Bangladesh 2006: A human rights audit
Hameeda Hossain runs a critical eye over Bangladesh's human rights record of the past year
Bangladesh took great pride in its nomination to the UN Human Rights Council last March. But it overlooked its responsibility to account for its own record of reporting to the UN committees charged with monitoring state implementation of human rights standards on torture, civil and political rights and social and economic rights.
If it had, the state's failure to protect the rights of its citizens to life, liberty and livelihood would have come to international attention. Perhaps many thought that selection to the council would whitewash our national image, but, in fact, the record of political democracy in Bangladesh has shown declining respect for human rights and democratic practices.
This year, as earlier, impunity for egregious violations of human rights by both state and non-state actors constituted an acute source of insecurity. Second, the rights to life and liberty, to equality and security were, and continue to be, imperiled in the absence of any change in the now all-pervasive political culture of winner-takes-all for purposes of accumulation and control, and vendetta against political opponents. The denial of political freedoms allowed a silencing of the right to livelihood.
Right to life
In the last parliamentary elections in 2001, the BNP strategically contested on a commitment to restore law and order, as a response to the political violence which had preceded its rule. But little did the voters, who brought the four party alliance to power, realize that within three years the right to life would be seriously endangered as the government set up the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a composite security force drawn from the military, police and other auxiliary forces under a special law passed in 2004.
Crossfire killings: Ten RAB battalions went into action in June 2004 with orders to arrest alleged "terrorists" or criminals. But their operations led to an unprecedented number of extra-judicial killings. The due process of law was ignored -- without even the customary lip service being paid to the principle - by the state minister for home affairs who defended the killings by saying: "Criminals can have no human rights." This despite the fact that some of the victims were innocent bystanders, including a child and an old man, or who were arrested on the basis of mistaken identification.
Ironically, these extra-legal processes have continued even during the tenure of the caretaker government. Press releases issued by RAB acknowledged that 109 personnel faced administrative disciplinary processes, but there was no accounting for the deaths perpetrated by RAB personnel. Nor, indeed, were any of the victims compensated. Three individual cases were filed against RAB. In one case, the High Court issued a suo motu rule, following the disappearance and abduction of Kishore Kumar Das, to question RAB's treatment of persons in custody. In a public interest litigation, the High Court also questioned RAB 's powers of arrest and detention.
Extremist militancy: Since 1999, bomb and grenade explosions, reportedly caused by religious extremists, have targeted secular cultural programs and institutions, opposition party leaders and offices, public meetings by opposition parties and political leaders. Official silence regarding these events was matched by resounding denials by ruling party leaders, and in Rajshahi a senior police officer went so far as to publicly to support the militants. It was only after synchronized bombings in 63 districts on August 17, 2005, which aroused national and international concern, that the government started investigation and prosecution.
Between December 2005 and October 2006, over 300 militants including six top leaders of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh were arrested, and four organizations were banned. Two hundred and forty one cases were filed and 29 persons were sentenced to life imprisonment or capital punishment. The convicted have testified to their involvement in different acts of torture and death, but no information has been made public regarding their links with political forces within the country, the region and internationally. Six members of the Majlis-e-Shura of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh were sentenced to capital punishment, but again the silence on the content of their "confessions" has raised fears that the masterminds and complex networks behind these episodes would continue to haunt politics in Bangladesh.
Political violence: Political violence between cadres of the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and the Jamaat-e-Islami has been common in the last decade, and the tempo has risen fatally. At least three leading members of the Awami League were killed in the last two years, and many have been assaulted, arrested or intimidated. Shibir cadres (affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami) accused of the murder of a professor in Rajshahi University, have, however, managed to evade trial. Political confrontation preceding the formation of the caretaker government in October/November led to around 50 deaths.
Right to liberty
The culture of tolerance, allowing for dissent, has been bypassed as law enforcement forces have acted brutally to silence dissent and suppress political protests. Leading members of the opposition parties and members of parliament, such as Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Asaduzaman Noor, were seriously injured in police assaults during demonstrations and had to be hospitalized. Women political activists participating in rallies were particularly vulnerable to assaults and sexual harassment by police and others. During political rallies organized by the main opposition party, on March 12, 2006, several young women were manhandled, assaulted, and arrested.
The right to assembly and movement was violated by law enforcement agencies who imposed section 144 on 93 occasions in 6 districts, followed by pre-emptive mass arrests of over 28,000 persons. Most of the arrested were ordinary citizens, such as transport workers and day labourers; not only were they deprived of their liberty, but their families had to spend days to obtain their bail.
