Bangladesh

 

  • BANGLADESH: HRD tortured while in arbitrary detention must be released and charges be dropped

     

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    Bangladesh authorities must immediately release human rights defender Mohammad Abdul Kaium, who has been allegedly tortured in custody during his arbitrary detention. The fabricated case filed against him under the Digital Security Act (DSA)-2018 and other penal laws should be dropped immediately.

    The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has verified information that Mohammad Abdul Kaium, a human rights defender associated with Odhikar, an independent rights organisation working on key issues of civil and political rights, is facing state-orchestrated persecution from the Sheikh Hasina regime in Bangladesh.

    Kaium edits online news portal www.mymensinghlive.com and is a journalist with www.bdpress24.com. He is also a web developer. In 2018, Kaium signed an agreement to provide web-development service for Idris Ali Khan, a close relative of a Member of Parliament of the ruling party, whom Kaium had criticised in the past. The agreement was worth BDT 120,000 (USD 1,394).

    On 11 May 2019, Idris Khan summoned Abdul Kaium to his office to receive his payment. Upon Kaium's arrival Idris Khan offered USD 200, significantly lower than the agreed amount. Kaium refused to take the lower payment. As he left Idris Khan's office in Kristopur, Mymensingh district town – an area which is under the Kotwoali police station's jurisdiction – two plain-clothed officers of the Detective Branch (DB) Police arrested him. The police officers also seized a cell phone from Kaium.

    The DB police ordered Abdul Kaium to give them ‘the USD 200' and searched him. Failing to find the money, the police tortured him and ordered Kaium to confess that he extorted money from Idris Khan. While he was in detention, a team of plain-clothes detectives raided Kaium's house in the Bhatiashor area of Mymensing town without a search warrant. The police seized the files and other items, including the signed web development agreement between Kaium's company and Idris Khan, as well as the key to Kaium's room. However, the police have not yet submitted a list of seized items to the court.

    Kaium has told AHRC's Human Rights Fact-Finding Team that on the evening of 11 May, from his cell, he overheard Idris Khan bribing the police officers to torture him. Kaium also saw from his cell DB police Sub Inspector (SI) Akram placing money in the drawer of his office desk.

    Later the same evening, DB Officer-in-Charge (OC) Shah Kamal, SI Akram, SI Monju, SI Jewel and SI Porimol ordered Kaium to confess to receiving US dollars from Idris Khan.   Kaium refused, and asked the police officers why he was being kept in detention without a court appearance. Kaium reports that the DB officers became angry and threatened to kill him under the pretext of 'crossfire' unless he provided a confessional statement on his alleged involvement in an illegal currency-exchange business. As Kaium continued to refuse, he was subjected to a prolonged physical attack by all officers present, including being slapped, punched, hit with his belt and struck with a wooden chair. The police also seized Kaium's National Identity Card and forced him to divulge the passwords of his social media and email accounts, and the login details of his online news portal.

    On 12 May, a case was brought against Kaium by police in response to a complaint filed with Trishal Police Station by Idris Ali Khan on the same day.

    It includes the following charges under the repressive Digital Security Act of 2018:

    • Section 23 – digital or electronic fraud; punishable by five years’ imprisonment and a BDT 500,000 (USD 5,809) fine; or seven years’ imprisonment and BDT 1 million (USD 11,619) fine;
    • Section 25 – publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information punishable by imprisonment of three to five years and a BDT 300,000 to one million fine;
    • Section 29 – publishing, broadcasting, etc., defamatory information, punishable by imprisonment of three to five years and a BDT 500,000 to 1 million fine.

    The police also accused Kaium of offences under the Penal Code of 1860:

    • Sections 385 – putting a person in fear of injury in order to commit extortion punishable by five to 14 years' imprisonment with fines; and,
    • Section 386 – extortion by putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt, punishable by 10 years' imprisonment with fine.

    On 13 May, Kaium was brought before the Chief Judicial Magistrate's Court in Mymensingh. The police requested he remain in police remand for five days while Kaium's lawyer sought bail. On 14 May, the Magistrate rejected both petitions for remand and bail and ordered that Kaium be detained in prison. On 23 May, the Sessions Judge's Court rejected Kaium's bail petition.

    The factual information in relation to Kaium's detention establishes that the police illegally arrested and detained him a day before the case was fabricated against him. Although according to the First Information Report the alleged incident occurred in the jurisdiction of the Kotowali police, the complaint was registered in a different jurisdiction. The police arbitrarily detained Kaium for over 36 hours following his arrest in violation of Article 33 (2) of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Section 61 of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898.

    The Court failed to protect Kaium's right to liberty and also ignored the fact that the police officers tortured Kaium in custody. It indicates that the Court's complicity in maintaining the culture of impunity in Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh authorities must halt the practice of fabricating cases against independent human rights defenders and journalists.

    TheCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh asrepressed.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

    Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher,


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  • Alert: Bangladesh’s restrictive NGO law undermines development efforts, should be reviewed

    Bangladesh’s new Foreign Donations law is in breach of international norms and agreements, says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.  CIVICUS remains deeply alarmed that the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act which was enacted last month will have serious negative consequences for Bangladeshi civil society and prevent them from undertaking their essential and legitimate work.

    “Worryingly, the law endows the government officials with broad powers to sanction civil society groups which are critical of the state or its policies and imposes arbitrary restrictions on access to vital funding to engage in sustainable development activities,” said Tor Hodenfield, Policy & Advocacy Officer from CIVICUS. “We urge the government to undertake a review of the law’s restrictive provisions in light of constitutional and international commitments and in the interests of the people of Bangladesh whom the country’s vibrant civil society serves.”

