‘Just heartbreaking’, wrote the Labour MP Tulip Siddiq this week as she shared a picture of the daughter of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mum who is currently imprisoned in Iran on trumped-up charges of espionage. Tulip has, quite rightly, dedicated much time to trying to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It’s a pity though that she doesn’t go to the same lengths to lobby Bangladesh, another repressive country, over the hundreds of people that have been secretly detained there in recent years. Unlike Iran, Bangladesh also happens to be a place where the Labour MP appears to have considerable clout: her aunt, Sheikh Hasina, is the prime minister; her uncle, Tarique Siddique, is Hasina’s security adviser; and her first cousin, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, is an adviser to the Bangladeshi government.
It is almost unprecedented for a British MP to have such close family ties to the leader of another country, particularly an authoritarian nation where a single family rules the roost. Previously, Tulip has not been shy of making the most of these links. In 2013, she travelled with her aunt to Russia where she met Vladimir Putin. In a later interview, Tulip boasted of taking the Russian president to task over his record on gay rights. When Tulip was first elected to Parliament in 2015, her aunt even came to Britain to watch her deliver her maiden speech in the Commons. Only this week, the Bangladeshi cabinet passed a resolution congratulating Tulip after she received an award for ‘Labour Newcomer MP of the Year’.
Tulip said recently that she was ‘proud of what Bangladesh has done’ in taking in Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar. But while this act has saved lives and earned the country plaudits, Bangladesh has a darker side. Since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, human rights organisations have documented nearly 400 cases of people who have gone missing, having been reportedly secretly detained by those claiming to be from law enforcement agencies. Some of those who vanished were later found dead; others have never been seen again. Earlier this year, the United Nations called on the Bangladeshi government to ‘halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances in the country’. The UN’s Human Rights Committee also sharply criticised the Bangladeshi government for its record on enforced disappearances, calling on the country’s leaders to ‘establish the truth about the fate and whereabouts of victims’.
Tulip Siddiq could play a key role in forcing the Bangladesh state to act, particularly in the cases of those who have been snatched who have British links. In its report this week, Channel 4 News focused on the British-trained barrister, Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, who was abducted from his home in August 2016, and has not been heard from since. There are others too, including the British-Bangladeshi Yasin Mohammad Abdus Samad Talukder, who vanished in 2016. Yet Tulip apparently refuses to lift a finger, despite criticising the British government for not doing enough to secure the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. When I asked her whether she had lobbied her family members in Bangladesh to seek the release of those who have been illegally detained, there was no response. In an earlier statement, Siddiq said: ‘The fact that some members of my family are involved in politics in Bangladesh has long been a matter of public record which I have not hidden from. That said, I have no capability nor desire to influence politics in Bangladesh’.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, local human rights organisations remain barely able to function, and the media is severely constrained in its ability to report on those who go missing. Desperate family members of the disappeared must come to terms with the thought they may never know what has happened to their loved ones. Tulip has a real opportunity to play the role of an international stateswoman and speak up for those who have vanished and their despairing relatives. It’s time for her to do just that.
David Bergman is a journalist who until recently was based in Bangladesh. He wrote the Human Rights Watch report on enforced disappearances, which was published earlier this year.