No Contradictions: A Response to David Bergman
In 2015, Rizve Ahmed Caesar, son of US-based BNP leader Mahmud Ullah Mamoon, pleaded guilty before a US court to multiple charges of bribing former FBI official Robert Lustyik in cohorts with a middleman Johannes Thaler for obtaining personal and confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed, son and ICT Adviser to the Honorable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. It should be noted that both of Rizve’s associates, Lustyik and Thaler, also pleaded guilty to same/similar corruption charges and all are currently serving sentences of various terms.
As part of the investigations, credible information came to light that the one of the prime objectives behind the obtaining of information was to locate, abduct and harm Sajeeb Wazed and his family living in the USA, due to his political affiliations and family identity in Bangladesh. Following the string of events, in recent days, police made the high profile arrest of Shafik Rehman, a journalist and influential figure in the politics of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in connection with the investigation into the plot to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed.
Journalist David Bergman recently wrote an article for The Wire (“Exclusive: US Court Dismissed Claim of Plot to Injure Bangladesh PM Son, 20 April, 2016”) on the said arrest and the US court proceedings against Rizve Ahmed which has served as the basis for the ongoing investigations in Bangladesh. In short, the gist of his article is that the US court’s findings conflict directly with the basis of the ongoing investigations against Shafik Rehman, as claimed by the Government of Bangladesh and Sajeeb Wazed himself.
He also contends that the findings contradict Sajeeb Wazed’s claims that the three men convicted by the US court were jailed for the said plot and the evidence behind the arrest of Rehman does not come directly from the US case.
This write-up of mine seeks to respond to some of the points made by Bergman in his article and seeks to show that there is no contradiction in the US court’s findings and the basis of the ongoing investigations in Bangladesh; that the primary information on the plot to abduct and harm/kill Sajeeb Wazed does in fact, come from the US case; and that while the US convictions did not directly concern the plot to abduct and harm/kill Sajeeb Wazed, they did indeed reveal the workings of a larger conspiracy, spanning continents and involving large sums of money, for eliminating the grandson of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Misleading and Confusing Title
David Bergman’s article is titled: “Exclusive: US Court Dismissed Claim of Plot to Injure Bangladesh PM Son”. This is quite a misleading and confusing title as it tends to denote that a “claim” was made in court about the plot to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed by the US government which was then dismissed by the US federal court. In reality, however, the judgment of the case which he refers to (Case 7:13-cr-00616-VB, United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Document 181) did not actually have the plot to abduct and/or kill as one of the facts in issue. This case concerned multiple counts of bribery related offences, to which the accused Rizve Ahmed, son of a US-based BNP leader, pleaded guilty.
It was only during the sentencing hearing that the prosecution’s submission for a tough sentence against Rizve on the basis of the intended use of the confidential information that the issue of plotting to abduct and harm came to the fore. The objective of raising these issues on part of the government was not to prove the truth of the matter as would be required for any fact in issue, but rather to point out the aggravating factors of the offence meriting a stricter sentence.
It should also be noted that given that Rizve Ahmed (and the other two as well in separate trials) pleaded guilty to the charges as opposed to contesting them, the court actually did not get the proper chance to verify the veracity of the prosecution’s contentions regarding the use of the confidential information obtained by bribery through the examination of oral and documentary evidence.
The fact that such submissions came up during the Ahmed trial, which did not get a proper determination on facts, and all three main perpetrators pleaded guilty to the offences rendering a contested trial impossible, makes the ongoing investigation in Bangladesh and a possible future trial that much more important to get to the heart of the matter.
Evidence of Plot to Abduct and Kill
Throughout the proceedings, a number of references were made to the intended use of the confidential information related to Sajeeb Wazed, although they did not form part of the court’s decision regarding sentence of the accused. In the US government’s Sentencing Memorandum (Case 7:13-cr-00616-VB, Page 3) on Rizve Ahmed, it was stated that Ahmed’s goal of obtaining the confidential information was twofold: First, to seek to locate and harm Sajeeb Wazed and others associated with him. The memorandum further elaborated that Ahmed planned to kidnap and physically harm Sajeeb Wazed along with his wife and children in USA; second, to obtain and publish information that would damage the reputation of Sajeeb Wazed.
