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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Bangladesh

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Bangladesh, 18 June 2009, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

Despite both domestic and international calls, the state of emergency declared by President Iajuddin Ahmed on January 11, 2007 was not lifted until December 16, 2008, twelve days before national elections. Under the draconian legal framework of the emergency powers – the Emergency Powers Ordinance (EPO) and the Emergency Power Rules (EPR), both issued in January 2007 – the police and the military continued to arrest and detain thousands of people without charge or trial, violating basic due process rights.1 The decision of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court on April 23, 2008 that the prohibition on considering bail applications in EPR matters applied to all courts (including the Supreme Court itself) further exacerbated the situation, giving carte blanche to the Government to arrest and detain those considered as a threat. Torture of persons in custody, in some cases even leading to death, continued to be routine as did extrajudicial killings by the security forces, in particular the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the police.2 Impunity also continued to prevail with no RAB or other law enforcement agent being held accountable for any killing.

In the course of 2008, the unelected Caretaker Government, which by its very nature had no authority to promulgate legislation unless it related to the holding of general elections,3 passed or brought into effect 122 controversial laws. The Anti-Terrorism Ordinance, promulgated on June 11, 2008 without any prior consultation or public debate, contains a very broad definition of terrorist acts, which includes property crimes as well as physical attacks, contrary to recommendations by the UN.4 It also allows the Government to ban an organisation based on "reasonable allegations" of involvement in terrorist activities, criminalises the financing of terrorist groups where there is "reasonable suspicion" that money may be used for terrorist activities,5 and criminalises speech in support of a banned organisation, without the requirement to show that the speech incited criminal conduct.6 The Ordinance could be used as a tool to persecute the political opposition, human rights defenders, trade unionists and other activists under the guise of ensuring the security of the State.

Two ordinances were adopted which, at first glance, appeared to promote human rights: the Right to Information Ordinance (October 20, 2008) and the National Human Rights Commission Ordinance (September 1, 2008). However, both have a number of shortcomings. A large number of authorities are excluded from the scope of the Right to Information Ordinance; some of these exceptions are legitimate, others are not, such as the blanket exclusion of information relating to tax, exchange rates, interest rates and the monitoring or administration of economic bodies.7 The National Human Rights Commission Ordinance provides for the establishment of an "independent" body to safeguard rights. This independence is, however, questionable, as the Commission will rely on grants and contributions from the Government, and members of the Commission will be selected by a committee predominantly made up of Government officials. Furthermore, the Ordinance provides for the resolution of cases by arbitration or mediation, which may discourage or prevent criminal action against perpetrators.

At the very end of the year, on December 29, 2008, national elections took place, which saw the victory of the Grand Alliance led by the Awani League of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who won more than 75% of seats at the National Assembly.

Harassment of those seeking to expose human rights violations

In 2008, human rights organisations and defenders continued to be harassed by the authorities. This frequently took the form of threats as well as the monitoring of activities and funding sources. For example, Odhikar, a Bangladeshi organisation monitoring human rights violations, received intimidating calls from various intelligence agencies in 2008 and on May 27, 2008 its offices were visited by a person claiming to be the Deputy Assistant Director of National Security Intelligence, who stated that he was to investigate Odhikar's activities and asked a number of questions regarding funding and on-going projects. When asked, he refused to show any official identification or authorisation for the investigation, claiming that he was entitled to carry out the investigation without official authorisation. A further example is Dr. Hasan, a leading member of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, who received death threats after the publication on April 3, 2008 of a list of people allegedly responsible for war crimes during the War of Independence in 1971. This highlights the culture of impunity that began with the failure to prosecute those responsible for war crimes during the War of Independence and persists today.

Continuing restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association

At the beginning of November 2008, the Government partially relaxed the restrictions under the EPR on freedoms of expression, assembly and association. However, this applied only to meetings, gatherings and rallies that were related to the upcoming elections. Human rights defenders and other civil society groups were therefore still prohibited from exercising these fundamental rights and the security forces as well as non-State actors continued to clamp down on any protest. For example, on March 30, 2008, at least ten people were injured whilst trying to prevent the eviction of the socio-cultural organisation "Lekhak Shibir" (Writers' Guild) by hoodlums, who considered that the activities of the organisation were anti-Islamic, and who were assisted by the security forces. Three days later, cultural activists who were standing in a human chain protesting against the illegal eviction were again attacked by hoodlums in the presence of security forces.

