Sultan M Hali
THE US State Department has charge-sheeted Bangladesh for its gross abuse of human rights. In response, Press Information Department, Government of Bangladesh, Dhaka forwarded a letter to all Bangladesh High Commissions abroad, covering the official protest lodged by Bangladeshi Government through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the US Government rejecting the 50-page country Report on “Human Rights Practices for 2018” with special emphasis on “Human Rights Violations in Bangladesh” issued by State Department, USA. The 50-page report is thorough and deliberate in its findings and has raised some very serious questions regarding the human rights situation in the country and the involvement of the Awami League (AL) government in this.
It highlights the factor that 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 organization (NGO) workers and government imposing restrictions on freedom of thought and expression. Thus, the Bangladesh government has failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities from “societal violence”.
Citing human rights groups’ claims, the above-mentioned report clearly mentions 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 marginalized 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 Bangladeshi 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 publicized 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, the AL government of Sheikh Hasina Wajid undertook certain drastic measures to restore law and order. But such actions have 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 students 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 draconian 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).
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”. Under the garb of “war crime trials”, the AL government is targeting political opponents and sending them to the gallows through kangaroo courts on trumped up charges of having aided and abetted the Pakistan Army during the 1971 Pakistan-India War. The December 2018 general elections in Bangladesh is not considered as free, fair or credible and was marred by high scale irregularities, including ballot box stuffing and intimidation of Opposition, polling agents and voters.
The report belies the anti-Pakistan narrative of the AL government, which has been spewing venom against Pakistan to hide its own incompetency, poor human rights record goaded by India to bait Pakistan. The HRW has urged the AL 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. Now with the US State Department providing irrefutable evidence as exposé, Bangladesh has no face to blame Pakistan for its imaginary cases of genocide alleged to have been carried out by Pakistan Army in 1971.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.