BANGLADESH: HRD tortured while in arbitrary detention must be released and charges be dropped
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.
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Alarming trends in restrictions to access to resources facing civil society in Asia
Statement at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Item 3: Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
Delivered by Ahmed Adam On behalf of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
Mr. President, We welcome the Special Rapporteur’s important report on civil society’s access to resources.
Systematic restrictions on civil society’s access to resources often represent one of the first indicators of overall deterioration of the human rights situation and a trend towards authoritarian rule as seen in many Asian countries, in particular, in India and Bangladesh. In India, over 6000 NGOs have been banned from accessing foreign funding under the draconian Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act, 2010 (FCRA) effectively forcing them to cease their operations.
The law has been used particularly to silence human rights NGOs critical of the government. The amendments made to FCRA makes sub-granting of funds to grassroot organisations impossible, affecting many beneficiaries. Early this month, Bangladesh authorities arbitrarily cancelled the registration of prominent human rights NGO, Odhikar, after years of crippling restrictions on its operations under the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016 for its legitimate human rights work in the country. This has had a serious chilling effect on the country’s civic and democratic space, forcing many others to resort to self-censorship.
Many other countries the region are in the process of adopting similar measures that would effectively decimate civil society. We are particularly concerned about the impending adoption of a new law on NGOs in Thailand. In this context, can the Special Rapporteur elaborate on your engagement with countries such as India and Bangladesh, and their responses, where such measures have had serious implications for fundamental freedoms and civic space.
Finally, we welcome the Special Rapporteur’s timely follow up report on his visit to Sri Lanka amid nationwide peaceful protests in response to the country’s economic crisis precipitated by failure of governance and the rule of law, and rollback of fundamental freedoms.
Can the Special Rapporteur further elaborate on obligations of authorities to uphold the right to peaceful protests and ensure accountability, especially in situations such as those seen in Sri Lanka on 9 May where supporters of the embattled ruling party attacked peaceful protestors while the security services looked on?
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 : « Pour lutter contre le viol, nous avons besoin d’une réforme profonde du système juridique »
CIVICUS s’entretient avec Aparajita Sangita, activiste des droits humains bangladeshi et cinéaste indépendante primée au niveau international. Aparajita a travaillé à travers plusieurs films sur la discrimination sexuelle et les droits des femmes, et a été impliqué dans diverses actions sociales, telles que des projets d’éducation pour les enfants des rues et des banques alimentaires. En réponse à son activisme, elle a été harcelée par la police. Pour son activisme sur les réseaux sociaux, elle a également été poursuivie pour harcèlement en vertu de la draconienne loi sur la sécurité numérique. Les charges retenues contre elle ont été abandonnées en réaction aux manifestations qui ont eu lieu dans la rue et sur internet.
Quels éléments ont déclenché les récentes manifestations contre le viol au Bangladesh ?
Dans la nuit du 5 janvier 2020, une étudiante de l’université de Dhaka (UD) a été violée après être descendue d’un bus universitaire dans le quartier de Kurmitola de la capitale, Dhaka. Les étudiants de l’UD ont été perturbés par cet incident, qui a donné lieu à des manifestations et à l’organisation de plusieurs événements.
Malgré les manifestations généralisées contre le viol, la violence sexuelle à l’égard des femmes a persisté et même augmenté pendant la pandémie de COVID-19.
Le 25 septembre, une femme en visite au MC College de Sylhet avec son mari a été violée dans un foyer du campus par des activistes politiques liés au parti au pouvoir. Au même temps où éclataient des manifestations en réaction à cet incident, une vidéo montrant une femme en train d’être maltraitée à Begumganj, dans le Noakhali, est devenue virale sur les réseaux sociaux le 4 octobre. La vidéo montre un groupe d’hommes entrant dans la maison de la femme, la déshabillant et l’agressant physiquement, tout en laissant tout cela enregistré dans une vidéo.
Ces incidents ne sont que quelques-uns des nombreux cas de viols et de violences sexuelles contre les femmes qui ont circulé sur les réseaux sociaux au Bangladesh. Les auteurs de ces violences sont des parents, des hommes proches, des forces de l’ordre, des fonctionnaires, des dirigeants politiques et des acteurs religieux.
Tout cela a déclenché les manifestations de masse contre le viol qui ont eu lieu en octobre 2020, où des gens de tout le pays se sont rassemblés pour protester contre la violence à l’égard des femmes. Le mouvement contre le viol a commencé à Shahbag, connu sous le nom de « Bangladesh’s Movement Square », mais s’est rapidement étendu à toutes les villes, et même aux villages, à travers le Bangladesh. Il s’agit de Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainabganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira et Syedpur (Nilphamari).
Le mouvement de protestation contre le viol a rassemblé des personnes de différents horizons, notamment des membres de partis politiques, des écrivains, des militants culturels, des activistes des réseaux sociaux, des joueurs de l’équipe nationale de cricket, des activistes des droits des femmes et des journalistes. Pour la première fois au Bangladesh, des femmes ont manifesté contre le viol au milieu de la nuit. À Dhaka, ils ont marché de Shahbag au Parlement, portant des torches et criant des slogans.
