Catastrophic human rights situation in Bangladesh

CIVICUS recently spoke to a civil society activist in Bangladesh, who asked to remain anonymous, on the recent events in the country, including the recent killing of academics and bloggers and the implications for civic space.

1. Can you give background to what happened earlier this year when academics and bloggers were hacked to death in the country?

The political turmoil in Bangladesh threatens the freedom of expression, assembly and of association and a huge number of human rights violations are taking place, such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, targeted killings and mass arrest among others. The members of the opposition political parties mainly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jaamat-e-Islami, dissenting voices and the young people make up the majority of victims of human rights violations. The present government came to the power through controversial and farcical elections in January 2014 which were boycotted by all major political parties, and as a result, political confrontations have increased. The government has become more repressive in order to keep power at any cost. The rule of law is non-existent. Therefore there is a huge political vacuum which allows for political extremism to grow. At the same time the government wants to project itself as the only custodian of “secularism” and therefore seeks to project the mainstream political opponents and the anti-government youth as “extremist” so that it can use lethal actions to silence them.

The freedom of expression has been curtailed and most media are either directly controlled by the government or receive instructions from the intelligence agencies. Bloggers, online activists and foreign citizens have been attacked and killed in Bangladesh since 2013. So far, seven bloggers and online activists and two foreigners, one teacher and the editor of a LGBTI magazine have been killed. Although such killings have been reportedly claimed by an “Islamist extremist group”, people also suspect that the intelligence agencies might have a hand in the killings, as the government is a beneficiary of such attacks ─ it takes advantage of such attacks to silence the main opposition parties and dissenting voices. The Prime Minister has already blamed the main opposition political parties for targeted killings and accordingly the law enforcement agencies have detained 15 000 people in a mass arrest drive. There is already huge polarisation within the society. People have no trust in the law enforcement agencies or the government. The right to freedom of opinion and expression is seriously curtailed due to the random application of repressive laws among them the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (amended 2009 and 2013), Special Powers Act 1974 and Sections 506 and 124 of the Penal Code 1860. The reality is that if the opinion of any citizen is against the government they are arrested or harassed by the state. This is already a low-intensity conflict situation which might escalate. In Bangladesh today no one is safe except the people who get patronage of the present regime.

2. How is religious extremism and terrorism affecting civic space in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh was part of British India, which became part of Pakistan in 1947 and in 1971 it was liberated from Pakistan after the Pakistani army imposed genocide on the people of Bangladesh though the majority of its population are Muslims. Unlike other South Asian countries Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other religious minority communities lived side by side with harmony in Bangladesh for ages. However, in the recent years on the one hand the ruling Awami League party members are grabbing the land of the poor people belonging to the religious minority groups and on the other hand the so-called “extremist” attacks are happening to them. Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council have blamed the government party people for grabbing their property several times in recent years. Even many of these attacks on the temples belonging to Hindus and Buddhists have been conducted by party activists of the ruling Awami League as stated by victims and eye-witnesses.

As the rule of law is absent and the justice delivery system is not functioning, the perpetrators were not punished and people belonging to the minority communities are very vulnerable. At the same time the government is targeting the opposition party activists ─ which has made things difficult regarding detecting the actual perpetrators. Recently the police killed two suspected “extremists” who were in police remand and their deaths have raised questions again regarding the actual motive of the government, that is whether the government is interested to use the “terrorist” or “militant” boogey to remain in power through imposing extreme repression on the opposition activists and by fooling the international community with their campaign of fighting the “Islamist extremist” or it is interested in getting assistance from all sectors of the society by initiating a process to restore democracy and rule of law by involving all the mainstream political parties and taking a common stand about the extreme trends whatever the society has. It is true that if this situation continues the real extremists will definitely fill in the vacuum and this will not remain as a trend only as the people will remain silent due to government repression and also as the entire political situation will be based on revenge.

3. What do you think is the effect of such killings on freedom of expression?

Definitely such killings have a chilling effect on freedom of opinion and expression, as most of the victims were “atheist” bloggers, writers and online activists. They expressed their opinion and wrote on the social media and web portals, criticising “Islam and its practices” and also to certain extent the failures of the government regarding protecting them. The present government initially used them in 2013 to organise a platform called Gonojagoron Moncho to mobilise a campaign for demanding the death penalty for the Jamaat-e-Islami party leaders, who were collaborating with the Pakistani army during our liberation war in 1971. However, the same government is now distancing itself from them as they are no longer required for the government because most of the senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami party along with one Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders have already been hanged. They have become vulnerable as now the government is not providing them adequate protection. On the other hand the government is now hell-bent on curtailing freedom of expression and preventing dissenting voices. Interventions by the government and the ruling party men; attacks on the journalists and filing of cases against them; and detention of journalists in prison continues to hinder freedom of speech and expression. Two editors, 81-year old Shafik Rehman and 66-year old Mahmudur Rahman are detained in custody for criticising the government. The government has closed down the pro opposition popular newspaper Daily Amardesh and the television channels Channel 1, Diganta TV and Islamic TV.

4. Recently there have been various reports of mass arrests. Can you detail who is being arrested and if this gives comfort to civil society?

