Friday, May 27, 2011
In court in Alaska (pt 3 - final)
We were on. The phone was connected to a sound system that could be heard throughout the courtroom - not that there would have been many people present. It’s not like this was trial by jury, after all. They could, I’m sure, hear me better than I could hear them, and that frustrating two or three second delay unavoidable in those days of telecommunications made things harder.
The lawyer for the refugee claimant put questions to me through which I was able to explain, reasonably sensibly I hope, the relationship in Bangladesh that had developed in politics between public power and the hidden forces at work. The power of money and the use of strong-arm tactics to yield results. The pervasiveness of what is regarded in the west as corruption. Fierce and deadly rivalries where business gain is often accompanied by street thuggery and assassination or murder. Protection of criminals by highly polarised political parties, and vice versa. The power of military figures and the complicated links with civilian rule. The need to play the game of intimidation and graft or lose functional ability in a ruthless world where the weak faltered and the strong often took it all.
I kept it as short and direct as possible, and felt I had done well.
Then came the turn of the lawyer challenging the refugee claims. I’m not going to try to use the American legal terminology, so I’ll keep it simple. There were no defendants, defence counsel, prosecutors and the like. (I’d have no problem with these in the Australian system, as my wife has battled many times as a solicitor in courtrooms around this region for the liberty of her clients, and she’d get the terms straightened out for me, but this wasn’t Australia.)
Call me a chauvinist, and you have a perfect right to in view of what I’m about to say, but somehow I expected it would be a male lawyer attacking the appeal and firing questions at me, but it was a woman. And she was as hard as nails. Tough as boot leather, with a voice like a rasp, as she rapped the questions at me. Her immediate aim, I’m sure, was to unsettle me.
‘Do you know Mr (Asad, I’ll call him, ‘my’ lawyer’s client)?
‘OBJECTION!’ I heard from somewhere slightly distant.
Yes, they actually do all that ‘Objection!’ stuff – it’s not just reserved for TV dramas after all. I was a bit shocked; I’m not sure why. There were spirited arguments between them, with our side arguing, as we’d agreed, that my role was limited to outlining objective circumstances in Bangladesh. They were going at it hammer and tongs, and I could only try to make out what the hell was really going on in there.
She dropped that question, but still she persisted from a slightly different angle. ‘Would you say that any person involved in politics or business in Bangladesh would have to engage in criminal activity?’
It was a tricky one. Clearly she wanted to paint a picture of our Mr Asad as a thug, which would create difficulties for him as a claimant for refugee status. There was a barrage of ‘objection’ activity but, not surprisingly, I was asked to answer the question.
‘I would say that a person could be honest in these matters, but could not avoid dealing with people who aren’t.’
It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was true.
After further questioning along these lines and some stubborn stonewalling on my part, she then tried another tack.
‘How can you be sure that the picture of these conditions you have painted is accurate?’
So, the attack was now directed straight at me. At my competence. There were no objections from our side this time. He must have felt I could look after myself.
‘You have my bio data,’ I said. ‘You can see my publications in this area and the amount of time I’ve spent in Bangladesh.’
‘Recent United States Embassy press releases don’t indicate such a high level of violence as you’ve claimed.’ (Now I think of it, she did sound awfully like Sarah Palin when she gets stroppy, which is often these days....)
I admit I was a bit peeved at this tactic on her part even though I might have expected it, but according to what I’d been told, it was at this point that the case was severely dented the previous time. The expertise of their witness had been strongly challenged and he fell apart. This was why I had been drafted, after all.
The real problem for me, and one that I hadn’t considered, was that when you are under attack from a questioner and you’re on the phone, you don’t really know what’s happening in the court. You can’t see the people, interpret their faces or gestures, or even hear the objections and how the judge is reacting. But she was certainly aggressive, or pretended to be. The hostility in her voice surprised me. Probably it shouldn’t have. She was only doing her job, but it was a bit disconcerting. I wasn’t used to being grilled in a courtroom, especially one about as far away from where I was sitting as you can get, and still remain on Planet Earth.
There was a lot of to-and-froing between the lawyers and the judge about these assertions. I couldn’t hear all that much of it clearly, but I was astounded at how often the word ‘Objection!’ came up. It was Perry Mason from my early TV days all over again!
I simply listened, as I hadn’t been prompted to speak by anyone.
Finally, I was asked to comment. Oh, there was a great deal I would love to have said in regard to faulty US intelligence that had led to failure in US foreign policy on the subcontinent since 1947! Failure that had contributed so much to war between India and Pakistan, the emergence of Bangladesh itself, the stirring of Islamist forces that had destabilised the whole of South and Central Asia and the Middle East – and Bangladesh, .... none of which was appropriate for me to bring up in this instance.
And this complacent, uninformed nonsense, presumably emanating from its embassy in Dhaka, was being used in an attempt to discredit me. Suddenly I felt a bit bolshie.
‘I don’t have any idea what reports you’re relying on, but let me say this. The US Embassy is located in Banani. It’s a brand-new suburb miles out of the centre of Dhaka. It’s like a separate city, and has continuous electricity supply and other public utilities and a lifestyle more like Hollywood than the reality of Dhaka.’
I paused to take a breath, but no-one was stopping me, so on I went.
‘Meanwhile, I was living in the oldest part of the city earlier this year, at Wari, and before that, in Muhammadpur and Dhanmondi, and on the university campus. There were times I couldn’t walk between halls of residence at Dhaka University because of the danger of firefights between student groups in those colleges - that's with bullets. In the city, I often couldn’t move because of bombings and violent demonstrations. I saw people shot down. It’s there that the action happens, not new urban developments like Gulshan or Banani. The US Embassy out there would only have had to tune into the BBC English language news service on local radio every morning in Dhaka and they’d get the picture I’ve given you. Maybe the BBC has transcripts.’
I enjoyed that bit. These were of course the days before such things were all online.
Nobody seemed to be saying anything. Then I heard words that, if I had been in the courtroom, I suppose would have translated from a courtroom TV drama script as ‘You may step down.’
I hung up the phone. The case proceeded at that point, so I had no opportunity to gauge whether I had made things better or worse for Asad, but I had done what I could.
It was later in the day that I got a phone call from Asad’s lawyer.
‘We’ve won the appeal. He’s been granted residency. Thank you for your statements. They were helpful.’
That was it. I’ll never really know the extent of the part I played in this, but I don’t know how else such a case could be won – or lost – except on the basis of this sort of evidence.
I can’t say I felt that the United States gained an exemplary citizen as a result of the successful appeal, but I did feel true to my unspoken pledge to the tawny frogmouth with the bright yellow eyes that peered in at me through the window out of the blackness of that summer night.