Human Rights in Bangladesh: A Continued Legacy of Injustice


It was like salt being rubbed into a wound that has being festering for a long time. The press in Bangladesh was justifiably outraged. One prominent English daily, the Daily Star, dubbed it “Human rights situation ‘worsens’”, while bdnews24 had a more melodramatic “HRW slams govt on human rights”. The topic of this sudden interest, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2013 World Report on Bangladesh, was steadfast in pointing the blame on the present government of Bangladesh, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party the Bangladesh Awami League. The failure of the Awami League government in the human rights arena was harshly criticised by HRW in the report entitled “Bangladesh: Government Backtracks on Rights”.

Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW said, “This government came to power promising the end of extrajudicial killings, a liberal environment for activists and critics, and an independent judiciary. But the government no longer seems to even be trying to achieve these goals.” The report criticised the role of the government and its various agencies on numerous issues commenting that Bangladesh’s human rights situation had worsened in 2012 as the government sought to: narrow political and civil society space, continued to shield security forces from prosecution for abuses, failed to investigate disappearances and killings, and announced stringent rules to monitor non-governmental organisations. The report reaffirmed previous stances taken by HRW when it observed that, “Glaring violations of fair trial standards became apparent in 2012 in the trials of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a wholly domestic court set up to try those accused of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence.”

In an observation on a worrying turn of events the report stated; “One of the most disturbing trends in 2012 was increased pressure and monitoring of civil society. Non-governmental organisations, including human rights groups, reported increased threats, harassment, and intimidation.” Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organisation has supplemented such remarks in its latest annual compilation, where the executive summary states that to rule by terror the government has resorted to various techniques such as the repression of the opposition political parties, workers and social organisations through systematic abuse of section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Such measures have provoked violence and unleashed anarchy. To this end the judiciary has been used and abused by the government to punish opponents and dissenters who criticise the government. Odhikar also cited the appointment of judges based on political considerations.

“The government seems to view every critic, including reputable domestic NGOs, as part of some vast conspiracy to topple it, instead of organisations genuinely interested in improving the country,” Adams said. He went as far as to attribute the actions of the government as stemming from an attitude of “you’re either with us or against us”, as characterized in its reaction to issues ranging from the war crimes and mutiny trials to responsibility for factory fires and labour rights. The war crimes trials deserve special mention since they have drawn particular criticism from all over the world, especially the US and UK governments. The tribunals have been criticised by UK-based The Economist and questioned by HRW on credible allegations of witness abductions and harassment of defence lawyers. HRW has even gone so far as to demand a retrial for one of the defendants, raising concerns over the impartiality and neutrality of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Yet, in the face of such credible critique, senior ministers within the government have reacted with the remarkable claim that the criticism is part of a well-funded international conspiracy to undermine the tribunal and authorities.

Recent events may be examined to give weight to the statements made by Human Rights Watch. Take the example of the widely covered Bishwajit Das murder case. On December 9, a group of 10 to 12 ruling party-backed Chatra League (the youth wing of the Awami League) activists, wrongly taking Das for an opposition activist, swooped in on the 24-year-old tailor as he was on his way to work in Old Dhaka. They beat him with sticks and iron rods and hacked him with sharp weapons. Bishwajit died after he was rushed to Mitford Hospital for treatment. This took place during the road-blockade of the opposition 18-party alliance near Bahadur Shah Park at around 8:30am.

Any other day and this incident would have been gradually snubbed out of existence, cleaned out of the people’s memories forever by the silence of the authorities. But the attack was instantly captured by the media through photographic and video footage and drew huge criticism from within Bangladesh and across the globe. On December 13, a Supreme Court lawyer filed a case with Dhaka’s CMM court against 13 named and over 100 unnamed people. The culprits were identified to be students of Jagannath University (JnU) and Kabi Nazrul Islam University College in the capital’s old quarters. JnU authorities expelled seven of the accused and cancelled certificates of two for their involvement in the killing, as per the photos and videos captured by the different media.

Incredibly however, Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir and the Prime Minister’s Office issued statements denying the Chatra League link in the tragic killing despite the glaring media evidence, pointing fingers instead at the opposition parties. This incident highlighted the fact that the government had aggressively played the blame game to avoid shouldering responsibility while in effect sanctioning such heinous crimes through manipulation of law agencies and the judiciary. Only this time the evidence was too strong to hide.

Fast-track to 28th January 2013 when at least 50 people, including policemen, were injured in Bangladesh as opposition activists of Jamaat-i-Islami and its student wing Shibir protested against the prosecution of their leaders on charges stemming from the War of Independence 40 years ago. In an alarming response, Benazir Ahmed, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner, called on police to shoot Shibir on sight saying; “From now open fire as soon as Shibir is visible”. This statement was followed by further inflammatory remarks of the ruling party leaders, who called for resisting any processions of Jamaat and Shibir.

Jamaat called a hartal (general strike) for the 31st of January to protest the repressive actions of the government, among them not allowing it to hold a pre-declared procession on the 30th of January in Dhaka. Three activists of Jamaat and Shibir were killed on that day in Bogra. Eyewitnesses and news reports alike have pointed the finger at the aggressive role of police backed by armed cadres of Chatra League, an accusation denied by the ruling party leaders. However, in a characteristic twist, police on Thursday night filed two cases against 2400 activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and Shibir over violence during Thursday’s hartal in the town, disregarding the perpetrators of the three murdered activists. Meanwhile, the bodies of the victims were sent to their respective villages for burial on Thursday, as police did not allow for a pre-declared funeral prayer to take place.

These incidents only serve to confirm the analysis of the HRW report on the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh. I urge the government of Bangladesh to take urgent steps in renouncing such deplorable acts in the service of narcissistic politics. Let us work together in ending this chapter of violence in order to present to our next generation the Bangladesh they deserve.

Source: The Platform


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