    Bangladesh is party to several international agreements, including the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation which obliges states to create an enabling environment for civil society organisations to maximise their contribution to development, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals framework which promises effective and meaningful civil society partnerships and protection of fundamental freedoms.

    Under the new law, foreign-funded NGOs which make ‘inimical’ and ‘derogatory’ remarks against the constitution and constitutional bodies, including the President, Prime Minister, Parliament, and the Supreme Court, can be subjected to criminal and administrative sanctions. Specifically, the law stipulates that the authorities may unilaterally deregister, withhold the registration or ban the activities of an NGO if it makes such comments. These provisions breach fundamental freedoms of expression and association and preclude civil society groups from publically scrutinising state policies and practices.

    In addition, the law places unwarranted and targeted controls on NGOs which receive funding from foreign sources. Under the law, all foreign-funded NGOs must register with the NGO Affairs Bureau (a state institution seated within Prime Minister’s office), submit regular activity reports and secure the Bureau’s prior approval before initiating any project which will use foreign donations. The law further imposes arbitrary and onerous limitations on how NGOs can use their own resources. Without justification, the law precludes NGOs from spending more than 20% of their budget on administrative costs.

    We urge the Government of Bangladesh to initiate (i) a dialogue with Bangladeshi civil society who will be severely impacted by the law’s restrictive provisions, and (ii) undertake a review process of the law to evaluate its compatibility with Bangladesh’s constitutional and international commitments. 

    Bangladesh is listed as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

     

  • Bangladesh: Authorities must end smear campaign against human rights group Odhikar

    • Human rights group Odhikar is the target of a broad campaign to prevent them from exposing human rights violations in Bangladesh
    • Pro-government media are engaged in a smear campaign against Odhikar, accusing them of involvement in “murky activities” and “conspiracy against the country”
    • State agencies have used bureaucratic red tape to prevent Odhikar from receiving funding and renewing their registration with the state for past four years
    • These actions highlight a systematic pattern of discrediting activists and organisations critical of the government
    • Global civil rights alliance, CIVICUS, has called on Bangladesh, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to stop these campaigns ahead of December elections

    A chilling smear campaign by government-aligned media in Bangladesh against a local human rights group is the latest in an ongoing drive to prevent efforts to expose human rights violations in the country.

    Global civil rights group, CIVICUS, says the campaign targeting human rights organisation Odhikar highlights the repressive environment for civil society in Bangladesh.

    Odhikar was founded in 1994 and is a member of the International Federation for Human Rights.

    In the latest spate of incidents, the Election Commission of Bangladesh abruptly cancelled the Odhikar’s registration as an election observer on November 2018, saying that the state-run NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) had notified them that the organisation’s registration had expired.

    Three days later, the daily Janakantha newspaper published an article accusing Odhikar of being involved in various “anti-state and anti-government activities”, engaged in “conspiracy against the country”. It claimed the group was “tarnishing the country’s image by providing wrong information to the international community regarding elections and the human rights situation” in Bangladesh.

    The reporter also alleged that intelligence agencies recommended that the activities of Odhikar be shut down for violating NGO regulations, unlawfully taking funds from donor agencies and suspicious bank accounts. Odhikar has denied the accusations and called them completely false and fabricated.

    Since then, other media reports have surfaced calling for Odhikar’s activities to be stopped, alleging anti-state actions among them, a report by private TV channel, Channel 1 on November 16, accusing the organisation of embezzling funds.

    “This damaging smear campaign to discredit the work of an organization committed to upholding human rights is extremely alarming for civil society and civic freedoms in Bangladesh,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.

    “These actions are unjustifiable intimidation tactics and highlight a pattern of demonising human rights defenders who are critical of the government,” Benedict said.

    Since 2014, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), state agency, has deliberately subjected Odhikar to bureaucratic delays to deprive the organisation of financial resources, while also withholding the renewal of its mandatory registration. Odhikar has previously been publicly threatened by the police for carrying out “subversive” activities” after documenting a spate of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh in 2013. Activists working with Odhikar have come under surveillance, been targeted and arbitrarily detained for their activities.

    ““Bangladesh must start acting like a member of the UN Human Rights Council and take immediate steps to put an end to all forms of harassment against Odhikar and its staff,” said Benedict.

    “The government must also ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.”

    Bangladeshis are scheduled to go to the polls in late December to vote in national elections. Ahead of elections, scores of activists and government critics have been detained following peaceful protests with some facing criminal defamation charges. The authorities have also launched intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media and have attempted to weaken opposition parties by arresting their members and dispersing their gatherings.

    CIVICUS has called on the government to also respect the right to freedom of association, which it committed to in its recent review at the Human Rights Council and confirm Odhikar’s registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau immediately as well as reinstate the organisations registration for election observation.

