Bangladesh government at the UN Human Rights Committee

Bangladesh government at the UN Human Rights Committee

Anisul Huq, the Bangladesh Law Minister, responding to
questions at the UN Human Rights Committee

17 years ago, in September 2000, Bangladesh’s Awami League government ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under the treaty, within a year, the government was required to provide the UN Human Rights Committee a report on its compliance. But it failed to do so, as did the subsequent BNP 2001– 2006 government, the 2007 to 2008 emergency caretaker government and the 2009 to 2014 Awami League government.

A year into its new term of office, and 15 years after the initial ratification, the Awami League government did finally submit its first report which earlier this month came up for consideration before the Human Rights Committee.

Though the Committee has no teeth, it was nonetheless refreshing to see the committee put the Bangladesh government though its paces on two separate days – something which one does not see much of these days inside Bangladesh, as the country has a parliament without a proper opposition, and an increasingly restricted (and nationalist) media unwilling (or unable) to ask hard and concerted questions.

So what did we learn from the law minister, Anisul Huq, who represented the government in Geneva? Here are my 8 most notable inaccuracies – other people will no doubt find others – along with four other interesting government comments.

  1. Numbers of disappearances and extra-judicial killings

When Awami League government representatives are faced with allegations of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, in recent years simply deny the state’s culpability. For disappearances, they say that the law enforcement authorities never picked up the person (often claiming that the disappeared person was just hiding from the police and had staged their own disappearance) and for extra judicial killings, they claim that all the ‘cross-fire’ killings were done lawfully and in self defence.

Whilst, the minister at the Human Rights Committee did not deny that these incidents took place – at leat a positive sign – he did however say that there were very few such incidents. “With regard to allegations of ‘extra-judicial killings’, ‘enforced disappearances’ and ‘torture in custody’. I would like to stress that our government has taken meaningful actions to bring such incidents of human rights violations to a very low level,” he said.

The reality though is very different. Enforced disappearances, which were very rare before 2009, have become a new reality with been steadily climbing statistics – from 3 in 2009 to over 90 in 2016. All statistics below are taken from the annual human rights reports of Odhikar.

Enforced Disappearances

Awami League government
Year 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Nos 3 18 31 26 53 39 66 >90

In relation to extra judicial killings since 2004, only 5 out of the last 13 years had experienced a lower number of extra-judicial killings that 2016, and two of these were during the current Awami League period.

Moreover, the most recent 2016 figure of extra-judicial killings is higher than the number of incidents in each of the six years between 2008 to 2014, other than 2013, where there was as many as 329 incidents.

 

Extra judicial killings

BNP Emergency Awami League
Year 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Nos 240 396 184 149 154 127 84 70 329 172 185 178
  1. Deaths at the hands of RAB 

The minister sought to illustrate the reduced number of incidents by stating that there had only been “25 casualties by RAB members in 2014-15 compared to 261 in 2005/6.”. However, here the government is cherry picking the figures. Whilst it is correct that the number of deaths caused by RAB in 2016 are less than the numbers in 2004 to 2008, it is higher than the number of deaths in all subsequent years other than 2010 (which is also a year when the Awami League was in office).

Deaths at hands of RAB

BNP Emergency Awami League
Year 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Nos 79 111 94 68 41 68 43 40 38 29 51 51

As to torture, there are no statistics that one can use to assess whether torture has decreased or not, though anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been no diminishing of the use of torture, and the National Human Rights Commission said in its own report to the Human Rights Comittee that: “custodial torture has become a persistent trend in Bangladesh”.

  1. The government’s ‘zero tolerance’ to law enforcement crimes

The government sought to argue that it “maintains zero tolerance approach with respect to any crime committed by the law enforcement agencies.” In doing so, the government points to one incident involving the disappearance and then killing of 7 people in April 2014 which resulted in 26 people, including 3 former senior RAB officials, receiving a death sentence.

