6 January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
A lot of things that happened with the letter of the Turkish President Abdullah Gul and the visit of the Turkish NGO are still shrouded in mystery. Reports on both that appeared in the media have indicated that a Turkish NGO appeared in Dhaka out of nowhere taking advantage of the “visa on arrival” rule of the Bangladesh immigration, misused it and met leaders of the BNP and Jamat as well as government officials, including the Minister of Law, and also visited the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) premises on an agenda that is highly sensitive in Bangladesh, namely the trials of those accused of committing crimes against humanity in 1971. On the Turkish President’s letter to President Zillur Rahman, reports mentioned that he requested the latter for clemency of the Jamat leaders now under trial for crimes against humanity before the ICT.
The NGO, Cansuyu Aid and Solidarity Association, was in Dhaka between 20 to 24 December. The President’s letter was delivered through the Turkish Embassy in Dhaka on 23 December. The two events that were related on their focus on the sensitive issue of the trials before the ICT upset and angered the Government of Bangladesh immensely and no doubt rightly. The Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Turkish Ambassador and handed him a note expressing the displeasure of the Government over the two issues. Officials of the Ministry on conditions on anonymity revealed its contents to the media. The note expressed annoyance at the letter of the Turkish President seeking clemency for the accused in the war crime trials, calling the contents of the letter interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. It also expressed displeasure at the visit of the NGO. It was also said in the media quoting MFA sources that such a visit with which the Turkish Ambassador was involved could lead to the latter being declared as a persona non grata.
Nevertheless, the letter and the visit have serious potentials for damaging Bangladesh-Turkey bilateral relations because it has not been handled in an effective manner. Therefore it would be appropriate to look into the affair objectively to evaluate the possible consequences. Clearly, Turkey has committed a serious breach in the friendship that exists between it and Bangladesh by choosing to handle an issue so deeply sensitive to Bangladesh in such an offensive and immature manner. Before the President addressed the letter, he should have considered that the demand for the trials is an internal matter where the trials are considered necessary to punish those who assisted the Pakistani military in 1971 in committing genocide in Bangladesh.
It is also a matter of great surprise that the Turkish President would seek clemency for the accused when the trials are not yet over. How did he know the accused would be found guilty and then handed death sentences? It is extremely surprising that the Turkish President chose to make the request before the ICT passed the sentences and the President of Bangladesh has had the chance to review these sentences. He has not just interfered in internal affairs of Bangladesh; he has tried to pre-empt the judicial process of the country and also the powers of the President of Bangladesh!
These issues notwithstanding, it is difficult to be reassured by the assurance given by MFA sources that the handling of the letter and the NGO affair will not affect adversely the “excellent bilateral relations” between Bangladesh and Turkey. As a result of the way the matter has been handled by those responsible, both the Turkish President and Turkey has been revealed in very bad light in the media that will not make Turkey very happy. While we have heard about what was in the note that the Acting Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh handed to the Turkish Ambassador, we do not know what the Turkish Foreign Ministry handed to the Bangladesh Ambassador to Ankara. Surely, the Turkish note was not one of courtesy; Turkey must have expressed some tough views on how Bangladesh handled the matter.
Letter from a Head of State to his/her counterpart in another country is not supposed to be a public document unless both sides wish to reveal it. In this instance, surely the Turkish side has not wished it to be made public. The contents were leaked from the Bangladesh side. Given the adverse publicity the letters received in the media in Bangladesh, surely the Turkish Government would not be pleased with the way the letter was leaked and the issued handled on the Bangladesh side. It is not just that the President of Turkey has been humiliated in the media; Turkish history has also been brought into play to show Turkey and its President in bad light in Bangladesh. Even an effigy of the Turkish President has been burnt.
The correct way to have handled this issue would have been for the President of Bangladesh to react to the letter outside the media through the diplomatic channel. In fact that would have been the only sensible way to deal with the matter. In that letter, the government of Bangladesh could have articulated all that has been said undiplomatically by all and sundry in the media a manner that has not helped the Bangladesh cause in creating the right opinion abroad on the trials before the ICT. Instead, it has given Turkey enough reason to feel offended. Further, the government should have thought twice before going before the media for a different reason. It should have waited and inquired through the diplomatic channel why the Turkish President chose to wrote the letter; whether Turkey was acting in collusion with other Muslim counties in the matter.
As for the case of the NGO, the matter is very different. It has been complicated by the Bangladesh government again by poor handling by mixing it with the letter from the Turkish President. An NGO is an NGO and if one has violated any law of the land, it should have been treated at a much lower level. If the delegation has taken advantage of the visa on arrival system, it was legal for them to have done so. Apart from that, if they have met the BNP/Jamat leaders, one fails to see how this would be offensive. They have also met the Law Minister and visited the ICT. Why were they allowed these privileges? Clearly, there has been a serious breakdown of coordination and intelligence in handling the visit of a foreign NGO for which Turkey should not be taken to task but our own authorities.
Now that the issues are out in the media due some poor handling on our side that has also reflected our poor diplomatic skills, the government should be prepared for the consequences to successfully fulfill the national demand for the trials before the ICT. If the Turkish President has guessed correctly that the accused before the ICT would be handed death sentences, the government should be prepared for more letters and perhaps stronger actions from our friends in the Middle East who, going by the letter of the Turkish President, do not see the war crime trials in the same way we in Bangladesh see, if death sentences are handed to the accused. Turkey is not just a Muslim country; it is also a European nation and has influence there as well where capital punishment is unacceptable by law. Therefore, the government should prepare itself for diplomatic offensive to prepare our friends in the Middle East and Europe about the need for the trials; the fairness of it and the consensus in Bangladesh for the trials. Taking shelter under what the MFA has said it its note that the matter is an internal affair of Bangladesh will not be enough. We need to consider that we have named the tribunal trying the cases as International Crimes Tribunal and thus opened these trials as legitimate concerns of the international community.
The government could have used the letters as an opportunity to deal with Turkey and through Turkey with the Muslim world and Europe to explain in a transparent manner the need for the trials, the evidence against the accused and the fairness of the trials. By some poor diplomatic handling, the government has messed up the opportunity and ended with one more external problem added to its long agenda of such problems.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary.