David Bergman

The Orwell prize was wrong to choose Labour MP Tulip Siddiq as a judge

The Orwell prize was wrong to choose Labour MP Tulip Siddiq as a judge
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The winner of this year’s Orwell prize for political writing, announced last week, was a book that centres around the disappearance in Belfast of Jean McConville. McConville, a widowed mother of ten, was snatched from her home in December 1972 by a gang of armed men. She was never seen again.

What irony then that the person who chaired the panel of judges was none other than Labour MP Tulip Siddiq. Over a number of years, Siddiq has assiduously refused to publicly denounce the responsibility of her very own family, currently ruling Bangladesh, for hundreds of secret detentions, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, or indeed even to lobby her family members to help get these men released.  

Siddiq has built her liberal and human rights credentials off the back of her campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran on false espionage charges. It may well be the case that it was the publicity from this work which brought Siddiq to the attention of the Orwell Foundation in the first place.

Yet Siddiq deserves little credit for her role in this campaign. Since she is MP for both Nazanin and her husband, Siddiq had little choice but to back Nazanin’s husband in his campaigning work. What's more, she had nothing to lose in demanding Nazanin’s release and – as we have found out - much politically to gain by doing so.

Instead, Siddiq should be judged by her decisions on human rights where she had a real choice, not one compelled by parliamentary obligation. Those occasions where making a decision could have a positive influence, and – more specifically – where doing the right thing could come at some cost to her. This is why the Orwell Foundation should have considered Siddiq’s refusal to speak out against disappearances and extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh before appointing her to such a prestigious role.

Let us be clear: the criticism of Siddiq has nothing to do with her Bangladesh heritage, as such. Rather, it is because of her links to the Awami League, the party governing the country since 2009 – which, according to a recent international human rights report, is responsible for hundreds of disappearances as part of an “ongoing strategy of state-sponsored violence to suppress political opposition and dissent in the country.”

Her aunt is the leader of the Awami League and the Bangladesh prime minister, her uncle is the prime minister’s security adviser, her cousin is another prime ministerial adviser and her mother is talked about as a possible successor to her aunt as leader of the party. Her family, literally, rules the country.

As Channel 4 News and the Times has shown, before Siddiq entered British politics she described herself as a spokeswoman for the Awami League. And in 2011, Siddiq was listed as a delegate of Bangladesh at the UN general assembly along with her mother.

So when she has been asked for help by families of those disappeared in Bangladesh, what should be her response? Yes, she may well be right to argue that she has no parliamentary obligation to assist these families. But what morally should she do? Should she use her familial access to the Bangladesh prime minister or the security adviser to get them released? And if her Awami League connections take no heed of her supplications, should she publicly call out the Bangladesh government and campaign for the men's release and for the secret detentions and disappearances to stop? 

This is the moral choice that Siddiq had to make. And she has chosen to "Say Nothing" – also notably the title of the book which Siddiq's panel of judges awarded the prize, which refers back to the culture of silence in Northern Ireland when disappearances like that of Jean McConville were taking place. 

No doubt if Siddiq was actually to say something, it would come at some personal cost to her with loss of good familial relations. But there is no doubt that this would be the right thing to do. Saying nothing, as she does, only comes at a cost of the disappeared.

It is easy to think of these issues in the abstract. But right now in the UK, there is a former Bangladesh army officer turned successful businessman whose life has been turned upside in the last 14 months. Shahid Uddin Khan is in great need of Siddiq’s help.

Back in Bangladesh, several members of Khan's family and staff have been allegedly picked up and detained by the country’s security agencies. The whereabouts of four of them remain unknown, months after they initially disappeared. Khan’s money in Bangladesh has been frozen. His office and house in the country’s capital city have been raided. And him and his wife have been branded terrorists.

This man’s real crime appears to be that he fell out with his former business partner, Tarique Siddique, who apart from being the prime minister’s security adviser – a man with effective control over the country's armed forces and intelligence agencies – is also Tulip Siddiq’s uncle.

Siddiq may well be completely unaware about what has happened to Khan. But if so, why won't she speak out now? And what of her failure in the past to speak out in relation to the country’s entrenched practice of enforced disappearances?

It is this reason why institutions like the George Orwell Foundation should shun Tulip Siddiq until she starts taking a moral stand against disappearances in Bangladesh.