This however is an anomalous case and there is perhaps not a single other disappearance/extra judicial killing – before or after – that has resulted in a proper investigations and a subsequent trial.  This particular case only resulted in a trial as the victims were Awami League supporters; the bodies were found quickly; there was wall-to-wall media coverage of the incident including vocal allegations made by the victims’ families blaming RAB; and, most significantly, the High Court ordered the police to arrest three RAB officers.

4. Police file cases against law enforcement officers

The minister said that whenever a crime, allegedly committed by a law enforcing agency, “is brought to the notice of the police a case is initiated and action is taken.” This is not accurate. In just about ever case involving an alleged disappearance, where families allege that law enforcement authorities are involved, the police do not allow the families to file any General Diary complaint in which they are allowed to make this allegation

5. No Habeas Corpus cases

The minister told the Committee that there was “At this point in time no habeas corpus cases pending before the High Court” relating to alleged disappearances. This is inaccurate, and the following day one of the members of the Human Rights Committee corrected the minister. She said that she had been informed of at least two habeas corpus cases currently before the High Court; one involving a disappearance in February 2010, where there was a hearing in April 2010 but no subsequent court decision ‘given since then’. And another case involving a disappearance in 2012, which resulted in a court ruling in 2013 asking the state to respond within a week – but that four years there had been no response to the court ‘even though the failure could be subject to contempt of court’. The Minister did not respond to this.

6. Removal of section 57 of the ICT Act 2006

The Minister told the committee that the highly criticised section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology Act – which, amongst other things, criminalises a person who posts on the internet any material which ‘prejudices the image’ of the state or any person and where there is a minim sentence of 7 years imprisonment – will be repealed when a new Digital Security Act was enacted.

However, he failed to inform the committee that the draft Digital Security Act includes a section which nearly duplicates section 57 of the ICT. Section 16 of the draft Act criminalises someone who publishes on the internet any material which ‘defames any person or institution’ or is ‘fake’. However, the sentence for this offence is reduced

7. War Crimes Trials complying with international standards

The Minister said that the trials at the International Crimes Tribunal “was done in full compliance with ICCPR provisions.’ This is inaccurate in very many ways. Perhaps, the most apparent of these however relates to the court’s decision to severely restrict the numbers of defence witnesses. In the trial of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, the prosecution brought 41 witnesses to the tribunal to prove 23 offences, but the defence was restricted to only calling 5 witnesses. And in the case of Abdul Alim, who in the same month received a sentence of life imprisonment, the prosecution was allowed 35 witnesses, but the defence was restricted to 3 witnesses to disprove 17 offences. In three other cases the tribunal has allowed an equally small number of witnesses: 4 witnesses have been permitted in Motiur Rahman Nizami’s defence relating to 16 charges; 5 witnesses in the trial of Kamaruzzaman involving 7 offences; and 6 in the case of Abdul Quader Molla in defence of 6 offences.

8. Bangladesh alone in providing appeal following war crimes conviction?

The Minister argued that whilst Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal allowed an appeal from convictions this was not the case at international war crimes trials involving ‘Cambodia, Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda’ This is not correct. Whilst it was the case that the 1945 Nuremberg and 1946 Tokyo trials (that took place over 60 years ago) had no appeal mechanism, all the subsequent international trials had a right to appeal.

And the interesting …

10. LBGT rights

The minister did not support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. He said:

“We live in a country where these rights are surely foreign. Our society is not yet ready for such liberalisation. And no member of any religion is willing to concede.”11. Hindu Marriage law

The government said that it wanted to reform Hindu marriage law so that Hindu woman can get a divorce – presently not permitted in Bangladesh – but cannot do so as:

“we have received strong opposition from conservative Hindu community and conservative Hindu leaders are serious bottle neck, … We are trying to impress up on them that in the modern age woman should have proper rights to dissolve marriage and also right to inherit their parent property which they not now have.”12. Investigating torture

The minister said that there were no current investigations of torture in custody.

“There has been no complaint of torture in custody, so no investigation arises. If the Committee has any information about any such investigation should be forwarded it surely investigate the matter and take steps to remedy at national level.”

Article appeared in Bangladesh Politico; Tuesday, March 28, 2017

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