Last week I received an email from a dear friend. The email came from Sweden, on Valentine’s Day. I have spent the better part of this week trying to craft a response. I have failed. This post is my attempt at a response.
This blog is anti-torture. There is a logo on the sidebar of this blog that declares the unequivocal position of this blog and its author. Being anti-torture seems to me to be a commonsense position to hold. It is however not a position that is universally held. There are torturers in this world and there are those who aid and abet the torturers. Then there are the victims. My friend, Tasneem Khalil, is a torture victim.
On May 10th of last year I received an urgent email from a friend. It was 4:04pm and I was at my mundane day job. Soon many other emails arrived with the same news. Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist and researcher for Human Rights Watch, had been picked just hours earlier by the Bangladesh military. Just before 1am on the morning of May 11 (Bangladesh time) members of Bangladesh military’s intelligence services, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), had taken away Tasneem from his home in Dhaka. Tasneem’s wife, left alone with their 6-month old baby boy, managed to get word out of his abduction.
Via email and SMS Bangladeshi bloggers from all over the world came together within minutes of hearing the news. Soon blog posts were going up everywhere. American and British bloggers joined in and the news spread quickly. Soon Human Rights Watch put out a press release demanding his release, and CNN and the Associated Press put the news out over the wire. After sustained pressure from human rights organizations, foreign diplomats, and the press Tasneem was released 22 hours later. He was alive, but he had been tortured.
After his release, Sweden offered Tasneem, his wife Suchi and his baby boy Tiyash, political asylum. Today they have begun a new life in Sweden, in exile.
On February 14th Human Rights Watch released a 44-page report (PDF) entitled "The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power Under the State of Emergency". The report, in first person testimony, details how the DGFI brutally beat and threatened Tasneem during his 22 hour ordeal.
Tasneem was taken to one of the DGFI’s torture chambers known as a "black hole". The HRW report explains:
In Dhaka alone, the DGFI maintains at least three unofficial detention centers, known as "black holes." "Black Hole 1" is located in DGFI headquarters inside Dhaka cantonment near BNS Haji Moshin naval base. "Black Hole 2" is near Kachukhet, a civilian residential area inside Dhaka cantonment. "Black Hole 3" is maintained in the Uttara residential district near Zia International Airport.
Of his ordeal Tasneem writes in the HRW report:
The Forum article made my interrogators furious. They started beating me again mercilessly, from all possible directions with hands and batons and kicks. I pleaded with them to give me one last chance. I said I would not do those things again. But one person said I had already "made the blunder." I think this was a reference to my lunch with the diplomats.
I started begging for mercy. The beating continued for some time. Then another person said, "We will think about giving you a chance, but you have to do as we say." He said I had to write a confession to the AIG [Additional Inspector General] of police, saying what they wanted me to say. Then I had to beg for his mercy.
There were two CCTV cameras in the corners attached to the ceiling. There was a fan. I was sitting in front of a table and three batons were on the table along with some stationery. One was a wooden baton, about a meter long. The other two were covered with black plastic. Poking out of the end of these were metal wires which appeared to fill the plastic covers. The plastic and wire batons were a little shorter than the wooden one. I assume these were the batons they tortured me with. When one guy saw that I was looking at them, he put them aside. I’m not sure if they used electricity on me. The pain often came like shocks, but they were hitting me so hard that I’m not sure whether it was just the force that hurt like this or if it was electricity.
They tortured Tasneem because he had dared to write an article critical of the Bangladesh military and he had just recently given an interview to the Washington Post. It was not a ticking bomb scenario. It was pure thuggery, as all torture is.
Tasneem’s torturers barked that he was "anti-state" because his journalism hurt the military’s "image":
And then the second voice said, "Baanchot [an abusive word], you have only reported on negative things. And you have fucked Bangladesh by your bloody anti-state reports. Whatever you have reported for CNN in all these years is all negative news. You shit on the same plate you eat, you are a traitor. You work for a foreign agency, and damage Bangladesh’s image outside."
Someone started punching the side and back of my head. I started crying out in pain. Then someone cried out an order, "Bring in salt and nails!"
Tasneem’s torturer was the military government of Bangladesh. It was the state torturing its own citizen. The most fundamental responsibility of a government is the protection of its own people. When a government not only fails to protect its own citizens but instead actively terrorizes and tortures them it has lost all legitimacy, moral or legal, to govern. It has become anti-state.
Yet there are defenders of Bangladesh’s military government. The defenders include elements of civil society within Bangladesh who see the military as their meal ticket to power and foreign governments such as the Bush administration and the British government who believe only the iron hand of the military can control 150 million people who are perceived to be unfit to govern themselves. To these defenders the minor inconveniences of torture, death in custody, extra-judicial killings, suspension of fundamental rights, and the occasional mass beating are the cost of doing business. Certainly to these defenders the torture of one man, Tasneem Khalil, does not matter.
To me it matters. It matters that my friend was tortured. It matters that, save for the overwhelming response to his detention, he would today be a statistic – a dead body as a result of the uniquely Bangladeshi opera known as "crossfire". It matters that the 150 million citizens of Bangladesh, who earned their freedom through blood and sacrifice, are today ruled by the gun.
So, this is my response to the email you sent me last week Tasneem. I was told over the weekend, in a harshly worded diatribe from a man with little regard for this "Virginia-based blogger", that we bloggers are cowards. That we don’t understand real life. That we hide behind our keyboards. That we are irrelevant.
But I would not trade a thousand words that I write that fall on deaf ears for the one email that you sent me. I am glad you are here my friend. It is, in the sum total of my life, one of the facts I am most proud of.