Quelles étaient les principales revendications des manifestants ?
Le mouvement de protestation anti-viol a formulé neuf demandes pour mettre fin aux viols et aux violences sexuelles. Il s’agit notamment de l’introduction de sanctions exemplaires pour les personnes impliquées dans des viols et des violences contre les femmes dans tout le Bangladesh et du licenciement immédiat du ministre de l’intérieur, qui n’a pas rempli son rôle de rendre la justice.
Les manifestants ont également exigé la fin de tous les abus sexuels et sociaux à l’encontre des femmes tribales, la création d’un comité pour prévenir le harcèlement sexuel à l’encontre des femmes dans toutes les organisations gouvernementales et dans le secteur privé, ainsi que dans les établissements d’enseignement, conformément aux décisions de la Haute Cour, et la pleine application de la Convention sur l’élimination de toutes les formes de discrimination à l’égard des femmes (CEDAW). Ils ont également appelé à l’abolition des lois et des pratiques qui perpétuent les inégalités entre les sexes.
Il a également été demandé de mettre fin au harcèlement mental des victimes pendant les enquêtes et de garantir leur sécurité juridique et sociale, d’inclure des experts en matière de criminalité et de genre dans les tribunaux de prévention de la répression des femmes et des enfants, et de créer davantage de tribunaux pour assurer un traitement rapide des affaires.
Enfin, les manifestants ont demandé la modification de la section 155(4) et d’autres sections pertinentes de la loi sur les preuves afin de mettre fin à la recevabilité des preuves de la moralité des plaignants dans les procès pour viol et au retrait des manuels scolaires de tout matériel jugé diffamatoire envers les femmes ou les présentant comme inférieures.
Comment les autorités ont-elles répondu aux manifestations ?
Le 6 octobre, les manifestants ont marché de Shahbag jusqu’au bureau du Premier ministre avec des drapeaux noirs, mais ont été arrêtés par la police près de l’hôtel Intercontinental. Plusieurs dirigeants et activistes d’un corps étudiant de gauche ont été blessés par la police.
En outre, le communiqué publié par la direction de la police le 10 octobre contenait des éléments de diffamation des manifestants. Il a déclaré que certains secteurs essayaient d’utiliser la manifestation « pour servir leurs intérêts », en sapant l’ordre public et en « créant du chaos social ». La police a averti les manifestants d’éviter toute « activité anti-étatique » et a annoncé que la police s’engageait à assurer la paix et l’ordre interne à tout prix. Cette déclaration a provoqué la panique des manifestants, qui craignaient la répression.
En plus de faire face à la répression policière, plusieurs femmes activistes, dont la dirigeante de l’Association des étudiants de gauche, qui ont participé au mouvement anti-viol, ont été menacées par téléphone et par Facebook Messenger. Certains des activistes ont également été menacés de poursuites pénales.
Qu’est-il arrivé au mouvement depuis lors, la campagne s’est-elle arrêtée ?
Après que les manifestations contre les viols et les agressions sexuelles se soient répandues dans tout le pays, la loi sur la prévention de la répression des femmes et des enfants a été modifiée. La peine de mort a été imposée comme la punition la plus sévère pour le viol. Auparavant, la peine maximale pour viol au Bangladesh était la prison à vie. La peine de mort n’était appliquée que dans les cas de viols collectifs ou de viols ayant entraîné la mort de la victime.
En conséquence, les manifestations ont cessé, car beaucoup de gens pensaient que la peine de mort réduirait les crimes de viol. Cependant, de nombreuses défenseures des droits des femmes insistent sur le fait que la peine de mort n’est pas la solution et demandent une réforme approfondie du système juridique et davantage d’éducation pour lutter contre ce qu’elles considèrent comme une épidémie de violence à l’égard des femmes au Bangladesh.
Que peut faire la communauté internationale pour soutenir le mouvement ?
Suite aux différents cas de violences sexuelles et de viols commis contre les femmes, nous avons vu un important mouvement de protestation émerger dans le pays. Cependant, certains manifestants et activistes ont reçu des menaces pour avoir élevé la voix. La solidarité de la communauté internationale est essentielle pour ceux qui protestent contre les violations des droits humains et formulent des demandes justes.
La société bangladaise est extrêmement patriarcale, et il y a eu de nombreuses tentatives au fil des années pour restreindre la vie et la voix des femmes. Le viol est une expression de ce contexte. Vivre en sécurité est un droit fondamental de chaque femme, et il est de la responsabilité de chaque citoyen, ainsi que de la communauté internationale, de garantir ce droit.
L’espace civique au Bangladesh est classé « reprimé » par leCIVICUS 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’
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher, CIVICUS
BANGLADESH: ‘Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari project’
CIVICUS speaks about the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal-fired power plant project in Bangladesh with Sharif Jamil, General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water. He is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh and Council Member of Waterkeeper Alliance.
