April 14 (SAM): The 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Bangladesh prepared by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, has slammed the incumbent government for draconian laws, their partisan application and the brazen impunity with which government breaks universally accepted norms of governance.
The report points out that the government neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Law enforcement raids primarily to counter terrorist activity, drugs, and illegal firearms. But suspicious deaths occurred during some raids. The security forces frequently denied their role in such deaths, claiming that they occurred during shootouts.
But human rights organizations and the media claimed that many of these extrajudicial killings. Human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported at least 80 individuals died in extrajudicial killings including 51 in so-called shootouts or crossfires. According to Odhikar, of the 71 incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings between January and September 30, 35 deaths resulted from gunfights with law enforcement, 30 persons were shot by law enforcement, and six others died from alleged torture while in custody. In 2020 Odhikar reported a total of 225 alleged extrajudicial executions, down from 391 incidents in 2019.
Between January and September 30, local human rights organizations reported 18 persons were victims of enforced disappearances. On July 19, Mayer Daak (Mother’s Call), an organization of members of the families of victims of enforced disappearances, issued a statement urging the government to return the disappeared persons to their families before the religious holiday of Eid-al-Adha. The organization reported more than 500 individuals have gone missing in the country since 2009.
In August, Human Rights Watch documented 86 cases of enforced disappearances during the prior decade in which the victim’s whereabouts remained unknown. It also alleged government refusal to acknowledge or investigate cases. The government has not permitted the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to enter the country since 2013.
According to the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. These forces reportedly used beatings with iron rods, kneecappings, electric shock, rape and other sexual abuse, and mock executions.
On February 25, media reported that writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison after being held in pretrial detention for 10 months. Ahmed was charged under the DSA for posting criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Facebook. Ahmed were tortured in custody. He complained: “Every time they were not pleased with an answer, they hit me on my legs, ankles, and soles of my feet,” and that someone from behind slapped him on both sides of his head throughout RAB’s interrogations. Between January and September 30, local human rights organization ASK reported 67 prisoners, of which 42 were awaiting trial and 25 were convicted, died in jail custody. In March the UN Human Rights Council released a statement urging the “prompt, transparent, and independent” investigation into Ahmed’s death, the “overhaul” of the DSA.
Arbitrary Arrests and Detention
Authorities increasingly held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.
There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite directives from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting re-arrest of persons on new charges without first producing them in court before being released on bail. Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest.
The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification for arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary. Human rights activists claimed police falsely constructed cases to target opposition leaders, workers, and supporters.
The government generally did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Human rights observers maintained that magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or courts ruled based on influence from or loyalty to political patronage networks. Judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.
Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and chairperson of the opposition political party BNP was put in jail on corruption charges. But it is generally believed that she was kept in jail only to neutralize her politically. “International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction and suggested a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process,” the US report said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that on October 7, the European branch of the country’s ruling Awami League party filed a police complaint in Stockholm against Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil who was reportedly based in Sweden. The complaint alleged Khalil spread “disinformation and slander against Bangladesh.” In Dhaka, authorities brought similar charges against Khalil under the DSA and issued a warrant for his failure to appear in court, although he no longer lived in the country. The organization also reported that members of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the intelligence section of the armed forces, repeatedly visited Khalil’s mother’s home in Sylhet, where they encouraged her to dissuade him from continuing his work and inquired regarding his whereabouts.
During 2021 the government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites. On June 22, a Dhaka court issued a notice on behalf of 10 Supreme Court lawyers requesting the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) to disclose the steps it had taken to prevent eavesdropping on private, telephone conversations. The notice mentioned 16 eavesdropping cases to be evaluated, which were previously disclosed by the press. Some of these cases involved eavesdropping on members of the political opposition. According to the press, the BTRC did not respond to the request.
“The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for conviction of sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment. The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad latitude to interpret it. The DSA, passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to life imprisonment for spreading propaganda against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
In 2020 the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad.
A March op-ed in the Dhaka Tribune reported the Cybercrime Tribunal in Dhaka faced 2,450 pending DSA and Information Communications Act cases, having delivered one DSA guilty verdict to date. On July 25, Amnesty International released a 24-page report on the DSA which said that more than 1,300 cases had been filed against 2,000 persons under the DSA and nearly 1,000 persons had been arrested since the law was enacted in 2018. More than 100 journalists were sued under the DSA between January 2019 and July 2020, and at least 40 of them were arrested.
Local human rights organization Human Rights Culture Foundation reported at least 21 individuals were arrested in DSA cases in October. On December 31, local human rights organization ASK reported at least 210 journalists faced harassment, physical torture, assault, threats, and lawsuits, including cases filed under the DSA. The organization stated there were at least 1,134 DSA cases during the year.