    Bangladesh was added to a global watchlist of countries which have seen an alarming escalation in threats to civil society. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Bangladesh as ‘repressed’

    ENDS.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

    Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher, CIVICUS

    Email:

     

    CIVICUS Media

    Email:

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  • BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

    I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

    What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

    Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

    Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

    As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

    Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

    What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

    People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

    Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

    Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

    The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

    Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

    Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

    Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

    Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

    Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

    According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

    Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

    What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

    In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

    Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

    What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

    One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

    Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

    Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

    We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

    There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Bangladesh: Democracy Dialogue Report: 8 September 2018

    Democracy Dialogue held by the Aathung Foundation in Bandarban, Bangladesh, 8 September 2018

     

  • Bangladesh: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill

    To

    The President of Bangladesh, H.E. Md Abdul Hamid

    The Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, H.E. Kazi Reazul Hoque

    Subject: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill

    Your Excellencies

    We write to you as international civil society organisations engaged on human rights and sustainable development issues in Bangladesh. We are concerned that in the current political climate in Bangladesh, which is narrowing avenues for free debate and legitimate democratic dissent in the country, the Bangladesh Digital Security Bill 2018, likely to be introduced in the current session of Parliament, fails to protect the right of the media, civil society and members of the general public to freely express their opinions on policies and actions of decision makers.

    Many of our organisations have closely followed debates about this bill over the years. In the past we have raised concerns about the existence of overbroad definitions and harsh punishments in the bill which, if enacted, would severely undermine freedom of expression as well as the freedom of the press. From available information, it appears that our concerns about the bill’s provisions as likely to impinge on constitutional rights and well as Bangladesh’s commitments under international law persist. Both Article 29 of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allow the imposition of restrictions on the right to freedom of expression only in very limited and clearly defined circumstances.

    In the present situation we recommend that the bill’s provisions are carefully considered from a constitutional and international law standpoint. Mr. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, has done extensive work on the subject including on the exercise of the freedom of expression in the digital age. We believe that the government would greatly benefit from engagement with Mr. Kaye, who could advise on the permissible limits on the freedom of expression under international law.

    Furthermore, we urge the government to seek assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on measures to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights in the country in line with constitutional and international standards. We are concerned to hear that an official visit to Bangladesh by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein has been postponed and request the facilitation of a such a visit at the earliest opportunity.

    We believe that Bangladesh’s democracy and commitment to human rights and sustainable development will be strengthened through constructive engagement with UN human rights experts. We urge you to kindly consider the above requests in the interests of the people of Bangladesh.

    Sincerely,

    List of signatories (in alphabetical order)

    Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)

    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

    Asian Human Rights Commission

    CIVICUS

    FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights

    Human Rights Watch

    Odhikar

    People’s Watch

    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

     

  • Bangladesh: Open Letter to Prime Minister about controversial digital security bill

    Conditions for human rights defenders and journalists in Bangladesh are dire, and appear to be worsening according to the CIVICUS Monitor. A declining respect for democracy has precipitated the closure of civic space through a systematic clampdown on independent dissent. This intensifying crackdown on civil society has led to a de facto ban on public meetings, mass arrests of activists and reports of abductions and torture. Civil society actors documenting human rights violations perpetrated by the government are particularly vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest.

    The authorities in Bangladesh continue to target civil society, most recently through draconian legislation designed to undermine the sector's independence. In  October 2016, parliament passed an amendment to the widely-criticised Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill (FDRB). The law strengthens the government's power to revoke CSO licenses for a variety of offences, including defamation, involvement in subversive activities and terrorist financing. The Digital Security Bill placed in Parliament is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Bangladesh and impede independent journalism. See full details of the Security bill in a joint leter below to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh:

    H.E. Sheikh Hasina Wazed
    Prime Minister of Bangladesh
    c/o Md. Nojibur Rahman
    Principal Secretary to the HPM
    Prime Minister’s Office
    Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215
    Bangladesh

    Dear Prime Minister,

    Open Letter: Proposed Digital Security Bill will restrict free expression and promote self-censorship in Bangladesh

    FORUM-ASIA, the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) are writing to you, as civil society organisations, to express our grave concern about the implications of the proposed Digital Security Bill 2018 on the right to freedom of expression of the citizens of Bangladesh. 

    We understand that the draft bill was presented before the parliament and was sent to a Standing Committee on 9 April 2018 and is expected to be reviewed over the next four weeks. 

    We believe the 2018 Digital Security Bill contains provisions that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and prescribe lengthy prison sentences for violators. The bill, if adopted, will exacerbate a range of legal restrictions that will impinge on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Constitution and the country’s obligations under international law, in particular the ICCPR, which was ratified by Bangladesh in 2000.
    We are particularly concerned about the follow aspects of the bill: 

    • The bill proposes to empower low ranking police officers with wide discretionary powers to conduct investigations, searches and seizures without applying normative digital evidentiary standards and without judicial oversight. 
    • The bill lacks a precise definition of what is considered a cybercrime and criminalises the use of electronic devices to “cause deterioration to law and order”, harm "religious sentiments”, cause incitement "against another person or organization”, and carry out “acts of defamation” - all of which have been incorporated from section 57 of the ICT Act. The bill simply splits these offences into four separate sections (21, 25, 28 and 29) with punishment ranging from three to 10 years' jail term. 
    • There are concerns around the inclusion of the crime of “carrying out negative propaganda" against the Liberation War (1971 War of Independence) or the ‘Father of the Nation’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president) that carries a maximum sentence of up to 14 years' in jail or a fine of up to Tk 50 lakh (60,000 USD) or both. These provisions are in contravention of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
    • Section 32 of the draft bill related to "espionage” could be used against journalists, online activists and lawyers who investigate and expose controversy or illegality within the government. 
    • The bill also stipulates some crimes are “non-bailable” and authorises security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the law has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes. Such provision often encourages abuse of power by law enforcement officers and promotes self-censorship.