Rights of minorities
Since the elections in 2001, religious minorities, including Hindus and Christians, have been at the receiving end of orchestrated violence, which included attacks on their places of worship, seizure of property or land, rape, intimidation of young women, or false cases. Many had to migrate from their villages, or send their children away to live with relatives, to ensure their security. Hindus have complained that the repeal of the Vested Property Act in 2001 has not helped in recovery of their properties, which continue to be appropriated by powerful individuals.
Discrimination against religious minorities is evident in their low participation in political and other decision-making institutions, and their poor access to bank loans and other economic opportunities. They have also been subjected to violence because of their beliefs. Although Hindus appeared to be freer in towns to perform puja festivals this year, village gangs aligned to the ruling party were known to have attacked temples and demolish deities. The police guard was more evident at urban festivals. The Ras Mela festival, celebrated by the Buddhists, had to be canceled in a few villages because of intimidation.
The Ahmadiyas, a small Muslim sect, have been threatened with proscription, violence, destruction and occupation of their mosques by religious zealots working under the banner of the Khatme Nabuwat Movement. The government failed to revoke its ban on Ahmadiya literature, or to prosecute the vandals who attacked the mosques. In 2006, the police were able to prevent large scale violence, but in a few places zealots, despite police protection, went ahead to desecrate Ahmadiya institutions. Many secular civil society groups stood in support of the Ahmadiyas.
Right to livelihood
Corruption and mismanagement in the energy sector deprived large numbers in villages, or the poorer parts of towns, of electricity and water, which are essential for agricultural livelihoods. Instead of rectifying this, the administration allowed the police to fire on protestors demanding electricity, first in Kansat, in northern Rajshahi in April, killing five persons including a ten year old boy, and then in Sonir Akhra near Dhaka in May.
Plans by the Asian Energy Company (AEC) for open pit coal mining, which threatened displacement for hundreds of indigenous families in Phulbaria as well as more serious environmental damage, were resisted across the country. Again, the police shot at the demonstrators, and five persons were killed. The demonstrators demanded that the government cancel its agreement with AEC and protect their rights to their right to life.
A serious crisis surfaced in the export garment industries as workers' demands for reconsideration of minimum wages, which had remained stagnant since 1993, and safety conditions continued to be ignored. In May and June, this led to massive worker demos in the export processing zones in Savar and Ghazipur. An announcement that minimum wages were to be increased from the standard of Tk 930 in 1993 to Tk 1630 in 2006 brought few cheers from workers.
Defence of human rights
Defence of human rights has grown increasingly difficult with a breakdown of institutions, impunity of corrupt syndicates, and weaknesses in the justice system itself.
Freedom of expression: While several NGOs faced bureaucratic censors, journalists became the targets of violence instigated by business and political syndicates. Three journalists were killed, 72 reporters were subjected to assault and harassment by members of the ruling party, and cases were filed against 63 journalists.
In Kushtia, a powerful member of parliament assaulted a journalist for reporting his illegal activities, and threatened him into silence. Reporters and photo-journalists also became the target of police assaults during political demos. Freedom of speech and information thus came under serious threat. While eight electronic channels owned by powerful ministers and party members were licensed, the government, contrary to the directions of the Supreme Court, failed to allocate a terrestrial frequency to Ekushey Television.
A captive democracy
Political democracy has been hostage to a power play in which institutions have become dysfunctional. Parliament remained subservient to the interests of a narrow clique of political and commercial syndicates. The Awami League, the major opposition party, boycotted parliament for long periods on the grounds that the speaker repeatedly disallowed discussions on vital issues such as extra-judicial killings, religious militancy, worker unrest in export garment industries, and partisan appointments by the four party alliance government. Parliament failed to perform its function as a watchdog, and as a place for negotiation and dialogue.
The judiciary, the last resort for protection of constitutional liberties, was also affected by politicization. The Supreme Court's directives in 1999 for the separation of the judiciary have not been implemented by the executive. Threats to physical security became an added reason for judicial restraint. On November 12, a year after two judges were killed by a suicide bomber, the lower court judges asked for extra protection from the government.
The Anti-Corruption Commission has remained structurally inoperative since its appointment in 2005. Several bills that could have promoted the establishment of human rights institutions, such as a Human Rights Commission, or laws on freedom of information, gender neutral citizenship laws, or remedies for domestic violence have continued to gather dust in the Law Ministry over the last five years.
Now that national elections to parliament hang in suspension, the question in all our minds is how we can promote and protect our basic civil rights in the face of an impending collapse of political democracy itself.
Dr Hameeda Hossain is a member of the Editorial Board, Forum Magazine.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv