Saturday, May 21, 2011
In court in Alaska
I wanted to tell this story because the circumstances were bizarre and funny in some ways, but it has a serious side that begins the narrative. Nevertheless, I’ll start by asking you to create in your mind an image of a chap sitting in his study at 2 AM, clad only in the bottom half of a pair of shortie PJs, phone in his left hand, his right arm high in the air, and startled sharply by two enormous eyes at the window.
Do I have your attention? If not, you may as well leave now and rearrange your paperclip collection, but I will return to this image. Yes, of course it’s a snapshot of me, and it’s for real. I’ll get back to it later.
It was about 10 PM on a summer night in 1996; an unusually hot spell of weather for the New England Tablelands. The first indication that I was going to act as a participant in a courtroom battle in Alaska was a phone call as I was sitting at my desk in my study at our 25 acre property, Pangari, 10 km northeast of Armidale, Australia. I’ll try to re-create the dialogue.
‘Am I speaking to Dr Denis Wright?’ It was a quietly assured American male voice; that of someone who spends a good deal of his working life on the phone.
I confirmed that it was. The speaker identified himself and the firm of lawyers he worked for.
‘I’ve been given your name because I’ve been informed you have wide experience of Bangladesh.’
‘It’s been a big part of my life. But how can that be of interest to you?’
He came straight to the point, as good lawyers do. Bad ones lose cases when they don’t. ‘I’m based in Anchorage, Alaska. I have a client here who’s a Bangladeshi seeking political asylum in the USA. I need an expert to provide courtroom testimony about current political conditions in Bangladesh.’
I winced at the word ‘expert’. Ever since someone claimed that ‘ex’ was the unknown, and ‘spurt’ a drip under pressure, I’ve not cared for it in reference to myself, though there are a few I’m happy to do so. But as far as having had experience with Bangladeshi political strife, I did know something about that. Having got out of Bangladesh under fairly dodgy conditions a few months before, first-hand experience was fresh in my mind.
‘My client is a quite well-known figure in Dhaka and came to the US in fear for his life.’
Is he now? That’s a very familiar trick to pull for someone trying to migrate to the US or Canada, or Australia for that matter. I thought it, but said nothing. I was also wondering just how well-known his client was in other circles in Bangladesh.
‘What’s his name?’
He gave the name to me, but I won’t repeat it here. After a bit of experience now at how a name in one of my blog stories can travel to unexpected places, I’m more cautious about this than ever before. I did know the name, though it was someone I had never met in Dhaka, nor had the desire to.
I wouldn’t really have wanted to be associated with him. I didn’t like his politics, his friends or the people he employed in Bangladesh. He operated well behind the scenes. Oh, I could say much more about him, but let’s not complicate my life any more than it is right now by going into that. The internet walls have ears....
I didn’t want to be involved, but there was one thing I knew for certain. Given what I’d been told about him in Dhaka, and recent events there, his life was most certainly in danger if he went back to Bangladesh. Still, it would have been very easy to say no. I could wash my hands of the case and let them find another ‘expert’....
Which begged the question – why me? There were thousands of Bangladeshis and several non-Bangladeshi academics in the USA familiar and experienced enough, I would have thought, to act in the case.
‘The total independence of the expert witness is vital. This is an appeal against the original rejection of our case, and I believe we needed more convincing testimony about conditions in Bangladesh to prove my client’s life is seriously at risk. We want a credible international expert with a research track record and on the ground experience. Our search puts you in that spot.’
It put me in a spot all right, as a second failed appeal would send him back to circumstances unquestionably dangerous for someone like him, and it could be that my refusal to give objective opinion on these could play a part in costing him his life if he were deported. That I wouldn’t wish on anyone and wasn’t something I wanted on my conscience.
Still I hesitated. I had my own reasons. Seven years before, his former associates were keeping a closer than comfortable eye on me when I was in Dhaka; not, I must add, that he had any personal role in that.
This testimony, should I choose to give it, would be delivered by phone. I wasn’t going to hop on a plane to Alaska, though that might have been good fun, even in the middle of northern hemisphere winter. We discussed details of the case.
‘I don’t want to say anything in a court about this particular person. If I do agree to testify, I want it to be on the understanding that I speak only about objective political circumstances in Bangladesh, not anything to do with him directly.’
‘That’s in fact what we’re looking for. It’s your authority on national Bangladeshi politics and its environment that would be your concern. But I can’t guarantee just what sort of questions you might be asked by the other side. There is of course a fee for your services.’
‘Look, I write newspaper articles and talk on current affairs radio about Bangladesh politics and life, and a lot of other things. I never expect a fee for those and nor do most academics in this country. It’s part of my job. I don’t want a fee.’
Call me dumb for not taking money off a wealthy man, win or lose, but the idea of a fee repelled me, like blood money. It instantly changes your relationship with the people who pay it. You’re on their payroll. This was one ship I wanted to be able to jump off if it became unpredictable. I said I’d think about it.
The only reason I took it on was a perhaps over-developed concern for the life of someone who hadn’t really had much compassion for plenty of other people’s welfare in his own country. When the lawyer rang back a day later, I said I’d do it. I kept my concerns about the character of his client to myself. Those concerns were not something that was relevant to the case. And, after all, I wasn’t there to provide a character reference. (continued)