    We are concerned that, according to reports, although the draft bill is currently under consideration in parliament, cases filed under section 57 of the ICT Act will continue to be investigated and if necessary, prosecuted.

    Section 57 of the ICT Act violates the right to freedom of expression by both criminalising legitimate forms of expression and through its vague wording that allows the authorities to arbitrarily and abusively apply the law. Scores of journalists have been arrested under section 57 of the Act for their reporting; around 700 cases have been filed under this Section since 2013. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises several forms of online expression including anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.

    In 2017, the Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations raised concerns about the arrest of journalists, “secular bloggers” and human rights defenders under the ICT Act and called for the government to “repeal or revise the [ICT law] with a view to bringing it into conformity with the State party’s obligations under the Covenant, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) on the freedoms of opinion and expression”.

    We are also highly concerned by the government's lack of meaningful consultation regarding the bill with key stakeholders including journalists, civil society and the human rights community. We urge the government of Bangladesh to prioritise a collective review of the proposed Digital Security Bill to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards and to repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act. The government must ensure that any future legislative proposals that have implications for the media or civil society are developed in full consultation with all stakeholders.

    Freedom of expression is of critical importance to hold those in power accountable. There should be no limitations on the freedom of expression and personal opinion, particularly those that systematically violate democratic spaces and practices.

    It is crucial that the government takes steps to develop an enabling environment for freedom of expression in line with international standards and end its willful misuse of restrictive legislation to subvert free speech.

    The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa it is a membership alliance with more than 4,000 members in more than 175 countries.

    FORUM-ASIA is a regional human rights group with 58 member organisations in 19 countries across Asia. FORUM-ASIA has offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expression, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratization.

    For further details, contact: 


    AHRC, bangladeshATahrc.asia 
    CIVICUS, josef.benedictATcivicus.org
    FORUM-ASIA, sasiaATforum-asia.org

     

  • Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse

    To the President of Bangladesh,
    H.E. Md Abdul Hamid

    Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse

    Dear President Hamid,

    We are writing to express our concerns about serious violations of civic freedoms perpetrated during recent protests in Bangladesh. We urge your government to take immediate steps to address these issues in accordance with your international human rights obligations.

    Our organisations are concerned about reports that police used excessive force, including firing rubber bullets and tear gas on 4th August 2018 to disperse demonstrations in Dhaka which were triggered by the killing of two teenagers by a speeding bus on 29th July 2018. We are also concerned that the government may be covering up the actual death toll and have received information that at least three others students may have also been killed and one critically injured.

    Some of the student protesters were also allegedly attacked by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and Jubo League, the student and youth wing of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party.

    More than 20 journalists were attacked, some of whom were later detained briefly by the police. At least four journalists from The Daily Star newspaper were reportedly beaten while at least seven photojournalists were injured in attacks in Jhigatala and Science Lab areas of the city on 5 August 2018. While some attackers wore helmets, the journalists identified some of their attackers as BCL members.

    We are also concerned about the arbitrary arrest of scores of individuals around the protest, in particularly Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam who was taken from his home, just hours after he made comments on Al-Jazeera about protests in the city. He was subsequently charged under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act a provision that has been frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices in Bangladesh. He has also alleged that he was tortured while in custody. A lawyer in Sirajganj, Sakhawat Hossain Shakil, was also arrested and remanded under Section 57 of the ICT Act on 7th August for allegedly sharing anti-government posts and expressing solidarity with safe road protesters on Facebook.

    At least 22 protesters were remanded in police custody for two days and five are facing charges under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. Some were allegedly tortured or ill-treated in custody. They are now detained in prison as the courts have rejected the applications for bail.

    In the last few months, our organisations have also documented attacks by the BCL against students protesting the civil service quota system, which reserves 30 percent of government jobs for children of freedom fighters from Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. Academics and journalists supporting them have also been targeted. Some student activists were subsequently detained and charged. At least six are languishing in jail and according to their lawyers were allegedly tortured in police custody. 

    The arrest and charging of peaceful protesters and allegations of torture and ill-treatment, clearly contravene Bangladesh obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Our organisations also believe that the violent actions of the police at these protests are inconsistent with international human rights standards on the use of force such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement, and that the failure to take appropriate measures to prevent and punish harm caused by private actors, such as the BCL, also contravenes Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations.

    Many of the issues above were also raised at the Human Rights Council during Bangladesh’s recent Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, and received support from your government. Protecting civic freedoms is also part of Bangladesh’s commitments under Agenda 2030 and these violations highlight that the country is failing abysmally to meet targets set under Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, and particularly target 16:10 to “protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”.

    Therefore, we urge your government to take the following steps as a matter of priority:

    • Immediately and unconditionally release all protesters who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their human rights, in particular photographer Shahidul Alam, and drop all charges against them;
    • Carry out prompt, impartial, independent and efficient investigations into all complaints and reports of excessive use of force by the police, as well as attacks by non-state actors, against protesters and journalists, bring those responsible to justice and provide reparations to the victims;
    • Review and amend all laws that restrict freedom of expression, such as section 57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act;
    • Send a clear message to members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and other non-state actors that violence by them will not be tolerated;
    • Create a safe and enabling environment for activists, civil society and citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution.

    We express our sincere hope that you will consider and implement these recommendations. 

