Bangladesh: Faces of Emergency and Human Rights Issues
Published by Mukul Sharmaat July 13, 2007
Cholesh Richil had no charges of corruption or criminal activity in Bangladesh, which is ruled under emergency and a civilian caretaker government, backed by the army. An outspoken leader of the Garo indigenous community, who live in the Modhupur area north of Dhaka, Cholesh had been campaigning against the construction of a so-called ‘eco (ecology) park’ on their ancestral land, on the grounds that it would deprive them of their land and means of livelihood. He was arrested by the Joint Forces (army and police) personnel on 18 March 2007 and taken to Modhupur Kakraidh temporary army camp. Tortured for several hours before being taken to Madhupur Thane Health Complex, he was declared dead the same evening.
After Choesh Richil’s body was handed over to the Garo community church on 19 March, his family observed multiple bruises, nails missing from his fingers and toes, and cuts and scratches consistent with blade wounds. His testicles had been removed. Local government officials have stated that an ‘administrative inquiry’ into the case has been initiated, but none are aware of the terms of reference or the progress of the inquiry.
A country where more than 100,000 people have been detained, often in mass arrests, since early January, and no way to establish the total number of those who remain in detention, abuses against human rights defenders, social activists, journalists and NGOs in Bangladesh are occurring frequently during the emergency. According to a Dhaka based human rights organisation Odhikar report, prepared on the basis of 11 national dailies and its own fact-findings, during the first 130 days of emergency in Bangladesh, from 12 January to 21 May 2007, a total of 96 persons were reportedly killed during different operations by the law-enforcement personnel. In addition, 193,329 were reported arrested, inclusive of general arrests for violations of law. Of the 96 reported killed, 54 were killed by the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), 25 by the police, 7 by the joint forces, 6 by the army, and 3 by the navy. One person was reported killed by officers of the Department of Narcotics Control.
Of course all the successive governments in Bangladesh have shown a disregard for human rights, but with the emergency, along with political rallies and other political activities banned, and restrictions imposed on the right to freedom of expression, the excesses are neither exposed nor protested against. What is further disturbing is that in the name of cleaning up of corruption or criminal activity, emergency and subsequent measures are being used to institutionalize a cycle of cumulative disregard for human rights in general, and for abuses against human rights defenders in particular. A cycle of impunity for human rights violations, which has prevailed in the country over its decades-long existence, is becoming a daily affair today.
In this environment, a larger social constituency is at severe risk. Take another recent case of Shahidul Islam, the founding director of Uttaran, a NGO working for the social and economic empowerment of the poor and the disadvantaged communities in the western districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Jessore, who was arrested and taken into Joint Forces’ custody on 27 January 2007. Following the arrest, he was served with a Detention Order under the Special Powers Act (SPA) on the unspecific grounds that he had ‘engaged in acts of terrorism and had harboured terrorists’. The police subsequently filed several criminal charges against him, apparently as additional means of securing his continued detention. Several days later when Shahidul Islam was allowed to have visitors, it was discovered that he had been severely beaten on his legs and his back, as the Joint Forces personnel accused him of possessing illegal weapons. He had to be sent to the Satkhira Sadar Hospital for treatment, and was later returned to the Satkhira District Jail, where he remains till today.
Agents of the state, including the police, the army and the other law enforcement personnel, for whom successive governments in Bangladesh have been directly accountable, have perpetrated several human rights violations in the past. Other perpetrators of human rights abuses are individuals or groups linked to armed criminal gangs, parties of the ruling coalition or the opposition, or mercenary gangs allegedly hired by the local politicians to suppress revelations about their unlawful activity. Hundreds of social and human rights activists have received death threats. Scores of them have been attacked. Several journalists have had their fingers or hands deliberately damaged so as not to be able to hold a pen. Many have had to leave their homes and localities in the face of continued threats. An Amnesty International report documents that from 2000-05, at least eight human rights defenders have been assassinated by assailants who are believed to be linked to armed criminal gangs or armed factions of political parties.
A detailed analysis reveals that people and groups working in areas of search for truth and justice, strengthening of the rule of law, increasing government accountability, struggle for gender, sexual and racial equality, children’s rights, rights of refugees, struggle against corruption, environmental degradation, hunger, disease and poverty, have particularly been the targets of attacks. With the emergency, arbitrary arrests and detentions of a wide spectrum of social activists have taken place. Such detainees are also reported to be tortured or ill-treated, while in custody. Special Powers Act, Code of Criminal Procedure, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1986, and other similar acts are being excessively used. Special Powers Act overrides the safeguards in Bangladesh law against arbitrary detention, and allows the government to hold a detainee for up to four months without charge or trial. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance empowers the police to detain anyone ‘found under suspicious circumstance between sunset and sunrise’.
The liberal space for expression of opinion has been progressively shrinking under successive governments in Bangladesh. However, under the emergency and army rule, it is becoming much worse, chiefly due to three reasons: fundamental rights to freedom of expression, and to equality before the law have been curtailed by individuals or groups connected to the army or the ruling coterie; the continued prevalence of corruption in the police force; and the abuse of institutions of the state by caretaker government authorities for their undemocratic agendas, which further strengthens a cycle of impunity for human rights abuses.
We know for sure that in South Asia, including India, administrative detention procedures during a state of emergency result in torture, and at such times there are no established clear and enforceable safeguards against such abuses. Proclaiming emergency is a non-desirable, anti-people act, and it plays no part in the sustainable combating of crime or corruption, or the maintenance of public order. Bangladesh has performed badly in the areas of law reforms and institution building from a human rights perspective. One of the few countries in the region, governments in Bangladesh have failed to set up a National Human Rights Commission, and the office of the Ombudsman – which is a constitutional requirement – has never been established. Frequent concerns have been raised about a number of legal practices which allow the executive to improperly influence the judiciary.
Failing to address such many serious issues, the caretaker government is suppressing the voices that are raising these concerns. The stories of Cholesh Richil and Shahidul Islam are illustrative of broader patterns of killing, torture, violence and impunity that are happening within the country. The power seized by the president or the army has not at all meant action against shielded politicians, military, police and other officials responsible for grave human rights violations; rather just the reverse is happening. Seeing the repressive regime within, it is important to raise concerns outside about the human rights situation in Bangladesh, so that the government can be taken to task in bilateral or multilateral forums.