Bangladesh has been witnessing increasing rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, lengthy detention and extra judicial killings for the last few years. There are also instances of security forces harassing journalists and non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers and government imposing restrictions on freedom of thought and expression. Moreover, in the eyes of international human rights organisations and some Western countries, the Bangladesh government has failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities from “societal violence”.
Such disturbing phenomena have been highlighted in the report of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on July 6, 2017. According to the HRW report, there were at least 90 incidents of enforced disappearances in 2016. While most of them were produced in courts following prolonged detention, there had been 21 cases of detainees being killed and 9 others whose whereabouts remain unknown. The report has further noted that in the first five months of this year, 48 disappearances were reported. Besides, there are allegations of severe torture and ill-treatment while in secret custody.
Citing human rights groups’ claims, the United States (US) State Department 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices clearly mentioned that the Bangladesh government’s strong anti-militancy operations have resulted in growing extra judicial killings, arbitrary detentions for the purpose of extortion, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses of human rights. The report has also pointed out cases of killing of members of marginalised groups and others by groups espousing extremist views, early and forced marriage, gender-based violence, particularly against women and children, dismal working conditions and labour rights abuses. Moreover, the Bangladesh authorities imposed restrictions on online speech and press, infringed on citizens’ privacy rights.
International human rights observers lament that the Bangladesh government still continues with “abhorrent practices” even though majority of the cases are widely publicised by the local media. In their opinion, Bangladesh’s security forces seem to have “a free hand in detaining people, deciding on their guilt or innocence, and determining their punishment, including whether they have the right to be alive”.
The security forces held responsible for enforced disappearance, detention and custodial death are mainly Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Detective Branch (DB) of police. The other forces such as Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and other agencies are accused of serious violations as well. In addition to these, there are reports suggesting that the Bangladesh security forces are deliberately shooting opposition activists in the leg. Victims claim that police shoot them in custody and then issue statements saying they were shot in self-defence in crossfire with armed criminals, or during violent protests. These include people suspected of criminal activities and members of opposition parties.
In the face of opposition’s violent agitations, street vandalism and continued strikes and blockades during 2013-15, the AL government undertook certain drastic measures to restore law and order. But such actions had invited widespread criticism from domestic and international quarters accusing the government of “highhandedness”. There were also reports of politically-motivated killings, and disappearance of noted journalists and opposition leaders.
All these are blamed on the bitter power rivalry between the two major political formations, namely, centre-left coalition led by ruling AL and centre-right alliance headed by major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Such incidents are obvious fallout of over-politicisation of a society where even the most creative segment, intelligentsia, and proactive group like student especially belonging to Dhaka University, the nerve centre of the country, are not immune from the phenomenon.
The human rights groups have also slammed the AL government for alleged violations of various other rights generally enjoyed by people in a democratic polity. A number of new laws were introduced recently restricting freedom of expression. The human rights activists say the Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act passed in October 2016 to monitor the overseas funding sources of the NGOs, would infringe on freedom of expression and association. This act has imposed heavy restrictions on receiving foreign funds without approval by the NGO Affairs Bureau under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Furthermore, the AL government has decided to amend Press Council Act that includes provision for closing newspapers. Bangladesh’s journalists, including a few senior and reputed ones have incurred the wrath of the current government. The editor of the English-language “Daily Star”, Mahfuz Anam, who is a freedom fighter, faces 54 criminal defamation cases. Moreover, the Bangladesh authorities filed 55 cases against editor Matiur Rahman and some journalists associated with the country’s highest circulation daily “Protham Alo”, for criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment”.
The AL regime often uses the controversial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act against persons critical of decisions and activities of government officials and their families. The act allows police to arrest without warrant anyone posting material on social media that may “harm the image of the state”. The civil liberty groups described it a “draconian law” after the government scrapped the provision of bail through an amendment. The government insists that such measures are designed to stop the use of social media to spread religious hatred and seditious material.
Another area of government’s concern has been the rising influence of the NGOs. Among all South Asian nations, Bangladesh perhaps is having the maximum number of NGOs engaged in diverse activities. It appears that Bangladesh’s NGOs have developed a “constituency”, which is politically significant. The AL government has been trying to put them firmly under political control with the help of new legislations.
The cases of alleged human rights violations have to be seen against the backdrop of Bangladesh’s prevailing political culture. Party affiliation or at least sympathy matters a lot in a country where government organs, functional and professional groups are thoroughly politicised. The latest HRW report assumes significance as it was released just two days after a high-profile critic of the Bangladesh government briefly disappeared. The continuous human rights violations by the law enforcement agencies may snowball into a political issue in Bangladesh where the general elections are scheduled to be held in December 2018. In a recent development, mother of 22 of the missing political activists have floated a group called “Mayer’s Dak” (Mother’s Call) asking the AL government to reveal the whereabouts of their sons.
The Bangladesh government should initiate concrete measures to curb the human rights abuses by the security forces without further delay since they are hurting the country’s image as a liberal democratic country. The HRW has urged the government to immediately stop the widespread practice of enforced disappearances, order speedy, impartial and independent investigation into the allegations, provide answers to the affected families, and prosecute security forces involved in gross human rights violations.
The issue of human rights violation is part of the challenges of democratic governance facing Bangladesh. The AL government undoubtedly took some positive steps for the restoration of rule of law such as restart of much awaited war crimes trial and verdict of the infamous jail killing of 1975. But the government needs to do more for the institutionalisation of democracy in Bangladesh. In order to bring transparency in the functioning of the law enforcement agencies, the government may explore the possibility of forming autonomous bodies at the national and regional levels to monitor their functioning. Such agencies have already been established in some functioning democracies and Bangladesh could gain from their experience in handling human rights cases.
(Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee is a New Delhi-based independent analyst)