What is the significance of the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 project in Bangladesh?
The cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal plant project is very significant because it shows global leaders living up to their commitment to fight climate change. Last year G7 countries reached an agreement to stop building coal plants and funding coal-related projects. If Japan continued to support this coal project, it would have undermined the global effort being made to tackle climate change.
We were happy to see a few contractors also pulling out of the project. Sumitomo Corporation, one of the biggest ones, decided to back out of the project on the basis that it contradicts their new climate policy. The Japanese-owned company decided to stop building and supporting coal plants. We believe this was a major step towards the cancellation of the project.
People living in the area where Matarbari 1 and 2 were implemented were affected by pollution caused by the projects. If it continued, people living near the coal plant would have been affected by air pollution. The coal plant also threatened to pollute water in surrounding areas, which would have also put people in danger.
How has civil society been involved?
Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari coal project, and hard advocacy work finally paid off. We made sure to talk to community members in surrounding areas to get their views on the project. Because we listened to their concerns about the health issues the project might cause it was easier to carry out advocacy work in the communities. Environmental civil society organisations (CSOs) were able to put pressure on key stakeholders with the help of research institutions that studied and tracked global finance and investments.
It is encouraging to see G7 countries living up to their commitments. Japan taking a position against coal financing is a huge step towards protecting the environment in Bangladesh and the rest of world. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributors of carbon emissions and therefore one of the biggest obstacles to climate change mitigation efforts. As civil society we are happy to see that it is possible to hold governments and multinational corporations accountable.
However, while it is good news to see Japan backing away from coal plant projects in Bangladesh, it is also quite frustrating to see it headed towards liquefied natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel. It would be good if Japan could help Bangladesh move towards clean and renewable energies. They have the necessary technology to do so and sharing it with us would help us overcome the climate crisis we are all going through.
What role did your organisation play?
As an organisation we found it important to talk to scientists to understand the scientific impacts this project would have had on our environment. We also analysed the environmental impact assessment study provided by organisations that were monitoring the project. We communicated with the plant company and the government to understand their position on the fight against climate change and environmental issues in Bangladesh. Fortunately, they were willing to listen to our concerns and even invited us to their stakeholder meetings.
The problem we noticed with this project is that the parties involved did not consider the data provided by environmental organisations. It was understood that power plants would boost industrial activity, but our argument was that these projects had to be sustainable. Doing an environmental impact assessment was therefore key. Any project that is implemented should be carried out comprehensively, inclusively and on the basis of science so that it does not harm our environment. It was frustrating that the environmental impact assessment of Matarbari 1 did not do any modelling for harmful pollutants such as fine particles (PM 2.5) or mercury, letting the plant continue functioning subjecting it to scientific scrutiny.
In advocating against the Matarbari project we tried to let people be part of the development activities happening around them. It was important to make them understand that every development project happening in their communities had to be sustainable and promote their wellbeing, which was not the case with Matarbari 1 and 2.
What other actions are needed to combat climate change and environmental degradation?
Japan is a trusted partner of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long received Japanese investment and development collaboration. We have worked for a long time with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which has done a lot of good. We would like to see collaboration for development continue, but it should be of the sustainable and green kind.
The Matarbari plant project was detrimental to our environment and its activities would have polluted both our water and air. This caused unrest and protests. We want multinational corporations and governments to consider the environmental impacts of any project they intend to introduce. They should consider the long-term effects of every project as well as the country’s energy security.
Did you receive any support from international CSOs and activists?
Several environmental organisations in Japan and other countries helped us raise awareness about the negative impacts of the Matarbari project. Some of these organisations conducted studies and came up with recommendations on how projects could be made green and sustainable.
But we still need support to ensure that upcoming projects aim to promote the use of clean energy and live up to environmental standards. Our country also needs resources to help it transition to clean energies. Therefore, there is further need for collaboration with governments that can help us move in that direction.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
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: ‘The legal vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people leads to harassment and discrimination’
CIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.
JMBD isa human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders,including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.
BANGLADESH: “Para hacer frente a las violaciones necesitamos una profunda reforma del sistema legal”
CIVICUS conversa con Aparajita Sangita, activista bangladesí de derechos humanos y cineasta independiente premiada internacionalmente. Aparajita ha trabajado en varias películas sobre la discriminación de género y los derechos de las mujeres, y ha participado en diversas acciones sociales, tales como proyectos de educación de los niños en situación de calle y bancos de alimentos. En respuesta a su activismo, ha sido acosada por la policía. Por su activismo en las redes sociales también fue demandada por acoso bajo la draconiana Ley de Seguridad Digital. Las acusaciones en su contra fueron retiradas en reacción a las protestas que se produjeron tanto en las calles como en internet.
¿Qué desencadenó las recientes protestas contra las violaciones en Bangladesh?
