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Bangladesh's Repressive Regime

Bangladesh's Repressive Regime

Under the guise of tackling corruption, army and police personnel aided by hired criminals are arresting and torturing all those who are protesting the caretaker government's authoritarian measures in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s RepressiveRegime

Under the guise of tackling corruption, army and police personnel aided by hired criminals are arresting and torturing all those who are protesting the caretaker government’s authoritarian

measures in Bangladesh.

MUKUL SHARMA

C
holesh Richil had no charges of corruption or criminal activity against him. An outspoken leader of the Garo indigenous community that lives in the Modhupur area north of Dhaka in Bangladesh, Cholesh had been campaigning against the construction of a so-called eco (ecology) park on their ancestral land, on the grounds that it would deprive them of their land and means of livelihood. He was arrested by the joint forces (army and police) personnel of the army-backed caretaker government on March 18, 2007 and taken to Modhupur Kakraidh temporary army camp. Tortured for several hours before being taken to the Modhupur Thane Health Complex, he was declared dead the same evening.

Richil’s body was handed over to the Garo community church on March 19. His family observed multiple bruises, nails missing from his fingers and toes and cuts and scratches consistent with blade wounds. His testicles had been removed. Local government officials have stated that an “administrative inquiry” into the case has been initiated, but there is silence on the terms of reference or the progress of the inquiry.

More than 1,00,000 people have been detained, often in mass arrests, since early January with no way to establish the total number of those who remain in detention. Abuses against human rights defenders, social activists, journalists and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are occurring frequently during the emergency. According to the Dhaka-based human rights organisation Odhikar during the first 130 days of emergency from January 12 to May 21, 2007, a total of 96 persons were reportedly killed during different operations by the law-enforcement personnel. In addition, 1,93,329 were reported arrested, inclusive of general arrests for violations of law. Of the 96 reported killed, 54 were killed by the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), 25 by the police, seven by the joint forces, six by the army and three by the navy. One person was reported killed by officers of the department of narcotics control.

Successive governments in Bangladesh have shown total disregard for human rights. With political rallies and other political activities banned and restrictions imposed on the right to freedom of expression during the emergency, the excesses are neither exposed nor protested against. What is even more disturbing is that in the name of cleaning up corruption or criminal activity, emergency and repressive measures are being used to institutionalise a cycle of disregard for human rights in general, and for abuses against human rights defenders in particular. A cycle of impunity for human rights violations, which has prevailed in the country over its decades-long existence, is becoming a daily affair.

In this environment, a larger social constituency is at severe risk. Shahidul Islam, the founding director of Uttaran, a NGO working for the social and economic empowerment of the poor and the disadvantaged communities in the western districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Jessore, was arrested and taken into joint forces’ custody on January 27, 2007. Following the arrest, he was served with a detention order under the Special Powers Act (SPA) on the unspecific grounds that he had “engaged in acts of terrorism and had harboured terrorists”. The police subsequently filed several criminal charges against him, apparently as additional means of securing his continued detention. Several days later when Shahidul Islam was allowed to have visitors, it was discovered that he had been severely beaten on his legs and his back, as the joint forces personnel accused him of possessing illegal weapons. He had to be sent to the Satkhira Sadar hospital for treatment, and was later returned to the Satkhira District Jail, where he continues to be detained.

Agents of the state, including the police, the army and the other law-enforcement personnel, for whom successive governments have been directly responsible, have perpetrated several human rights violations in the past. Other perpetrators of human rights abuses are individuals or groups linked to armed criminal gangs, parties of the ruling coalition or the opposition, or mercenary gangs allegedly hired by the local politicians to suppress revelations about their unlawful activity. Hundreds of social and human rights activists have received death threats. Scores of them have been attacked. Several journalists have had their fingers or hands deliberately damaged so as to disable them from holding a pen. Many have had to leave their homes and localities in the face of continued threats. An Amnesty International report documents that during 2000-05, at least eight human

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

rights activists were assassinated by assailants believed to be linked to armed criminal gangs or armed factions of political parties.

No Safeguards against Abuse

A detailed analysis reveals that those working in areas of search for truth and justice, strengthening of the rule of law, increasing government accountability, struggle for gender, sexual and racial equality, children’s rights, rights of refugees, struggle against corruption, environmental degradation, hunger, disease and poverty, have been particular targets of attacks. With the emergency, arbitrary arrests and detentions of social activists have taken place. Such detainees are also reported to be tortured or ill-treated, while in custody. Special Powers Act, Code of Criminal Procedure, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1986, and other similar acts are being excessively used. Special Powers Act overrides the safeguards in Bangladesh law against arbitrary detention, and allows the government to hold a detainee for up to four months without charge or trial. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance empowers the police to detain anyone “found under suspicious circumstance between sunset and sunrise”.

The liberal space for expression of opinion has been progressively shrinking under successive governments in Bangladesh. However, under the emergency and army rule, it has shrunk further, chiefly due to three reasons: fundamental rights to freedom of expression, and to equality before the law have been curtailed; continued prevalence of corruption in the police force; and abuse of institutions of state by the caretaker government. History has shown that in south Asia, including India, administrative detention procedures during a state of emergency result in torture, and at such times there are no established, clear and enforceable safeguards against such abuses. Proclaiming emergency is an anti-people act, and it plays no part in the sustainable combating of crime or corruption and the maintenance of public order. Bangladesh has performed badly in the areas of law reforms and institution-building from a human rights perspective. Successive governments have failed to set up a national human rights commission, and the office of the ombudsman – which is a constitutional requirement – has never been established. Frequent concerns have been raised about a number of legal practices which allow the executive to improperly influence the judiciary.

Failing to address serious issues, the caretaker government is instead suppressing the voices that are raising these concerns. The stories of Cholesh Richil and Shahidul Islam are illustrative of broader patterns of killing, torture, violence and impunity that are taking place within the country. The power seized by the president or the army has not led to action against politicians, army officials, police and others responsible for grave human rights violations; in fact they are being shielded. Considering the repressive regime within, it is important to raise concerns outside about the human rights situation in Bangladesh, so that the government can be taken to task in bilateral or multilateral forums.

EPW

Email: mukul1961@yahoo.co.in

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Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

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