    Sincerely, 

    David E. Kode
, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead
, CIVICUS
    Ichal Supriadi
, Secretary General, 
Asia Democracy Network (ADN)
    Basil Fernando, Director, Policy and Programme, 
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
    Henri Tiphagne
, Executive Director, 
People’s Watch
    Mathew Jacob
, National Coordinator, 
Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA)
    John Samuel, 
Executive Director, 
Forum Asia (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development)

     

  • Bangladesh: Stifling expression using Digital Security Act must not be the norm to address COVID-19 pandemic

     
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    A Joint Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS

    The Bangladesh government has resorted once again to its notorious Digital Security Act-2018 to muzzle freedom of expression, arresting 11 individuals following criticism of the governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Four people have been detained since 5 May 2020 under the draconian digital law, including cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, IT specialist Md. Didarul Islam Bhuyan, and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaz Mannan Emon. A further seven people have been charged. 

    All four detainees were forcibly disappeared for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka on 5 May 2020. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police on 6 May at around 7:45 PM, and a case under the Digital Security Act was filed against them by Abu Bakar Siddique, the Deputy Assistant Director of RAB. They remain in detention.

    The seven other individuals accused in the same case are Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, which the government has blocked in Bangladesh since it was launched last year from Sweden; Saer Zulkarnain; Shahed Alam; Ashik Imran; Shapan Wahed; Philip Schuhmacher; and Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger of Bangladeshi origin living in Germany.

    All 11 have been charged under various provisions of the Digital Security Act including ‘propaganda or campaign against liberation war’ and ‘publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information’. Authorities have confirmed that the charges relate to allegedly ‘spreading rumours’ over the coronavirus pandemic on social media. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail. 

    The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, included harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. And, it has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Despite repeated calls to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s international commitments to protect freedom of expression, the government has refused to revise the law.

    In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on access to information both off and online. Silencing journalists and activists and blocking websites, is not an effective public health strategy. We urge the authorities to end its use of restrictive laws to silence critics and amid the pandemic ensure the right to seek, receive, and share information relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak.

    We further call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately release the detained critics and drop the charges brought against them and seven other individuals under repressive legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse to use state forces to stifle freedom of expression.

     

    Background:

    The pandemic has exposed failings by the government in addressing a public health emergency. Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 were denied access to public and private hospitals and died without treatment. The country’s healthcare system failed to provide adequate protective equipment and necessary infrastructures in hospitals to treat the pandemic. Within weeks, hundreds of doctors and nurses were infected with COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association. 

    Persistent suppression of freedom of expression and censorship under the government of Sheikh Hasina has continued amid the pandemic. The authorities have blocked international news outlet Al-Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. A monitoring body established by the Ministry of Information to monitor if private television channels were “running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus outbreak” was scrapped after public outcry.

    Due to the muzzling of the press by the authorities, social media has become the preferred platform for those critical of the regime. In response, the police and the RAB have started picking up people for their Facebook posts. On 10th of April 2020, it was reported that at least 50 people were arrested in the country for allegedly spreading rumors. The government has also blocked dozens of websites and Facebook profiles as of late March after the government officially acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak. Healthcare workers, who spoke out about the problems they have been facing, have been barred from talking to media

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh as repressed.

     

     

  • Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

    Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

    Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

    In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

    Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

    An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

    Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

    One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

    Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

    One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

    “The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

    “The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

    The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

    Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

    A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

    “The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

    The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

    “The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.


    Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.


    Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Countries that require the attention of the UN Human Rights Council

    39th Session of the Human Rights Council
    Oral Statement  

    Members of the CIVICUS Alliance in Zimbabwe have expressed grave concern for the authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests in Harare one day after presidential elections were held. Military personnel deployed in response to the protests shot live bullets at protesters, killing at least 6 and injuring many others. We call on the government of Zimbabwe to conduct a prompt, credible and impartial investigation in the excessive and lethal use of force during the course of these demonstrations.

    In Bahrain, SALAM for Democracy & Human Rights, a member of the CIVICUS Alliance, has documented cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders. All major opposition parties have now been dissolved and stripped of their assets. We are equally concerned that security personnel continue to wilfully arrest, physically assault and even kill demonstrators for exercising their legitimate right to public dissent. We urge the Council going to hold the government of Bahrain fully accountable for any violations of its international obligations.

    Finally, Mr. President, in Bangladesh, over the past year, authorities have used a rage of repressive laws to target and harass journalists and human rights defenders, restrict freedom of assembly and carry out enforced disappearances of opposition supporters ahead of national elections scheduled for late 2018. We call on the government of Bangladesh to drop all unwarranted charges and end the persecution of individuals and groups for exercising their fundamental rights.

     

  • Country recommendations on civic space for the UN´s Universal Periodic Review

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on 9 countries in advance of the 30th UPR session (May 2018). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations. Countries examined include: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Djibouti, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan:

    Bangladesh (Individual/Joint): In this UPR, CIVICUS draws attention to a range of legislative restrictions which have been strengthened and imposed to curtail the operation of independent civic groups in Bangladesh. Of particular concern, are new restrictions on groups seeking funds from abroad, as well the repeated use of the penal code to arrest HRDs and place blanket bans on meetings and assemblies. We further examine the spate of extrajudicial killings against secular bloggers and LGBTI activists which is illustrative of Bangladesh’s downward spiral with respect to civic freedoms and systemic failure to protect civil society.

    Burkina Faso (EN/FR): CIVICUS, the Burkinabé Coalition of Human Rights Defenders and the West African Human Right Defenders Network examine unwarranted limitations on freedom of expression and assembly. Despite several positive developments since the popular uprising of 2014, such as the decriminalisation of defamation and the adoption of a law on the protection of human right defenders, restrictions on the freedom of expression including suspensions of media outlets by the national media regulator and attacks and threats against journalists continue.

