The United Nations is calling for a full investigation into evidence of corruption and illegality involving the Bangladesh army, which was exposed during an investigation released by Al Jazeera on Monday.
The corruption involves Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff, General Aziz Ahmed, who is due to meet senior UN officials in New York next week.
In All the Prime Minister’s Men, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit revealed that Bangladesh’s military purchased sophisticated and highly intrusive mobile phone surveillance equipment from Israel, which Bangladesh military commanders claimed was “for one of the Army Contingents due to be deployed in the UN Peacekeeping Mission”.
A spokesperson for the UN said that this was not the case and that its peacekeepers do not operate “electronic equipment of the nature described in the Al Jazeera reporting”.
“Such equipment has not been deployed with Bangladeshi contingents in United Nations peacekeeping operations,” the UN spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“We are aware of the reporting by Al Jazeera Investigations concerning allegations of corruption against senior officials in Bangladesh and the press release issued by the Ministry of Defence of Bangladesh. The allegation of corruption is a serious matter that should be investigated by the relevant authorities.
Bangladesh is the largest overall contributor of uniformed personnel to UN Peacekeeping missions, with more than 6,800 presently deployed in peacekeeping operations around the world.
The surveillance equipment is called an “international mobile subscriber identity-catcher”, or IMSI-catcher. It is a tool that emulates cell towers to trick cellular devices into providing locations and data that is then captured by the device.
It can be used to track hundreds of attendees of demonstrations simultaneously, among other things.
The Bangladesh army said that the equipment was made in Hungary and not Israel, which the Muslim-majority country does not recognise.
Al Jazeera obtained the contract for the purchase, which deliberately concealed the fact that the manufacturer, PicSix, is an Israeli company. PicSix was set up by former Israeli intelligence agents and sent two experts to Hungary to train officers from the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh’ military intelligence service, on how to operate the equipment.
The contract, dated June 2018, was signed by the Directorate General Defense Purchase, the body charged with buying Bangladesh’s military supplies. The manufacturer was said to be PicSix Hungary, an entity that does not exist according to Hungarian company filings.
Al Jazeera obtained covert recordings of a middleman, James Moloney, admitting the IMSI-catcher was Israeli made. Moloney, an Irish national, owns a company called Sovereign Systems, which is registered in Singapore, though he, himself is based in Bangkok.
Moloney is recorded saying that Sovereign Systems was a front for Picsix’s business in Asia. He also admitted that the surveillance technology is “from Israel, so we don’t advertise that technology. We are very careful about our public profile.
“I could never say the Bangladesh army is my customer. We cannot do that,” he added.
He described the technology as “very aggressive and intrusive. You don’t want the public to know that you’re using that equipment.”
Human rights violations
According to Eliot Bendinelli from Privacy International, a UK-based privacy watchdog, authorities can use it to collect information on people taking part in demonstrations.
“You are looking at everybody who is in the area and so you can keep investigating and having more people under surveillance at the same time,” Bendinelli said.
Bendinelli added, “If you know what people are saying, where they are going to meet up, what they are planning to do, you can know a lot of things. And then you have the power to act.”
Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera that the Israeli government does not scrutinise the human rights records of end-users. “For a country like Bangladesh, if they buy this equipment from the US or European Union, they have leverage on you when you use it for human rights violations and they might cancel the agreement,” he said.
“With Israel, it’s not like that, they don’t ask questions. They don’t care,” Mack said.
The knowledge that Israeli-made spyware could be used by Bangladesh to monitor opposition groups will spark further unease in a nation accused of multiple human rights violations.
According to Amnesty International, the government is involved in “unlawful killings and disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture”.
All the Prime Minister’s Men
Months of undercover reporting revealed that the head of the army, General Aziz Ahmed, is aiding two of his brothers to escape prison sentences for murder, and that he ordered officers to help create a false identity for one who fled to Europe.
Aziz moved his fugitive brother, Haris Ahmed, to Hungary where he operates under the false identity, buying companies and property using kickbacks from military contracts and running extortion rackets with Bangladesh security forces. A second fugitive brother was in hiding in Malaysia.
General Ahmed is currently on a diplomatic visit to the United States where will meet UN officials to discuss Bangladesh’s current deployment of more than 6,000 troops for the UN in countries like Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Burundi. Aziz is due to meet the under-secretary-general for peace operations and other senior UN officials involved in peacekeeping operations.
The call for an inquiry by the UN will be a serious blow for the Bangladesh military.
The UN, whose military personnel are known as the Blue Helmets, spends nearly $7bn annually on its peacekeeping missions.
Bangladesh’s deployment generates significant funds for the Bangladeshi army and is prized as a mark of their international standing as a professional military force.
The concern expressed by the UN will put the Bangladesh Ministry of Defence under mounting pressure to defend General Aziz who has so far not commented himself on the investigation. The Bangladesh army public relations office described the investigation as “concocted and ill-intended”.