on the world: a view on human rights
On 19 December 2015, 28-year old French aid worker Moussa Ibn Yacoub (born Puemo Tchantchuing, but known by the name he adopted upon conversion to the Islamic faith) was arrested and questioned by the authorities in Bangladesh, while visiting schools for displaced Rohingya children. On 22 December, he was charged with “suspicious activity”, a criminal offence punishable by a 10-year prison sentence under Bangladeshi law, allegedly as the name he is known by differs to that on his passport and the NGO he works for is not registered in the country. He is also alleged to have been suspected of possible terrorist activity, but as he has not yet appeared before a judge, the specific reasons for the charge remain unknown.
Moussa visited Bangladesh to work with the Rohingya community on several previous occasions. Working with the French humanitarian NGO Baraka City, he had visited other countries as well as working with the homeless in France. His lawyer, Samim Bolaky, said that he was in the country visiting schools and orphanages in Rohingya camps.
According to the latest information from the NGO, Moussa is being held, pending his hearing, at the Central Prison in Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, an area in which there are many Rohingya refugees. The prison was built to hold 500 inmates but currently has almost 2000; prison guards also complain about the overcrowding. He is reported to be held in a cell with 50 other detainees and thus cannot lie down to sleep. He is not being well fed. The NGO has also reported that he has been subject to a number of interrogations by the police.
The French government has said that Moussa is being provided with “the usual consular protection”. Nonetheless, the NGO has launched a campaign largely through its social media and due to the sensitivity of the situation asks the public to stick to these methods. As well as the social media hashtags #FreeMoussa and #onnelacherien, the social media campaign has attracted media attention to the case.
On Christmas Day, Baraka City launched a letter-writing campaign and petition; within two days, the petition has received over 100,000 signatures. The French embassy in Dhaka will send a delegation on 28 December to visit him in prison. A lawyer has been appointed to represent him.
The human rights situation in Bangladesh nonetheless leaves much to be desired. In addition to the well-known cases of bloggers being killed in recent months, Bangladesh carried out the controversial execution of two men in November.
According to the United Nations, the Rohingya, from the western Myanmar (Burmese) state of Rakhine, are “the most persecuted community in the world”. According to the Myanmar government, 1.3 million Rohingya simply do not exist. They are subject to extreme persecution – beatings, murder, torture, rape – simply on the basis of their religious and ethnic affiliation, like other religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Denied even the right to education and to marry without official permission, many Rohingya live as unofficial refugees in other Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. Long before Europe suffered its so-called ‘refugee crisis’, the Rohingya were the boat people of Asia and Australia, subject to human trafficking and slavery.
Aiding the Rohingya is no easy matter, and Moussa is not alone in being persecuted for this action. Thailand’s top investigator into human trafficking has sought asylum in Australia following death threats: among the matters his inquiry uncovered was the mass grave of over 30 Rohingya earlier in 2015. The Myanmar government claims that the Rohingya are Bangladeshi, even though there is evidence they have lived in Rakhine state for centuries, but the Bangladeshi government too refuses to recognise the Rohingya as refugees, and instead classes them as illegal immigrants. Many live in abject poverty in Bangladesh and other Asian countries, which treat them the same.
Bangladesh has 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees (with a possible 200,000 others as ‘illegal immigrants’), who live in two refugee camps in the south of the country. Earlier in 2015, the Bangladesh government proposed to move them to an island off shore.
The Bangladesh government had previously banned certain international aid organisations from helping the Rohingya and deters others from helping the Rohingya outside the two official refugee camps. Consequently, it was not possible for Baraka City to register in Bangladesh as an official NGO.
Update on 13 January 2016:
Moussa’s arrest was confirmed by the French Foreign Ministry on 29 December 2015. At the beginning of January, a team consisting of Baraka City’s lawyer Samim Bolaky and others from the NGO travelled to Bangladesh to provide legal and moral support and advice. Upon arrival in Bangladesh, they were held at immigration for several hours before being allowed to enter the country. A hearing before a judge was supposed to take place on Saturday 2 January but was put back to Monday 4th, on which date the hearing was delayed again. The French team was not allowed to meet Moussa but following discussions with the prosecution team, it was made clear that Moussa’s alleged offence was offering aid and assistance to the Rohingya.
Seven lawyers were on the defence team, including two French lawyers (Messrs Bolaky and Achoui), during the hearing that took place on 5 January, in which the judge stated that a decision to release or charge Moussa would be made by Thursday 7 January. There were further delays on the pretext that the court had not received a police report. In the meantime, Moussa was subject to further interrogation by the police.