    Cameroon: CIVICUS, Réseau des Défenseurs Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) highlight Cameroon’s fulfilment of the right to association, assembly and expression and unwarranted persecution of human rights defenders since its previous UPR examination.  We assess the ongoing judicial persecution and detention of human rights defenders on trumped up charges, the use of anti-terrorism legislation to target journalists and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.  

    Colombia(EN/SP): CIVICUS highlights the hostile environment for human rights defenders, social leaders and unions workers who are routinely subject to physical attacks, targeted assassinations, harassment and intimidation by state and non-state actors. CIVICUS examines the increased number of attacks against journalists as well as the government’s lack of effective implementation of protection mechanisms to safeguard the work of journalists and human rights defenders.

    Cuba (EN/SP): CIVICUS and the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) highlight the constitutional, legal and de facto obstacles to the exercise of the basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. The submission discusses the situation of CSOs, HRDs, journalists and bloggers, who face harassment, criminalisation, arbitrary arrests, searches of their homes and offices and reprisals for interacting with UN and OAS human rights institutions. The submission further examines the multiple ways in which dissent is stifled both in the streets and in the media, offline and online. 

    Djibouti (EN/FR): CIVICUS, Defend Defenders and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) submission describes how the government of Djibouti has patently ignored the 14 recommendations made during the second UPR cycle related to the protection of the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Instead, in the intervening period, authorities in Djibouti have continued their campaign against dissent, regularly detaining human rights defenders, journalists and trade union activists because of their criticism of the government or human rights activists.  

    Russia: CIVICUS and Citizens’ Watch address concerns regarding the adoption and application of several draconian laws that have resulted in the expulsion and closure of numerous CSOs and restrictions on the activities of countless others. The submission also lays out the increasing criminalisation and persecution of dissenting views by means of growing restrictions, in both law and practice, on the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. 

    Turkmenistan: CIVICUS highlights restrictions to freedom of association in Turkmenistan including recent amendments to the 2014 Law on Public Associations which further limit CSOs’ ability to register, operate independently and receive funding from international sources. Additionally, we assess the use of the arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders as well as unwarranted limitations to online and offline freedom of expression.

    Uzbekistan: CIVICUS, The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and the International Partnership for Human Rights assess the conditions of freedom of association, assembly and expression in Uzbekistan. We highlight the lack of progress made in implementing recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle. It particular, we note that although there have been some notable improvements to the environment for civic space, the situation for human rights activists and journalists remains deeply constrained.

     

  • Leave no person with disabilities behind

    By Leave No One Behind Partneship and ADD International

    Pushpa Rani had pneumonia when she was eight years old, which left her extremely weak. Eventually, she lost all movement in her legs. Pushpa joined a women's self-help group, and later a disabled person's organisation, supported by Action on Disability and Development (ADD) International.

     

  • New digital security law a further blow to media freedom and free expression in Bangladesh

    • The Digital Security Act was passed despite protests from civil society and journalists
    • DSA  incorporates other legislation that has been systematically used to silence dissent
    • New law comes amid a growing, brutal crackdown on peaceful protests and dissent  

       

    • New Head of UN Human Rights needs to visit Bangladesh

      Joint letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, on the deterorating human rights situation in Bangladesh

      Your Excellency:

      Congratulations on your new role as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As you take up your new mandate, the undersigned organizations urge you to make Bangladesh a focus of your efforts in the coming months and to undertake an official visit to Bangladesh as soon as possible. It is our understanding that your predecessor, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, was in advanced talks with the Government of Bangladesh regarding a visit to the country. We strongly urge you to resume that discussion and schedule a visit without delay.

      In your opening remarks to the 39th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on September 10, 2018, you rightly commended Bangladesh for its role hosting Rohingya refugees and for making significant development advancements. But you were also right to make it clear that Bangladesh’s human rights record in recent years has been deeply concerning. In addition to the crackdown on peaceful student protests and the violent anti-drug campaign that you referenced in your remarks—both of which warrant close attention—the Government of Bangladesh has also engaged in attacks against independent media and journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition figures. These abuses are further enabled by the recent passage of the Digital Security Act, [1] which criminalizes the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of association. Enforced disappearances continue to occur at an alarming rate (34 people were reportedly disappeared in September alone), [2] and reports of torture in custody continue to surface despite passage of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013. [3]

      In addition, the government is cracking down on political dissidents and opposition activists. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) reports that, over the past two months, police have registered 3,736 cases, resulting in charges against 313,130 party leaders and activists. The BNP insists that all of these cases and charges are politically motivated; the Awami League Government disputes this characterization. The spree of criminal cases against opposition figures is being conducted in such a fashion that the police have filed several cases against opposition leaders who have died or have been living abroad for years. [4] In trials widely condemned as politically motivated, top opposition leaders have been sentenced to death or lengthy prison sentences prior to the upcoming general election, which is expected to take place in December 2018. [5]

      The UN Human Rights Committee noted concerns in its 2017 Concluding Observations regarding:

      • The “reported high rate of extrajudicial killings by police officers, soldiers and Rapid Action Battalion force members and at reports of enforced disappearances, as well as the excessive use of force by State actors”;
      • The absence of “ongoing investigations into cases of torture in the State party…[despite] information that torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement or military personnel is widespread in the State party during interrogations to extract confessions”; and
      • The “limitations on the rights of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society organizations in the State party to exercise their right to freedom of opinion, expression and association”.

