A Bangladeshi minister said Thursday that expensive-looking watches and clothes he wore in several photos published by a Swedish news outlet were gifts from friends and admirers in other countries.
Obaidul Quader, the minister of road transport and bridges, made the statement the same day that New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Bangladeshi authorities to unblock online access to the Sweden-based website after it showed photos of the minister wearing a variety of what appeared to be luxury timepieces.
“The watches I use are not my own. I did not buy them, [they’re] all gifts,” Quader told reporters. “If you bring something and give it to me as a gift, what can I do? Come on, these are gifts.”
“There is no relation of corruption with it,” the minister added.
Quader’s comments followed reports that the Sweden-based investigative website Netra News was blocked in Bangladesh days after it published a story and photos from the minister’s Facebook page. The report raised questions about his collection of luxury watches and implied that corruption might be involved.
According to Netra News, a whistleblower contacted it “with the claim that Obaidul Quader prefers to receive bribes in the form of expensive wristwatches.”
This person was closely involved in a deal linked with the minister, the website reported.
Zakir Hossain, spokesman for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Authority, said he did not know about any order to block access to any website.
“I am not aware of any such move, in fact we didn’t know about any such news portal until recently,” Hossain told BenarNews, underscoring that his office was merely made aware after receiving calls from reporters seeking comments.
BenarNews reporters in Dhaka could not access the news portal. Other online users said it could only be accessed through a proxy server.
Tasneem Khalil, chief editor of Netra News, told BenarNews that the website was blocked within 72 hours of publishing the story about Quader.
“We launched on Dec. 26 and it was accessible for only 72 hours,” he said.
Netra News, which bills itself as an investigative website, is registered in Sweden. Al Jazeera said a source close to the Department of Telecommunications in Dhaka told an editor at the website that “the agency was behind the block.”
BenarNews could not immediately verify the claim and Quader denied the allegations in the Netra News report, which said that among his watch collection was a Rolex worth almost as much as his annual salary.
“For God’s sake, I say I haven’t bought any of those watches or expensive suits,” Quader, who is also the secretary-general of the ruling Awami League, told reporters.
“Our activists abroad presented me [the gifts] out of love, maybe,” he said. “Recently one of them brought [for me] three coats from Singapore.”
Quader, 68, is considered one of the most powerful officials in Bangladesh after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the ruling party chairwoman.
Human Rights Watch alleged that Hasina’s government had “adopted advanced methods to block or conduct surveillance on internet traffic and regulate online news sites without a sufficient legal framework to protect rights to privacy.”
It said authorities had previously access to international news sites such as Al Jazeera and The Wire after publishing articles that criticized the government.
“The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh continues its march toward authoritarianism, willing only to allow praise, and shutting down criticism,” Brad Adams, the watchdog’s Asia director, said in a statement.
“These restrictions disregard the basic principles of free expression and suggest that the government has plenty to hide,” he said. “Journalists are already self-censoring, fearing retaliation for criticism.”