The memorandum (page 7) also provided the very meaningful transcript of text messages exchanged between disgraced FBI agent Lustyik and middleman Thaler where they talked of wire-tapping the calls of Rizve Ahmed and his associates and get them to admit that they want to “off” (kill) a Bangladeshi political figure. The actual words used were: “I will put a wire on n get [Ahmed and his Associates] to admit they want [A Bangladeshi political figure] offed…” This is quite indicative of the actual intention behind Rizve Ahmed and his associates obtaining information on Sajeeb Wazed.
Further evidence of the actual intention behind obtaining the bribed information was provided by Rizve Ahmed himself, in a voluntary interviewing with US investigating agents, where he admitted that he requested a certain private investigator’s help regarding a plan to “scare”, kidnap” and “hurt” SajeebWazed. This was corroborated by the statement given by the private investigator himself.
There is also some clear indication of the US Government’s view on the intention behind obtaining the confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed in its Press Release (“Former FBI Special Agent Sentenced to Five Years in Bribery Scheme”) dated September 14, 2015, where the Department of Justice stated: “”Thaler and Ahmed engaged in a scheme in which they solicited bribe payments from Ahmed in exchange for…confidential documents and information pertaining to a prominent citizen (Sajeeb Wazed) in Bangladesh whom Ahmed perceived to be a political rival, and whom Ahmed sought to locate and harm”
Very Identifying Personal Information
Among the information obtained by Rizve Ahmed, and later on passed to other co-conspirators at home and abroad were details on Sajeeb Wazed of such personal nature as his social security number, date of birth, home and work phone numbers, height, weight, race and others. The types of information on offer are exactly the ones required for identifying and tracing a person physically, presumably to abduct and harm, at the very least. These are not the sort of information one would seek to discredit a person politically.
The overall tone of David Bergman’s article, citing selective segments from the judgment, tends to portray a picture that the only objective behind Rizve Ahmed’s bribing the FBI official was to acquire political ‘dirt’ on Sajeeb Wazed. The evidence of the intention to use the obtained information in plotting to abduct and hurt/kill (referred to above) were completely disregarded; so was the extremely credible threat of physical harm SajeebWazed feared for himself and his family, which was even mentioned by the US government in its Sentencing Memorandum (Page 11): “(Sajeeb Wazed) has been the victim of a prior assassination attempt and since moving to the United States, he has previously had to relocate his family after political opponents publicized his home address”.
This threat was also acknowledged by the court, when it commented: “… (SajeebWazed) was certainly harmed in some sense by the leak of the information. His social security number, his personal data is out there. And Mr. Ahmed sold it upstream…his address was leaked and publicized and as a result he had to move his wife and child to a new home in D.C. His fear for his safety is genuine and based on historical violence and current day threats…” (Sentencing Document, Document 181, Page 24).
Much Ado about “Victimhood”
In his article, David Bergman specifically stated that the US court did not find Sajeeb Wazed to be a “victim”. This would give the impression that the court ruled that no wrong had been done to Sajeeb Wazed or that the perpetrator’s conduct was not potentially capable of wronging him. In reality, given that this was the sentencing of corruption related offenses only, the court held that the victims in this case were the FBI and the US citizens.
As the court observed: “I’m saying that he’s not an official victim as the term is defined in that portion of the guidelines” (Sentencing Document, Document 181, Page 25). However, the judge was also aware of the potential of harm to Sajeeb Wazed, and commented: “…the release of confidential information could have led to harm to him and his family, and I think that’s probably true, it could have…” (Sentencing Document, Document181, Page 15); and, “Ahmed’s conduct was really reprehensible and at least potential harmful to (SajeebWazed) and his family” (Sentencing Document, Document 181, Page 39).