      These concerns were exhaustively raised by members of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year during Bangladesh’s 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review. Bangladesh failed to accept a number of key recommendations, including to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; to issue a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures; to amend or repeal laws that do not comply with international standards by restricting legitimate expression or association; and to fight against impunity by committing to investigate alleged human rights abuses by security forces.

      Although serious concerns have been raised by non-governmental organizations, as well as by UN bodies and UN Member States, there have been only four visits by UN Special Procedures mandate-holders in the last ten years. These were the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (2016); the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (2013); and a joint visit by the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty and the UN Independent Expert on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation (2010). These are welcomed visits, and important mandates and issues for Bangladesh. But at this critical juncture, the Government of Bangladesh must grant broader access to UN Special Procedures.

      In addition to undertaking an official visit to Bangladesh yourself, we urge you to press the Government of Bangladesh to accept visit requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association; the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture; the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions; the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. These are the mandates that can most directly address many of the core issues raised by UN Member States during the UPR, the UN Human Rights Committee, and by you in your opening remarks to the UN Human Rights Council.

      Your office has a critical role to play. Bangladesh remains a close partner of the UN and particularly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Bangladesh is also one of the largest contributors of military personnel to UN Peacekeeping missions. But it must also be a closer partner of the UN human rights mechanisms. In previous election cycles there has been a marked increase in violence and repression. Attention from your office and other UN human rights bodies can help reverse this trend. We are committed to working with you and your office, as well as with the Government of Bangladesh, to ensure that a visit can take place soon.

      Sincerely,

      1. 350.org
      2. Asian Human Rights Commission
      3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
      4. Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)V
      5. Association For Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
      6. Сenter for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
      7. CIVICUS
      8. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), India
      9. Freedom Now
      10. Human Rights Concern, Eritrea
      11. Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
      12. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
      13. Karapatan, The Philippines
      14. Lokataru Foundation, Indonesia
      15. Odhikar, Bangladesh
      16. Phenix Center for Economic Studies, Jordan
      17. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
      18. Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), Sudan
      19. The Article 20 Network
      20. Transparency International
      21. World Organisation against Torture (OMCT)
      22. MARUAH, Singapore
      23. Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA)
      24. Citizen Congress Watch (CCW), Taiwan
      25. Uganda National NGO Forum

      1 See, Dhaka Tribune, “Bangladesh signs Digital Security Bill into Law,” October 8, 2018, available at, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/10/08/president-signs-digital-security-bill-into-law;seealsoForum Asia, Digital Security Act English translation (2016), available at, https://www.forum- asia.org/uploads/wp/2016/08/Digital-Security-Act-English-09.03.2016.pdf.

      2 See,Odhikar “Human Rights Monitoring Report of September 2018”; see also, New Age, “Enforced Disappearances Double: Odhikar Report,” October 3, 2018, available athttp://www.newagebd.net/article/52199/enforced-disappearance-doubles-odhikar-report.

      3 According to data gathered by Odhikar, at least 125 persons were tortured to death by law enforcement agencies from January 2009 to May 2018.

      4 See e.g., Prothom Alo, "Police sue another dead man for sabotage," October 9, 2018, available at, https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/news/184686/Police-sue-another-dead-man-for-sabotage.

      5 See e.g., NewAge Bangladesh, “Babar, Pintu, 17 others to die, Tarique, Harris, 17 others jailed for life,” October 10, 2018, available at, http://www.newagebd.net/article/52831/aug-21-grenade-attack-19-get- death-penalty-tariqe-among-17-life-term.

       

    • Perpetrators of violence against protesters and journalists in Bangladesh must be held accountable

      A global human rights group has called for police and ruling party supporters to be held accountable for their violent responses to peaceful student protests in Bangladesh. Thousands of students protesting poor road safety have been targeted with excessive force by police and brutal attacks reportedly from the student wing of the ruling party.

       

    • Photos: Lives rent asunder by climate change in Bangladesh

      In 2018, two global agreements - one focused on the protection of refugees and the other on migration - are in the final stages of negotiation between governments, under the auspices of the United Nations. Each offers a rare opportunity to protect migrants from one of the biggest sources of displacement today - climate change. Through these images GMB Akash presents stories of loss from among the around 18 million Bangladeshis who risk displacement as the sea moves inward, expected to submerge as much as 17% of the country’s land by 2050.

      See on: Hindustan Times 

       

    • Response to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights update

      38th Session of the Human Rights Council  
      Update of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

      CIVICUS welcomes the High Commissioner’s final update and thanks him for his continued support for human rights defenders and for speaking the truth to power in this August room for the last four years. You have been the voice of the silenced and helped to ensure that the grievances of victims of human rights violations are echoed in this chamber.  For that we thank you.

      CIVICUS shares the High Commissioner’s concerns about civic space restrictions in Bangladesh, in particular threats and attacks against journalists from government-affiliated groups, security forces and religious extremists and the failure to bring perpetrators to justice.

      The government has used the Information and Communications Technology Act to punish critics and a proposed Digital Security Bill could be used to criminalize online expression and promote self-censorship. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly continues to be restricted including of activists protesting the recent extrajudicial killings.