En la noche del 5 de enero de 2020, una estudiante de la Universidad de Dhaka (UD) fue violada tras bajar de un autobús universitario en la zona de Kurmitola de la capital, Dhaka. Los y las estudiantes de la UD se sintieron perturbados por este incidente, que dio lugar a protestas y a la organización de varios actos.
A pesar de las protestas generalizadas contra la violación, la violencia sexual contra las mujeres persistió e incluso aumentó durante la pandemia de COVID-19.
El 25 de septiembre, una mujer que visitaba el MC College de Sylhet con su marido fue violada en un albergue del campus por activistas políticos vinculados al partido gobernante. Mientras estallaban protestas en reacción a este hecho, el 4 de octubre se hizo viral en las redes sociales un video en el que se veía cómo abusaban de una mujer en Begumganj, Noakhali. El video mostraba a un grupo de hombres entrar en la casa de la mujer, desnudarla y agredirla físicamente, al tiempo que dejaban todo grabado en video.
Estos incidentes son apenas algunos de los numerosos casos de violación y violencia sexual contra las mujeres que han circulado por las redes sociales en Bangladesh. Entre los autores de esta violencia se encuentran padres, familiares cercanos, agentes de la ley, funcionarios públicos, líderes políticos y actores religiosos.
Todo ello gatilló las protestas masivas contra la violación que tuvieron lugar en octubre de 2020, en las que personas de todo el país se unieron para protestar contra la violencia contra las mujeres. El movimiento de protesta contra la violación comenzó en Shahbag, conocida como “la Plaza del Movimiento de Bangladesh”, pero pronto se extendió a todas las ciudades, e incluso a los pueblos, de todo Bangladesh. Entre ellas se contaron Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainabganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira y Syedpur (Nilphamari).
En el movimiento de protesta contra la violación confluyeron personas de diferentes ámbitos, como miembros de partidos políticos, escritores, activistas culturales, activistas de las redes sociales, jugadores del equipo nacional de críquet, activistas por los derechos de la mujer y periodistas. Por primera vez en Bangladesh, las mujeres se manifestaron contra las violaciones en plena noche. En Dhaka, marcharon desde Shahbag hasta el Parlamento, portando antorchas y gritando consignas.
¿Cuáles eran las principales reivindicaciones de las manifestantes?
El movimiento de protesta contra la violación planteó nueve demandas para acabar con las violaciones y la violencia sexual. Entre ellas, la introducción de castigos ejemplares para los implicados en violaciones y violencia contra las mujeres en todo Bangladesh y la destitución inmediata del ministro del Interior, que no ha desempeñado su rol de impartir justicia.
Las manifestantes también exigieron el fin de todos los abusos sexuales y sociales contra las mujeres tribales; la creación de un comité para prevenir el acoso sexual contra las mujeres en todas las organizaciones gubernamentales y en el sector privado, así como en las instituciones educativas, en línea con los fallos del Tribunal Superior; y la plena aplicación de la Convención sobre la Eliminación de todas las Formas de Discriminación contra la Mujer (CEDAW). También instaron a la abolición de las leyes y prácticas que perpetúan las desigualdades de género.
También se hicieron llamamientos a poner fin al acoso mental de las víctimas durante las investigaciones y a garantizar su seguridad jurídica y social, a incluir a personas expertas en criminalidad y género en los Tribunales de Prevención de la Represión de la Mujer y el Niño, y a crear más tribunales para garantizar la rápida tramitación de los casos.
Por último, las manifestantes instaron a la modificación del artículo 155(4) y otros artículos pertinentes de la Ley de Evidencia para poner fin a la admisibilidad de las pruebas del carácter de las denunciantes en juicios por violación y a la eliminación de los libros de texto de todo material considerado difamatorio hacia las mujeres o que las describiera como inferiores.
¿Cómo respondieron las autoridades a las protestas?
El 6 de octubre, las manifestantes marcharon desde Shahbag hasta la Oficina del Primer Ministro con banderas negras, pero fueron detenidas por la policía en las cercanías del Hotel Intercontinental. Varios dirigentes y activistas de un organismo estudiantil de izquierdas resultaron heridos por la policía.
Además, el comunicado emitido por la jefatura de policía el 10 de octubre contenía elementos de vilipendio de los y las manifestantes. En él se afirmaba que determinados sectores intentaban utilizar la protesta “para servir a sus intereses”, socavando la ley y el orden y “creando caos social”. La policía advirtió a los y las manifestantes que evitaran cualquier “actividad antiestatal” y anunció que la policía se comprometía a garantizar la paz y el orden internos a toda costa. Esta declaración provocó pánico entre las personas movilizadas, que temieron ser reprimidas.
Además de enfrentar represión policial, varias mujeres activistas, entre ellas la líder de la Asociación de Estudiantes de Izquierda, que participaron en el movimiento contra la violación, fueron amenazadas por teléfono y por Facebook Messenger. Algunas de las activistas también fueron amenazadas con la apertura de causas penales contra ellas.