On Monday 11 January, the court ruled that Moussa would be freed and on 12 January, the release of his Bangladeshi guide Abdus Salam, who was arrested with him, was also ordered. The 11 January decision was confirmed by the French Foreign Ministry, which stated, “The decision granting release made on 11 January by the Bangladeshi judge covers only some, and not all, of the charges against our compatriot. A further decision is thus expected. We are in close contact with the family of Mr Tchantchuing, his lawyer and the Bangladeshi authorities. We remain committed to providing consular protection to our compatriot and ensuring his rights are respected.”
On 13 January, when Moussa’s legal team went to the court to formalise his release, they discovered that the decision made just two days earlier had been revoked; the judge who had granted release had been replaced and the release order was void.
Samim Bolaky, his lawyer, stated, “Moussa has been sent back to jail at the request of the Ministry of Justice”; the President of the Court informed his lawyers that the Ministry of Justice had given the orders in this case. He further added, “we are shocked, flabbergasted and astonished by this judicial farce! Moussa’s detention has now become a diplomatic matter”.
Baraka City has demanded that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius takes a firm stance with the Bangladeshi ambassador to France and demands his release. In the meantime, they request that concerned individuals add their names to the petition below, which now has more than 400,000 signatories.
Update on 13 March 2016:
On 1 March, 70 days after his arrest, Moussa was released on bail by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh following appeal, after applications for his release were rejected by the lower courts. Nonetheless, the charges against him still stand and his bail conditions include that he is not allowed to leave the country. A hearing on the charges against him was anticipated for 3 March but, as with earlier court appearances, was cancelled. Lawyers for Moussa are currently seeking the removal of his travel restriction so that he can leave Bangladesh. The charges against him have yet to be heard, and he could be cleared without trial at any time or have to spend many months waiting before the case is actually heard. Consequently, Moussa is not yet free.
His brother Kamdem, who was in Bangladesh when Moussa was released on bail, has reported that his brother remains under close police surveillance and it is likely that the police are looking for a pretext to re-arrest him. The French embassy maintains that it is still working on his case and he has consular protection.
Update on 12 April:
After more than 3 months of investigations and following further delays after Moussa’s release on bail, on 12 April, Bangladeshi police finally released their report into his alleged offences. He has been charged with the sole offence of identity fraud for having documents in the name of ‘Moussa’, the name he has used since his conversion to Islam several years ago, rather than the name on his birth certificate, ‘Maxime Puemo.’
The French consulate in Bangladesh had already provided the authorities with ample evidence, in writing, and confirmed that Moussa is indeed a French citizen and the person he claims to be. A trial has been set for this charge to be heard in one month’s time.
Update on 24 July:
Following further delays to the hearing, at a hearing held on Sunday 24 July the case against Moussa was dismissed due to a lack of substantive and hard evidence against him. After 215 days detained in Bangladesh (7 months and 2 days), he is finally free to return home to France with all the charges against him dropped. In a video posted online, he thanked his supporters and everyone who worked for his release.
Moussa used his time in Bangladesh on bail to set up a charity called Bani Street to help street children in Bangladesh and further afield. It has been operating successfully for over one month.
Take action for Moussa:
Sign the petition (more than 100,000 people have signed in two days):
http://www.barakacity.com/freemoussa/petition.php enter your surname (NOM), first name(s) (PRENOM), e-mail address and country (Royaume_Uni = UK/ Etats_Unis = USA)
As of 28 December, Baraka City is asking people to contact the Bangladeshi embassy in their country. Please contact the Bangladeshi embassy in your country (details for UK/USA below) and them to release Moussa immediately and unconditionally as he has not committed a crime by helping the Rohingya. Please inform firstname.lastname@example.org of the response you get.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister’s Office
Old Sangshad Bhaban, Tejgaon, Dhaka 1215, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 9133722
Salutation: Dear Prime Minister
Ministry of Home Affairs
Bangladesh Secretariat, Building 8 (1st & 3rd Floor), Dhaka, Bangladesh
Fax: +880 2 9573711
Salutation: Dear Minister
Also send copies to (UK):
High Commissioner H.E Mr. Md. Abdul Hannan,
Bangladesh High Commission, 28 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JA
Phone: 020 7584 0081 | Email: email@example.com
Ambassador Mohammad Ziauddin, Embassy of Bangladesh
3510 International Drive NW, Washington DC 20008
Fax: 202 244 2771 OR 202 244 7830 I Phone: 202 244 0183 I Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The author is not affiliated to Baraka City and is not representative of the NGO.