In June 2016, the government initiated a special drive to arrest “extremists” and criminals which has created a chaotic situation and human rights violations due to mass arrests. More than 15 000 people were detained by the law enforcement agencies during the special drive across the country in seven days during this operation that commenced on 10 June 2016. The majority of the detainees are either members or supporters of the mainstream opposition political parties namely Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami and their youth and student wings, many of them were ordinary young people, including pedestrians, shopkeepers, day-labourers, informal traders and students including local journalists. For instance, on 12 June, a day-labour named Amanullah was arrested by police of Paltan Police Station while he was waiting in front of Dhaka Trade Centre at Gulistan. Later he was shown as having been arrested for a robbery and vandalism case. The same day Altab Hossain, a cloth trader of old Dhaka, was arrested from Shahbagh area when he was returning home from his business place. Meanwhile on 10 June, a student Mohammad Ali (12) was arrested by police of Tejgaon Industrial Area Police Station and later shown as arrested under a drug case. 

Prisons in Bangladesh have become extremely overcrowded due to the mass arrest under the special drive ‘Anti-Militancy Operation’ by law enforcement agencies. The jail authorities are also in trouble trying to control the situation. They are facing difficulties in providing food to the inmates and maintaining visitors who are coming to see their relatives detained in jail. Such situation has become even more worsen as the mass arrest operation is taking place in the month of Ramadan. Many people have already become sick in jails as the pressure of inmates has increased. The inmates are being deprived of treatment due to a lack of doctors and scarcity of medicine. As of 15 June 2016, there were about 76 000 inmates detained in 68 prisons across the country. However, the maximum capacity of the prisons is 34 706. There were 7 500 inmates detained in Dhaka Central Jail in place of the maximum capacity of 2 627.  One of the relatives of an inmate said that the Dhaka Central Jail is full of inmates and people are in a dire situation. No one can sleep at night as up to 120 people are being kept in a cell with a maximum capacity of 30. The quality of food given in the jail is extremely bad. But they are forced to eat this food to survive. Toilets were also said to be in an unusable condition.

5. What is the general environment civil society is operating in Bangladesh?

The human rights situation in Bangladesh has become catastrophic since the controversial and farcical elections of 5 January 2014 and due to a political crisis created by the absence of an accountable government. The authoritarian regime has embarked on silencing dissenting voices through persecution and arrests. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, shooting in the limbs of opposition political party activists and young suspects and also human rights defenders and the imposition of repression through draconian laws have become regular. Through the 15th amendment of the Constitution the government has taken away the rights of the people to choose any political party under a ‘Caretaker Government’ and have made all the institutions including the judiciary politicised and dysfunctional.

Thousands of NGOs operate in Bangladesh. Most of these NGOs are involved in service delivery or micro-finance activities and due to their nature of activities they essentially work with the government which is in power at any given time. However, the NGOs which address civil and political rights issues, that is human rights issues are seen very negatively by the present regime in Bangladesh. Human rights NGOs that predominantly work on civil and political rights issues face constant obstacles in continuing their operations from the authorities, including being barred from accessing funds. These NGOs are denied permission for their proposed projects from time to time by the NGO Affairs Bureau (under the Prime Minister’s Office) and have been subject to escalating harassment and surveillance. Leading human rights NGO Odhikar is experiencing significant harassments since 2013, state repression, fund restrictions, surveillance and interference in public activities. Organisations like TIB (Transparency International Bangladesh) and SHUJAN (Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik) have been criticised by the government for publishing reports. Even the Nobel Prize winner Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus has been removed from the post of managing director of Grameen Bank, of which he is the founder.

The government has politicised all institutions. So-called “independent” institutions like the Election Commission, Anti Corruption Commission, National Human Rights Commission and the Information Commission have been made subservient to the government. At the same time the government has been the perpetrator of numerous human rights violations over the years through corruption, impunity and enacting and implementing various repressive laws. Trends of various human rights violations including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture in the custody of law enforcement agencies, shooting in the legs by law enforcers, attacks on journalists, political violence, freedom of expression, bans on meetings and assemblies, violence against women and children, and attacks on citizens belonging to minority communities, have not decreased but are continuing with impunity. Allegations of acts of harassment, torture and attacks by the law enforcement agencies are becoming more and more common. The law enforcement agencies are being used for political gain and to suppress political opposition, many members of law enforcement agencies believe that they are above the law. As a result, they are enjoying impunity.

The present government is too eager to restrain the rights of freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association of the peoples’ organisations and NGOs, which contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders.

In the past few years, there has been a serious deterioration in the climate for free expression in Bangladesh. Bloggers expressing atheist views have been attacked and killed by alleged ‘extremist groups’ and the prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has failed to take any action against these attacks, however, she warned the bloggers against “hurting people’s religious sentiments”.

A repressive law, the “National Broadcasting Act” has been drafted, incorporating provisions for imprisonment and fine. The social media is also under constant monitoring by the government. The repressive law – the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (amended 2009, 2013) – is being imposed against people who are critical of the decisions and activities of people in high positions of the government. According to information gathered by a human rights NGO, from January 2015 to May 2016, 40 persons were arrested under the Information and Communication Technology Act. There is also a tendency to stop pro-opposition political programmes/ meetings in the name of public safely by imposing Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1898) on the pretext of mitigating violence. The government is barring meetings and assemblies of the opposition and groups with alternative beliefs by using the law enforcement agencies. The situation of the country has already become catastrophic and human rights defenders are at the frontline of repression.

6. How is civil society responding to these threats?

In Bangladesh, the liberal space for freedom of assembly and of association in lieu with freedom of expression and thought has seen a decline in the recent past, despite changes in the government. However, the present situation is the worst of all times since the independence of Bangladesh.

To fight against all these repressive situation the human rights defenders are mobilising themselves, periodically publishing their reports online or offline and trying to generate people’s power for the restoration of democracy, bringing back voting rights of the people, establishing rule of law and human rights. This mission is not easy but as non-violent campaigners the human rights defenders have no other choice to fight against state terrorism.