¿Qué ha pasado con el movimiento desde entonces? ¿Se ha detenido la campaña?
Después de que las protestas contra las violaciones y agresiones sexuales se extendieran por todo el país, se modificó la Ley de Prevención de la Represión de Mujeres y Niños. Se impuso la pena de muerte como castigo más severo para la violación. Anteriormente, la pena máxima por violación en Bangladesh era la cadena perpetua. La pena de muerte sólo se aplicaba en casos de violación en grupo, o de violación que provocara la muerte de la víctima.
A raíz de esto, las protestas se detuvieron, ya que mucha gente pensó que la pena de muerte reduciría los delitos de violación. Sin embargo, muchas defensoras de los derechos de las mujeres insisten en que la pena de muerte no es la respuesta y exigen una reforma profunda del sistema legal y más educación para hacer frente a lo que, según ellas, es una epidemia de violencia contra las mujeres en Bangladesh.
¿Qué puede hacer la comunidad internacional para apoyar al movimiento?
A raíz de los diversos casos de violencia sexual y violación cometidos contra las mujeres, hemos visto surgir un importante movimiento de protesta en el país. Sin embargo, algunas manifestantes y activistas han recibido amenazas por alzar sus voces. La solidaridad de la comunidad internacional es esencial para quienes protestan contra violaciones de derechos humanos y hacen reclamos justos.
La sociedad de Bangladesh es extremadamente patriarcal, y durante años se han sucedido numerosos intentos de restringir las vidas y las voces de las mujeres. La violación es una expresión de este contexto. Vivir seguras es un derecho fundamental de toda mujer, y es responsabilidad de todas y todos los ciudadanos, así como de la comunidad internacional, garantizar este derecho.
El espacio cívico en Bangladesh es calificado como “represivo” por elCIVICUS Monitor.
BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”
CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.
What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?
On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.
Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.
These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.
All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).
People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.
What were protesters’ main demands?
The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.
Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.
Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.
Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.
How did the authorities respond to the protests?
On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.
In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.
Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.
What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?
After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.
Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.
What can the international community support the movement?
In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.
Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.
Civic space inBangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Bangladesh: Arbitrary de-registration of prominent human rights group Odhikar another blow to civil society
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) are extremely alarmed by the decision of the government to arbitrarily revoke the registration of Odhikar, a leading human rights organisation in Bangladesh. This move is another blow to civil society and human rights defenders who have been facing systematic repression by the Sheikh Hasina regime.
Bangladesh: Authorities must conduct investigations into death of protesters
The Bangladeshi authorities must conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into the death of at least 14 protesters across the country between 26 and 28 March, and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, said 11 human rights organisations in a joint statement today. The organisations also called on the international community to urge Bangladeshi authorities to put an end to the practice of torturing and forcibly disappearing opposition activists.
Bangladesh: Democracy Dialogue Report: 8 September 2018
Democracy Dialogue held by the Aathung Foundation in Bandarban, Bangladesh, 8 September 2018
Bangladesh: Drop all charges against human rights defenders from Odhikar
CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, is seriously concerned over the ongoing judicial harassment against human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan. They will face their next hearing on 24 November 2021. If found guilty, both might be sentenced to up to ten years of imprisonment.
Bangladesh: Drop charges against Odhikar Leadership & stop harassment of Human Rights Defenders
Bangladesh authorities must end the harassment of Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, respectively Secretary and Director of the human rights group Odhikar, who have been targeted through the misuse of the criminal justice system, eleven rights groups said today.
Bangladesh: End crackdown on journalists and online critics, and protect freedom of expression
On World Press Freedom Day, CIVICUS joins five other civil society organisations in expressing alarm over the increasing attacks against Bangladeshi journalists and online critics, exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Today, on World Press Freedom Day 2023, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, are alarmed at the increasing attacks against journalists and others, exercising their right to freely criticize government’s policies and practices. The widespread restrictions on freedom of expression undermine the conditions for open political debate ahead of elections, scheduled for January 2024.
Fifty-six journalists have been reportedly targeted by the government and its supporters in the first three months of 2023. Journalists in Bangladesh are at risk of arrest under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) and being subjected to harassment, surveillance, and physical attacks by government supporters.
On April 4, 2023, in one recent example, a group of armed assailants reportedly attacked Chattogram-based journalist Ayub Meahzi by throwing him off the roof of a two-story building. Meahzi survived but said that he believes the attack was in retaliation for his reporting on the involvement of local government officials engaged in illegal land grabbing and hill cutting.