      We are equally worried about the recent violent attacks on civil society and HRDs in Nicaragua.On 30 April, 323 national, regional and international organisations and networks, in a joint statement condemned the violent repression of the demonstrations held in Nicaragua against the social security reforms and demanded respect for the right to peaceful protest.

      Since then the repression and use of excessive and indiscriminate force have continued and resulted in a at least 170 deaths. The government should immediately put an end to all violent acts, engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society and accept requests to conduct an impartial investigation into the killings.

      We urge all states underscored in the High Commissioner’s report to take immediate measures to address persistent and widespread violations of the rights essential to civic space, including by allowing access to relevant UN Special Procedure mandate holders.

       

    • Right to protest and civic freedoms

      By Josef Benedict, civic space researcher at CIVICUS

      The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental freedom and key pillar for civic space. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate, and communicate without hindrance. They will also be able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects the right to protest.

      However, for many Bangladeshis going out on to the street to protest can be a terrifying experience. You could end being arbitrarily arrested, beaten up, face rubber bullets and tear gas. You could also be ill-treated by police and even prosecuted for organising or participating in a peaceful protest. Even after the protests end, you could face intimidation and surveillance.

      Read on New Age

       

    • Six countries added to watchlist of countries where civic freedoms are under serious threat

      • Bangladesh, Maldives, Cameroon, DRC, Guatemala, Nicaragua join global watchlist
      • Escalating rights violations include killings, attacks on protesters, media, opposition
      • Neighbours, international community must pressure governments to end repression

      Six countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa have been added to a watchlist of countries which have seen an escalation in serious threats to fundamental freedoms in recent weeks and months.

      The new watchlist released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society across the globe, identifies growing concerns in Bangladesh,  Maldives, CameroonDemocratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Activists and civil society organisations in these countries are currently experiencing a severe infringement of civic freedoms, as protected by international law.

      Violations include brutal attacks by police on peaceful protests in Nicaragua and Bangladesh; the murder of human rights defenders in Guatemala; the killing of protesters and a brutal state campaign against activists and the political opposition in the DRC; and the prosecution of human rights defenders and journalists on fabricated charges in Cameroon, amidst an escalating civil conflict.

      “It is deeply concerning to see escalated threats to basic rights in these countries,” said Cathal Gilbert, CIVICUS Civic Space Research Lead.

      “It is crucial that these six governments wake up to their failure to respect international law and take swift action to respect their citizens’ most basic freedoms in a democratic society,” Gilbert said.

      “We also call upon neighbouring states and international bodies to do put pressure on these countries to end the repression.”

      Over the past year, authorities in Bangladesh have used repressive laws to target and harass journalists and human rights defenders, restrict freedom of assembly and carry out the enforced disappearances of opposition supporters. The human rights situation has deteriorated further ahead of national elections scheduled for late 2018. Members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), have attacked student activists, academics and journalists with impunity.

      In Nicaragua, at least 300 people have been killed since protests began in April 2018, with hundreds more kidnapped or missing. The demonstrations were initially sparked by regressive changes to the social security system but grew to include calls for President Daniel Ortega to resign in the wake of his brutal repression of peaceful protests. While large-scale marches have subsided in recent days, some continue amid a tense political situation as the Ortega government continues to silence critics despite agreements struck with international bodies, and an undertaking to allow an IACHR investigation into the violence. Attacks on protestors are perpetrated both by state forces and armed groups aligned with the government.

      This year, between January and July alone, at least 18 human rights defenders (HRDs) were killed in Guatemala. There were also two assassination attempts and 135 other attacks, with 32 of those aimed at women HRDs. In early August, United Nations Special Rapporteurs issued a statement raising the alarm at the spike in killings in 2018. Reports from Guatemala indicate that the space for civil society has worsened due to land disputes and actions by corporate interests, the source of targeted violence against specific groups of activists.

      Despite the announcement that Congolese president Joseph Kabila will not run for a third term, tensions are still high in the DRC, ahead of scheduled elections in December.  In recent months, protestors, youth movements, human rights defenders, journalists and the political opposition have all faced widespread state repression, including arrests. In June this year, CSOs and UN Special Rapporteurs expressed serious concerns about a planned new law that would give authorities power to dissolve non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over public order or national security concerns.

      In Maldives, a widespread crackdown on dissent began in February 2018 when a court ordered the release of opposition leaders. This decision led to the arbitrary arrest of judges, scores of opposition politicians and activists as well as the use of unnecessary force by police to disperse peaceful demonstrations. There are also documented cases of people being ill-treated in detention. With elections due on 23rd September 2018, civic space is likely to become increasingly contested. Already in May 2018, the Electoral Commission moved to bar four opposition leaders from running in the upcoming presidential elections.

      In Cameroon, an escalating conflict in the country’s Anglophone regions between armed separatists and the government has sparked a mounting humanitarian crisis. It began as protests in 2016, resulting in state repression of protests and the arrest and prosecution of protest leaders. The conflict intensified in recent months with killings and human rights violations committed by both sides. At least 100 civilians, 43 security officers and an unknown number of armed separatists have reportedly been killed, according to an International Crisis Group report. NGOs and human rights defenders have also been targeted.

      In the coming weeks, the CIVICUS Monitor will closely track developments in each of these countries as part of efforts to ensure greater pressure is brought to bear on governments. CIVICUS calls upon these governments to do everything in their power to immediately end the ongoing crackdowns and ensure that perpetrators are held to account.

      ENDS.

      For more information, please contact:

      Cathal Gilbert

      Grant Clark

       

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