Surveillance law vote ‘betrayed tenets of a democratic state’

Surveillance law vote ‘betrayed tenets of a democratic state’
Bangladeshi refugee and writer Tasneem Khalil explains why the Riksdag's vote in favour of the surveillance law has him feeling let down by the country to which he fled to escape state-sanctioned domestic spying.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin.

On a personal level, I find it ironic that on June 18th 2008, exactly one year after my family and I were granted political asylum in Sweden, the Riksdag passed a draconian surveillance law.

I’m sure people who have found refuge in Sweden after fleeing police states from around the globe can relate to my emotions. But I doubt that the 143 Riksdag members who voted in favour of the bill will ever be able to understand how I feel.

Swedes do not have to watch their back while walking the streets, or invent a coded language for talking to their wives over telephone, or use cryptic sentences in their emails.

Unlike them, I have suffered the pain inflicted by surveillance state at its worst.

Back in Bangladesh, my home country, I was under constant surveillance for months. I was followed by operatives, my phones were tapped, and my office computer was bugged.

The surveillance was followed by my detention and torture at the hands of the Bangladeshi military intelligence agency on May 11th, 2007.

I was arrested in my home after midnight, blindfolded, and taken to a torture chamber inside Dhaka cantonment where my captors tortured and interrogated me for 22 hours.

One of the most unnerving aspects of those interrogation sessions was have to sit on a torture-bench with my eyes covered while someone described very private details of my life to me: how many cigarettes I smoked a day, how much I suffered from bronchial asthma, places I had been to in the last few years, people with whom I’d met, etc.

If felt like I was sitting naked in a room full of strangers.

A few days after my release, my private emails started appearing in pro-military newspapers as they attempted to prove that I was plotting to overthrow the government.

I remain shocked to this day by how much private information a state agency could gather about an individual just by keeping him under surveillance.

After what I have been through, I find it pathetic to see Sweden joining the surveillance club.

This country that gave me refuge, promised me dignity and, and offered me security is now set to cross the line and spy on its own population.

One Turkish journalist, now a political refugee in Sweden, summed things up as follows:

“I feel violated, as if someone has broken a promise. What we hold so dear, sacred freedoms, are now being taken away. That is so painful to watch.”

No, we never wanted to see this country become a surveillance state.

What then is the difference between Sweden and China, may I ask?

Well, the answer may be that Sweden, unlike China, is a democracy, which brings us to another serious issue: the shameless trampling of public opinion.

It is a fact that every major Swedish newspaper condemned the bill, urging politicians to vote against it. At the same time, large numbers of activists poured out on the streets to protest.

As far as I could tell from my conversations with people, every single person opposed it the measure.

If the governments of China, Zimbabwe or North Korea ignored such level of public opposition, I would have understood.

But the Riksdag is not the politburo of an authoritarian communist party that can pass any black law and blatantly ignore opposition from the public. It’s a democratically-elected parliament that, at least in theory, is accountable to the citizens.

By voting in favour of the bill, Riksdag members have not only sold out an essential public liberty, but they have also betrayed the basic tenets of a democratic state.

If an authoritarian state-agency turns its guns, cameras, and radars at its own people, that is certainly a disaster.

But if a democratically elected parliament empowers an agency to carry out mass-surveillance, that is an even greater disaster.

Tasneem Khalil is an Örebro-based freelance writer and columnist.