On 30 March 2023, authorities arrested Shamsuzzaman Shams, a correspondent for the leading national newspaper Prothom Alo, under the DSA, in relation to his article about cost of living in the country. He was detained in the middle of the night and, accused of publishing content “tarnishing the image of the nation,” among other charges. Matiur Rahman, the editor, of Prothom Alo, executive editor Sajjad Sharif, and an unnamed camera operator at the outlet, and other unidentified people were also sued under the Act, in relation to the same article. Shams has since been released on bail. 12 days following Shams’ arrest, in a speech in parliament, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina castigated Prothom Alo as the “enemy” of the ruling Awami League party, democracy, and the people of the country. Following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s statement, a group of young people broke into the Prothom Alo office and vandalised the outer office.
We are disturbed by the continued use of the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) against journalists in retaliation for their work on topics including governmental policies, alleged corruption, and illicit business practices in Bangladesh. The act permits heavy fines and prison sentences for those who dissent and, with broadly defined “threats”, it allows warrantless arrests based simply on a suspicion that a crime has been committed online. As of early May 2023, at least 339 DSA cases had been filed against journalists since its inception in 2018, according to a trackeroperated by the Dhaka-based think tank Centre for Governance Studies.
Newsrooms are further being driven towards self-censorship, with government authorities demanding news articles being removed from their websites, as the Digital Security Act allows the Government to order the removal and blocking of any information or data on the internet it deems necessary. The DSA also allows for invasive surveillance by permitting authorities to require service providers and other intermediaries to hand over data without requiring a court-obtained warrant.
Bangladeshi authorities are also weaponizing other laws against journalists. On 20 February 2023, the Bangladesh authorities stopped the publication of the Dainik Dinkal, after the Bangladesh Press Council, a Ministry of Interior offshoot, rejected its appeal against a government shutdown order on the grounds of violating the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act. Previously, the authorities blocked54 news websites with the declared aim of preventing the spread of “rumours” ahead of the December 2018 national election. Prothom Alo special correspondent Rozina Islam faces ongoing prosecution in an investigation under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and the penal code, in apparent retaliation for her reporting on alleged government corruption and irregularities in the public health sector at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Further, we are alarmed by the ongoing, pervasive impunity regarding violence against journalists, including authorities’ failure to make progress in the investigation into the 2012 murderof journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, with the Rapid Action Battalion deferring the submission of its probe report to court at least 95 times.
The increasing repression and curtailment of the right to freedom of expression is having a chilling effect on journalists and civil society, and seriously stifling journalistic freedoms. The 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh at 162 out of 180, the worst performing country in South Asia.
The Bangladesh government’s suppression of free speech and media freedom is inconsistent with Article 39 of the country’s constitution and Article 19 of Bangladesh’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The Bangladeshi government should:
- Immediately suspend the use of the Digital Security Act pending its repeal or amendment in line with international human rights law.
- Conduct swift, impartial, transparent and effective investigations into all acts of violence against journalists and hold any suspected perpetrators accountable in fair trials.
- Drop all charges against all who have been accused simply of exercising their right to freedom of expression.
- End harassment of journalists and protect media freedom. Ensure that people can voice criticism and concerns, both offline and online, without fearing sanctions.
- End misuse of laws to curtail the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh and protect the media’s right to operate freely and independently and respect the public’s right to information through full and unrestricted access to news outlets.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Committee to Project Journalists
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights
Reporters Without Borders
Bangladesh: End Political Prosecution of Rights Leaders
10 Years of Reprisals Against Odhikar Officials for Documenting Violations
The Bangladesh authorities should cease their continued criminalization and harassment of Bangladesh human rights group, Odhikar, 21 human rights groups said today. Authorities should drop politically-motivated charges against Odhikar’s leaders, Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan.
Bangladesh: Government must stop human rights violations and end impunity
The undersigned human rights organisations commemorate all victims of human rights violations and stand in solidarity with the victims’ families in Bangladesh and across the world. This year’s International Human Rights Day’s slogan is “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All”. International Human Rights Day 2022 is being observed at a time when the human rights situation in Bangladesh continues to worsen. The absence of effective institutions to prevent political intolerance, undemocratic practices and human rights abuses has resulted in rampant impunity. The current authoritarian government has deprived the people of the benefits of good governance and administration of justice through the politicisation of various State institutions, including the judiciary and the Election Commission, and has severely repressed civil and political rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.
Bangladesh is a party to eight major international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations (UN) Convention against Torture, and has ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. However, the government continues to disregard its obligations under these treaties. Gross human rights violations, including cases of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killings, and torture, continue to occur in Bangladesh. The government continues to deny the occurrence of enforced disappearances and has yet to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Members of law enforcement agencies and security forces enjoy impunity as the incumbent government uses them to implement its political agenda.
Despite strong international criticism, the government has intensified its crackdown on civil society organisations and human rights defenders, and the suppression of civic space. Examples of this include the harassment against human rights organisations such as Odhikar. It is suppressing dissenting voices by enforcing repressive laws, including the Digital Security Act and by filing criminal cases, including sedition and defamation charges. Furthermore, members of the ruling Awami League party and law enforcement agencies have regularly attacked and hindered peaceful assembliesof opposition political parties and dissidents. Ruling party members have also filed false and politically-motivated cases against a large number of opposition party leaders and activists. Law enforcement agencies have conducted raids and indiscriminate arrest operations against opposition party leaders and activists. Journalists and media outlets face many forms of repression, including frequent lawsuits, harassment, and serious physical attacks, and in some cases, deadly violence. Censorship, threats, intimidation, and persecution of media outlets is common. Attacks on journalists working for independent media outlets have also taken place.
