Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Amnesty chief faults Bangladesh government on rights

Amnesty chief faults Bangladesh government on rights
Helen Rowe
Source: AFP
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Bangladesh's army-backed emergency government has failed to protect human rights and hold itself accountable over its anti-graft drive since taking power a year ago, Amnesty International says.

The caretaker government put democracy on hold when it ousted the country's feuding politicians last January following a stand-off between the two main political parties over vote-rigging allegations.

Elections scheduled for January 22 last year were cancelled after months of crippling protests and violence, and the new authorities pledged to clean up Bangladesh's notoriously graft-ridden politics before holding new polls later this year.

But Amnesty secretary general Irene Khan told AFP in an interview that the interim body had not governed in a transparent way, and had failed to tackle the impunity with which law enforcers committed human rights abuses.

"Our most important concerns are the persistence of impunity and that major human rights violations are not investigated and the perpetrators are not prosecuted," said Khan during a week-long visit to the impoverished country.

"Then there is the issue of failures in protecting human rights over the past year," she said, adding that she had heard first-hand accounts of abuse of power, arbitrary detention and mistreatment from victims in the capital Dhaka and the northern city of Rajshahi.

Although many similar cases had occurred in 2006 and before, these latest ones were in 2007, she said.

The government has never given figures for the number of people detained under its corruption crackdown, although it is known around 150 high-profile figures were arrested.

Some, including former ministers, have been given lengthy jail sentences by fast-track tribunals not open to the press or public. The country's two most recent prime ministers -- Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed -- are still in detention.

"This government made a pledge to create greater transparency and accountability with the anti-corruption drive, but on many occasions they have not been very transparent about what they are doing," Khan said.

"There is confusion. It is not clear what provisions are being used to charge who. Transparency is essential because this government is claiming to set past wrongs right."

The Amnesty chief, herself from Bangladesh, said the government enjoyed "huge popular support" when it was installed on January 12, 2007 -- a day after the president imposed a state of emergency -- because of the misrule of previous governments.

"The situation that persisted prior to the 11th January was one in which there was a very high degree of political violence, a nexus between political violence and organised crime, a breakdown of the state as an entity that provided security to people and massive human rights violations," she said.

"People felt there was a need to do something and there was widespread support for a government that was backed by the military and that came to power to organise free and fair elections.

But she said the authority had not met the expectations of many, and that disillusionment at the lack of "transparent accountable governance" was threatening to undermine its ability to carry out its original pledges.

"Popular support cannot be taken for granted. There is a sense of disenchantment that is coming from a sense of uncertainty and economic insecurity. There is a window of opportunity for an initiative to be taken. It is not an open-ended window. Time is running out," she added.

Khan is due to meet army chief General Mooen U. Ahmed and head of the caretaker government Fakhruddin Ahmed during her visit.

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