Bangladesh’s government is using a Washington-based public relations firm to promote its position that the prosecution of opposition leader Khaleda Zia is not political, ahead of a court ruling that could see her taken out of an upcoming general election.
Thursday’s verdict will be the first handed down in dozens of cases lodged against the three-time prime minister and head of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Police have detained hundreds of BNP activists in the past week amid fears of violent demonstrations if she is found guilty.
“Zia chairs the main opposition party in Bangladesh, but the allegations in her case aren’t political,” said a statement sent to BenarNews on Feb. 2 by BGR Public Relations “on behalf of the government of Bangladesh.”
“The verdict will come from the court, not the government, and will be based on the veracity of the specific charges against her,” it said, adding the BNP probably would “continue to assert that partisanship is behind the trial.”
The Bangladesh government pays BGR Public Relations up to U.S. $25,000 a month – $300,000 a year – under terms of a contract viewed by BenarNews. Contracts between the two parties dating from 2013 to 2016 are publicly filed with the U.S. Justice Department because of disclosure laws about firms doing business with foreign governments.
Thursday’s verdict concerns the alleged embezzlement of 21 million taka (about U.S. $252,000) in foreign donations to an orphanage trust. Zia’s five co-defendants include her London-based son, Tarique Rahman, who is BNP’s senior vice-chairman.
“Rather than using the donated funds to support Bangladeshi orphans, Zia is accused of embezzling the funds for personal gain. No orphanage benefited,” according to the statement by BGR Public Relations.
The charges against Zia were filed in July 2008 when an interim caretaker government was in power. If convicted, Zia may face up to life in prison, which would disqualify her from leading the country should her party win a majority in parliamentary polls likely to take place in December.
Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s media adviser, told BenarNews he was not aware that a PR firm had been working for the Bangladesh government.
Hasina’s press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, was also caught off guard when asked to verify the existence of a Washington-based media campaign. “I don’t know. I did not hear anything about it,” he told BenarNews.
Dipu Moni, the joint general secretary of the ruling Awami League party, repeated there was nothing political about the charges against Zia.
“Khaleda embezzled funds from an orphanage trust,” Moni said. “Now she has been trying to create anarchy and threatening the court so that it does not dare to pronounce a verdict against her.”
BNP claims the charges were filed as part of a government plot to keep Zia out of the election and has threatened to take to the streets if she is convicted.
“They are facing criticisms at home and abroad, so they are spending public funds by appointing lobbyist firms to disseminate statements of the ruling Awami League,” said Ruhul Kabir Rizvy, BNP’s senior joint secretary general. “They are not even transparent about appointing PR firms.”
Three firms in 2017
Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), U.S. companies and individuals who act as agents of foreign principals are required to make public disclosure of such relationships, as well as their activities.
BGR Public Relations was among three Washington-based firms that lobbied for Bangladesh during a six-month period in 2017, U.S. Assistant Attorney-General Stephen Boyd told the U.S. Congress in his semi-annual report in compliance with FARA last year.
The other two were Cassidy & Associates, which received $70,000 for conducting “public affairs awareness about human rights violations in Bangladesh,” and Cloakroom Advisors, which received $25,000 for “consulting services” on Dhaka’s behalf.
Boyd’s report names 230 dependencies and countries that paid for P.R. campaigns in Washington, where hundreds of nations jockey for U.S. government support.
Among the biggest spenders was Bahrain, which paid the Washington-based MSL Group Americas $880,000 for six months of media campaigns and lobbying efforts in 2017, Boyd said.
Pulack Ghatack in Dhaka contributed to this report.