On the occasion of International Human Rights Day 2022, our organisations call for an end to authoritarianism and the respect for democratic principles, human rights, human dignity, and social justice in Bangladesh. We urge the UN human rights monitoring mechanisms to press the Bangladeshi authorities to hold the perpetrators accountable. We call on the government of Bangladesh to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victim-families and civil society, as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to investigate all allegations of gross human rights violations, and to hold the perpetrators accountable.
--- End of the Statement ---
The organisations jointly publishing the statement are:
- Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN)
- Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
- Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
- Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- Maayer Daak
- Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFK Human Rights)
- World Organization Against Torture (OMCT)
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor
Bangladesh: Hold security forces accountable for torture
Rights Groups Call for Decisive Action on International Day for Victims
The Bangladesh government has failed to address widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment by its security forces, ten rights groups said on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The groups called on the United Nations and concerned governments to take decisive action.
Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in Bangladesh, including both the police and soldiers seconded into civilian law enforcement are credibly accused of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and suspects. Such acts have included: beatings with iron rods, belts, and sticks; using electric shocks on their ears and sexual organs; waterboarding; hanging detainees from ceilings and beating them; deliberately shooting to maim, including knee-capping them; forcing prolonged exposure to loud music and sounds; committing mock executions; and subjecting them to forced nudity. Hundreds have become victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
“Bangladesh human rights activists, international groups, and UN experts have all raised concerns about security force abuses including ill treatment in custody only to be met with denials and lies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Over the past several decades Bangladesh leaders pledged reform but each government has scaled up such atrocities, fostering a culture of abuse and impunity among security forces.”
The Bangladesh government failed to follow-up as required in August 2020 after the UN Committee against Torture made concrete recommendations to prevent and address torture during the country’s review under the Convention against Torture in July 2019. These recommendations included official statements at the highest levels that torture will not be tolerated and that law enforcement authorities must end unacknowledged detentions.
The committee said that the government should establish an independent mechanism to investigate all allegations of torture or ill-treatment by law enforcement officials, enact legislation to protect victims and witnesses, and publish a list of all detention sites.
Following the review, the UN human rights body described the police as a “state within a state,” asserting that “in general, one got the impression that the police, as well as other law enforcement agencies, were able to operate with impunity and zero accountability.”
Seven years after its implementation, in 2020, a Bangladesh court ordered the first ever conviction under the 2013 Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act. Activists hoped this would pave the way for investigations and accountability for the dozens of documented reports of torture by security forces. However, following the 2020 conviction, the victim’s family told the media that they faced repeated pressure, threats, and offered bribes by law enforcement to drop the case. Furthermore, Bangladesh police have repeatedly called for the government to amend the 2013 Torture Act to make it less prohibitive, casting doubt on the hope some harbored that Bangladesh’s security forces may be serious about ending torture.
Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, died in prison on February 25, 2021, after being held in pretrial detention for nine months for posting on Facebook criticism of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. His death caused a public outcry. Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist, who had been detained with Ahmed by members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was released on bail. Kishore filed a legal claim alleging that he was tortured, and also described the torture Ahmed said he had undergone while they were illegally detained.
“Mushtaq was smelling strongly of urine,” Kishore said. “He too had been picked up a few days ago and had been beaten a lot. He was electrocuted in the genitals. There were newspapers on the floor and I asked Mushtaq to use that to clean himself. He took off his underwear and threw it away—I saw that it had excrement in it. He had defecated in his pants from the torture, he told me.”
When 13 Diplomats expressed grave concern about Ahmed’s death in custody and called for “a swift, transparent, and independent inquiry into the full circumstances” of his death, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media to “stop giving publicity to this sort of nuisance.” The government has yet to hold an independent and transparent investigation into Ahmed’s death.
Rights groups have extensively documented crimes of torture, extrajudicial killing, and enforced disappearances, in particular by the Detective Branch of police and the RAB, a paramilitary force notorious for committing acts of torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, and have called for RAB to be disbanded. In March 2021, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet affirmed that “[a]legations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rapid Action Battalion have been a long-standing concern.”
In October 2020, US senators published a bipartisan letter calling for targeted sanctions against top RAB officials for torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances under all applicable authorities, including the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The US government should swiftly move forward with these measures and should be joined by other concerned jurisdictions with similar sanctions regimes including the UK, EU, and Canada.