The Bangladesh Connection
As for the involvement of Shafik Rehman in the plot, the court documents refer to the illegal passing of the obtained confidential information to a Bangladeshi journalist in a number of instances: First, in the Government Sentencing Memorandum (Page 3), where it is stated: “…Ahmed provided the confidential, sensitive law enforcement information he obtained to a Bangladeshi journalist, receiving $30,000 in exchange for the materials”. In Page 8 of the same memorandum, it is said that “Ahmed further distributed certain of the documents he received from the bribery scheme to a Bangladeshi journalist, a political ally, and a private investigator…”
It is therefore, highly possible that the journalist in question, mentioned several times, could be Shafik Rehman. Additionally, we have come to know that a US official has confirmed to the Press Trust of India (PTI) that the United States has provided assistance to the Bangladesh government in its current investigation regarding the plot to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed (“US helped Bangladesh in uncovering plot to kill Hasina’s son: Official”, Hindustan Times, 20 April, 2016”). It can be assumed, therefore, that such cooperation, which is likely to be more extensive than the publicly available information accessed from US case records, has led to the recent arrest. In any event, important developments have taken place since the arrest (mentioned below).
Importance of Ongoing Investigations
Sajeeb Wazed has correctly pointed out that the evidence from the US court case against Ahmed provides the basis for the case against Shafik Rehman and other certain individuals for plotting to abduct and harm/kill him. While the actual convictions in the USA (following guilty pleas as opposed to conviction following trial) do not relate to the plot to kidnap and harm/kill but is limited to bribery offences, the evidence presented at court (mentioned above), is sufficient to merit fuller investigations in Bangladesh and the US.
Already investigations have resulted in concrete progress. Media reports have revealed that a search of Shafik Rehman’s house has unearthed a file containing confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed’s whereabouts and details of the criminal conspiracy (Daily Ittefaq, 19 April, 2016). Another report specifically states that the seized documents show clear evidence of plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed (bdnews24.com, 20 April, 2016). Apparently, Shafik Rehman has also admitted to attending multiple meetings in pursuance of obtaining confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed (bdnews24.com, 19 April, 2016).
The fact that the plot to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed has not been established before a US court should be no bar to an investigation and trial in Bangladesh, especially given that credible information relating to such conspiracy comes from the US court records, in particular the words of the US Department of Justice.
Large sums of money were being readied to be exchanged in furtherance of obtaining information on Sajeeb Wazed. $40,000 retainer fee and $30,000 monthly payments to the disgraced FBI official could not have come from the wallet of Rizve Ahmed. As was noted in the case documents, he was working as a salesman in a department store and was not monetarily fined by the US court owing to his pecuniary situation. Additionally, throughout the court records, Ahmed referred to “they” and “them” to whom the confidential information was to be relayed. Hence, the larger players in the conspiracy need to be identified and brought to justice.
There should remain no credible doubt as to whether or not there was any cross-border conspiracy to obtaining confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed with the aim of abducting and harming/killinghim in the US in light of the information already available in the public domain. While the three culprits punished in the US may not have been convicted specifically for plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed, the bribery conspiracy for which they do stand convicted, indeed forms part of a much larger design to eliminate a key political figure, as evidenced by US court records and new evidence being recovered by Bangladesh’s law enforcers.
Only after completion of the legal process (investigation and trial), can we be sure whether Shafik Rehman himself was involved with that conspiracy to abduct and kill. Nonetheless, till such time of confirmation, we must not insist on giving Shafik Rehman any benefit of the doubt, simply because he is a journalist and currently is involved with BNP politics. If anything, his BNP connection should give more reasons for us to be suspicious of his activities, given that the whole plot (to do whatever form of crime) by Rizve Ahmed and his political allies was carried out in the explicit name of the BNP.
By the same token, Sajeeb Wazed’s allegations based on credible information should not be viewed with skepticism, merely because he is political in his profile or because he belongs to a certain political family. If anything, his family name should give us more reasons to believe him. Because if Bangladesh’s history has taught us anything, it is that any information on the assassination of any member of Bangabandhu’s family should be regarded with the utmost seriousness.
Barrister Shah Ali Farhad is Policy Analyst at Centre for Research and Information and Assistant Secretary (Central Sub Committee) of Bangladesh Awami League.