its ruling family which has governed the country since 2009, and whose authoritarian government, led by her aunt, is accused by UN bodies of hundreds of secret detentions and disappearances.

And, while Tulip, through her support for Nazanin has sought to promote herself as a human rights activist, she has at the same time abjectly failed to use her position as a UK member of parliament to speak out against or do anything for Bangladesh’s detained men disappeared by the ruling party which is controlled by her aunt and family, and which — and this is significant — has supported her political career.

Since Tulip’s aunt became prime minister in Bangladesh 11 years ago, human rights organisations have documented over 600 people being picked up by law enforcement authorities and detained in secret government cells for various periods of time without families knowing their whereabouts. These detentions are far worse than the arbitrary and false imprisonment within the Iranian criminal justice system suffered by Nazanin, who at least was able to have phone conversations with her family. In Bangladesh these men have disappeared outside the formal system of justice, stuck in secret detention cells and with the state authorities denying any knowledge about the whereabouts of the person.

A recent Human Rights Watch report detailed 86 people in Bangladesh — half of them connected to the political opposition — whose whereabouts remain unknown after they were picked up by law enforcement authorities since Tulip’s aunt came to power. Regional human rights organisations have also identified the dead bodies of dozens of other people who have earlier been picked up and secretly detained in the same period.

Serious human rights violations have occurred throughout Bangladesh’s history, under all different political regimes. But it is Bangladesh’s current ruling party, the Awami League controlled by Tulip’s aunt and family, which first adopted secret detentions and enforced disappearances as a tactic in its fight against the political opposition and others.

Yet, while Tulip was quite rightly doing her job as a MP by standing shoulder to shoulder with Nazanin’s husband in the UK, she has remained practically (if not totally) silent about the disappearances in Bangladesh, or, more significantly taken any action to ensure their release even when requested by their relatives.

Tulip’s influence is not just through her aunt, the Bangladeshi prime minister. 

Tulip’s mother Sheikh Rehana is the prime minister’s closest confidant; her cousin Sajeeb Wazed  (the son of the prime minister) is a key government adviser; and her brother, Radwan Siddiq, has been a key ruling party propagandist. 

In addition, the prime minister’s security adviser —  a man with significant direct control over the country’s law enforcement authorities, second only to the prime minister — is none other than the retired general Tarique Siddique, her uncle, who has specifically been linked in media reports to many secret detentions, as indeed has her aunt, the prime minister.

Tulip’s failure is therefore particularly notable as while she never had any influence over the regime responsible for the detention of her constituent, she has enormous — indeed unparalleled — potential influence over the Bangladeshi government responsible for dozens of enforced disappearances. Yet she has done nothing. 

So, what explains Tulip’s silence, documented on a number of occasions by Channel 4 News? Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that throughout her political life in the UK, Tulip has had a close relationship with the Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling party.

Until at least 2009, Tulip’s website spoke of her being the ruling party’s international “spokesperson”, and later boasted about getting her aunt elected as prime minister: “I managed a successful media campaign for Sheikh Hasina… In my spare time, I work for the Awami League as part of its UK and EU lobbying team and its election strategy team.”  

Though she now seeks to deny her links to the Awami League (above-mentioned comments have been deleted from her website),  in at least the last two national election campaigns in the UK which Tulip contested since 2015, the Awami League’s UK wing — whose leadership was chosen directly by the Bangladesh prime minister at a 2011 meeting in London and whose purpose is “to support Bangladesh Awami League and the current government of Bangladesh” — has been front and centre in supporting her election.

At the last general election, Channel 4 News exposed how the Awami League used a separate labour party office in a dilapidated supermarket where every day dozens of the Bangladesh party activists collected leaflets and posters and distributed them throughout the constituency, up and down housing estates. The UK Awami League members were Tulip’s election foot-soldiers, divided into ten teams under different Awami League party leaders, and doing the hard work of tramping up and down housing estates that did not require talking with the local community. Their activities were not even mentioned in certain local party election campaign literature for labour party activists to attend and join. (See Netra News and the bangladeshpolitico blog for further details into how the party supported her in this election.) This in itself is a scandal the labour party is ignoring.

So, Tulip’s disinterest in engaging with enforced disappearances in Bangladesh comes from not just wanting to call out her own family, but also because, apparently,  she was directly and significantly benefited by Bangladesh’s ruling party during election campaigns.

In an interview with The Guardian, Tulip Siddiq has suggested that she is the victim of double standards — claiming that she is being asked to do something that other MPs in a similar situation have not. She pointed to Stephen Kinnock MP whose wife is the former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and argued that he never gets asked to intervene in Danish politics. Putting to one side that Kinnock was barely an MP when his wife was prime minister and that Thorning-Schmidt’s family did not control her country’s ruling party in the way Tulip’s family does, we can be certain that if Denmark ran a secret chain of detention cells imprisoning dozens of opposition activists, with his wife allegedly complicit in its establishment, Kinnock would certainly be asked lots of questions about it — particularly if at the same time he was grandstanding as a human rights campaigner.

Siddiq also said in the same interview, referring to her aunt, the Bangladesh prime minister, “You don’t get to be where she is by listening to your niece on national security issues … There are two words she’d say to me: ‘Fuck off.’ People need to realise the limitations that I have, how far removed I am from it. When they ask me to intervene, it makes me look a lot more powerful than I am.”

This, however, is bunkum.

First, put to one side the question of Tulip directly assisting with the release of the disappeared, Tulip does not even use her position as a member of parliament, indeed as a member of the shadow cabinet, to speak out about the issue.

In the context of Bangladeshi politics, and the position she has within the country’s ruling family, speaking out would in itself be highly significant — and could fundamentally change the dynamics on disappearances. If members of Bangladesh’s ruling party started to break away from the family and the party consensus about human rights repression, this would have a startling impact. And one would expect a British politician to do just this.

Secondly, Tulip does not just have her aunt to speak to and influence. Her mother, cousin, uncle and brother are also very powerful people in Bangladesh. Some of the families of the disappeared men are known to have used their connections with the ruling family to obtain the release of their disappeared relatives, so the idea that Tulip cannot do the same is simply not credible.

And finally, the fact that she characterised serious human rights concerns as “national security issues” speaks volumes. That certainly was not how she saw the detention of Nazanin!

She just has not tried, and does not seem to feel any responsibility or interest in doing so.

Siddiq is being feted for her role in supporting Nazanin Radcliffe, detained by a state whom Siddiq has no influence over, when at the very same time she completely ignores the plight of enforced disappearances at the hands of Bangladesh’s ruling party, over which she has unequalled access, which has taken great steps to help her get elected in the UK and which is controlled by her family.

For the families of the disappeared in Bangladesh, the irony could not be greater.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News. He also runs the bangladeshpolitico blog