The UN Committee against Torture has expressed concern “that personnel that have served with the Rapid Action Battalion have frequently been deployed for service with United Nations peace missions” and called for an independent inquiry into allegations of grave abuses by the Rapid Action Battalion. Bangladesh is the top contributor of peacekeeping troops in the world, yet these troops are not being sufficiently vetted to ensure abusive practices inculcated at home are not tacitly condoned and exported to missions abroad, the groups said.
“The United Nations should stand with victims of torture in Bangladesh by ensuring that abusive security forces cannot ‘blue-wash’ their reputations through deployment in UN peacekeeping operations,” Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Asian Human Rights Commission. “The UN department of Peace Operations should start by taking a serious look at how their human rights vetting policy is being applied in Bangladesh.”
The UN should undertake a comprehensive review of its ties with the Bangladesh military. All discussions about increasing Bangladeshi troop deployments in UN missions and high-rank posts should be put on hold pending the results of such an investigation, the groups said. The UN Department of Peace Operations should sever all ties with any units, soldiers, and commanders found responsible for serious human rights abuses, including commanders who failed to prevent or punish abuses by individuals under their command.
In addition, the UN department of Peace Operations should carry out increased vetting for all personnel with a history of RAB affiliation under the 2012 UN policy on Human Rights Screening of United Nations Personnel which requires verification that any individual serving the United Nations has not committed any “violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution on enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh authorities have long been sweeping allegations of torture under the rug,” said Angelita Baeyens, Vice President of International Advocacy and Litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The government should heed recommendations by the UN rights bodies and address abuses by its security forces.”
This joint statement is endorsed by:
- Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
- Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Eleos Justice, Monash University
- Human Rights Watch
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
- Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Bangladesh: International community must respond to crackdown on freedom of expression
The Bangladeshi authorities must end their escalating crackdown on human rights, and respect and protect people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Bangladesh to curb protesters demanding justice for writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s death in prison on 25 February, the nine undersigned human rights organizations said in a joint statement today.
Ahmed, 53, was a Bangladeshi writer held in pre-trial arbitrary detention for nine months under the draconian Digital Security Act of 2018 (“DSA”), following his arrest in May 2020 for Facebook posts and social media communications that were deemed critical of the government. The death in prison of Mushtaq Ahmed raises serious concerns about the protection of fundamental freedoms, including the rights to life, privacy, and the right to liberty.
Ahmed Kabir Kishore, 45, a prominent Bangladeshi cartoonist was also arrested in the same case as Mushtaq. After ten months in prison, on March 3 he was granted bail and was released on March 4 but the charges against him have not been dropped. Further, there are strong reasons to believe that Ahmed Kabir Kishore has been tortured while in custody of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a Bangladesh paramilitary force, which has been accused of serious human rights violations in the past. In addition to no longer being able to hear on his right ear, he also has difficulty walking due to pain in his left knee and ankle. Furthermore, Ahmed Kabir Kishore is diabetic and has been suffering from severely high levels of blood sugar during his detention. Without urgent and proper medical attention, he is at risk of visual impairment due to his deteriorating health.
In light of these developments, the organizations call on Bangladeshi authorities to conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and transparent investigations into the death in prison of writer Mushtaq Ahmed and the allegations of torture against cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore. Perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice.
Authorities must also unconditionally and permanently release Ahmed Kabir Kishore, end the practice of arbitrary, pre-trial detention of people solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.
Mushtaq Ahmed and Ahmed Kabir Kishore are among hundreds of victims whom the Bangladeshi authorities have held in detention under the DSA. Nine others have been accused in the same case for publishing “false information” and “propaganda against the liberation war, the spirit of liberation war, father of the nation”, which could “deteriorate law and order” by “supporting or organizing crime” under sections 21, 25, 31 and 35 respectively of the DSA. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 10 million Bangladeshi takas (equivalent to USD 115,891). These vaguely defined provisions of the law are incompatible with international human rights law and are being used to criminalize freedom of expression. The organization urge the Bangladeshi government to repeal the DSA - under which both Ahmed and Kishore were charged. All digital and cybersecurity laws must conform to international human rights law including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The undersigned organizations also expressed concern over reports of police violence on peaceful protestors, including activists of opposition political parties, who took to the streets to demand justice for Mushtaq Ahmed’s death in prison. The violent crackdown by police has left hundreds of protesters injured, dozens detained, and several others accused of charges, including attempted murder. Bangladeshi authorities must respect and protect the people’s rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and liberty. Authorities must drop all charges against the peaceful protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release those detained.
To protect and respect the human rights, individual states should urge the Bangladeshi authorities to address the allegations of grave human rights violations being committed in Bangladesh. The international community should impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for grave human rights violations in Bangladesh. Given the concerning record of human rights abuses committed by Bangladesh’s security forces and law-enforcement agencies, the UN should review their participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations.
This statement is endorsed by the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Eleos Justice - Monash University, FIDH: International Federation for Human Rights (within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), OMCT: World Organisation Against Torture, (within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
For more information, please contact:
For Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in Hong Kong, Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman (Bangla & English): +852 6073 2807 (Mobile);
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.