Silencing the media

Throughout 2008, the Government continued its control over the media and journalists: 115 incidents of violence against journalists or pressure on freedom of expression were recorded.8 Threats (including death threats), arrests, fabricated charges and physical attacks were all used to intimidate the media into self-censorship. Newspapers received intimidating calls or visits from law enforcement agencies threatening them not to publish reports that were critical of the Government and journalists were threatened with arrest without a warrant to prevent them writing such reports.

In that context, journalists reporting on human rights violations, harassment and corruption by the security forces and officials were particular targets. For example, Mr. Jahangir Alam Akash, a journalist who was initially arrested and imprisoned on an extortion charge on October 24, 2007, but then released on bail at the end of November 2007, continued to face harassment in 2008. On January 7, 2008, a new warrant for his arrest for extortion was issued. On October 21, 2008, Mr. Akash appeared before a magistrate. At this hearing, the prosecution reportedly guided and prompted witnesses in recalling evidence against him, leading to concerns that he is being denied due legal process. This ongoing harassment and abuse of legal process are believed to be a result of his investigative reporting of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies and corruption as well as his allegations of torture whilst in custody.9 Another journalist faced an attack by prison guards on May 24, 2008. Mr. Mirza Shakil, a reporter for The Daily Star, was severely beaten by the guards, when working on a report on the harassment of visitors and corruption in the local prison. No action has been taken against the prison officials or the guards.10

On March 28, 2008, Mr. Robiul Islam, a journalist for The Sunshine, a Rajshahi-based newspaper, was arrested at his house without a warrant and taken to Durgapur police station where he was detained for approximately 12 hours until two a.m. the following morning. During his custody, the police intimidated him into signing a confession admitting his involvement in a robbery case. It was only after his relatives intervened and provided statements from the victim of the robbery confirming that Mr. Islam was not involved and from a suspect who confirmed he had been coerced into making a statement implicating Mr. Islam, that the police released him. Mr. Islam had written a number of reports of police malpractice, including arrests on fabricated charges and subsequent extortion of money from those detained, and it is believed that his arrest and detention were in retaliation for his reports revealing police malpractices.

Labour rights activists remained a target

With the lift of the state of emergency on December 16, 2008, all the bans that had been put in place were cancelled by the Government, including the ban on trade union activities. This enabled trade unions to hold elections on December 17, for the first time in 18 months. However, in practice, they were still not allowed to conduct other activities, therefore being forced to remain as ineffective as under the EPR.

Indeed, throughout the emergency period, although the Government allowed professional organisations of lawyers and university professors to carry out their activities, blue collar workers and their trade-unions were not allowed to do so, therefore having no means of pressing for their demands, in particular for higher wages, which led to unrest and violence. In the course of campaigning for full payment of wages and other labour rights, many workers in jute mills and garment factories were arrested for violating the state of emergency.

In addition to restrictions on trade unions, labour rights activists were threatened, subjected to constant surveillance and also arrested under the EPR. For instance, early in January 2008, the Government brought criminal charges for breach of the EPR against several leading trade unionists, including members of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers' Union Federation (BIGUF). On January 22, 2008, Mr. Ranjit Halder, a Bangladeshi employee of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, was arrested and briefly detained after taking part in a workers' rights clinic. On January 24, 2008, Mr. Mehedi Hasan of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) was arrested in Dhaka by the Bangladesh Intelligence Service. The WRC is an independent labour rights monitoring organisation that carries out investigations of working conditions in factories worldwide. Mr. Hasan, had been carrying out a monitoring mission in Bangladesh, together with Mr. Bent Gehrt, WRC South East Asia Field Director and a Danish national. Mr. Hasan was remanded to police custody on January 25, 2008 for the purposes of "further interrogation". He was released on February 3, 2008 with no charges against him. Mr. Gehrt was arrested and interrogated for about an hour at Dhaka airport as he was about to board a plane to Thailand. He was released after being questioned about his and Mr. Hasan's activities over the past few weeks.

Repression against indigenous and minority rights' defenders

Following the horrific torture and resulting death of Mr. Cholesh Ritchil, leader of the Garo community, in March 2007, the security forces and army continued in 2008 the repression of indigenous and minority rights defenders. Frequently, this took the form of re-arrests of indigenous activists, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), soon after their release or bail from court, so as to keep them in detention for months. For example, Mr. Rang Lai Mro, an indigenous Murong community leader and head of the NGO Mrochet in the CHT, remained detained throughout 2008 in Chittagong District Jail and refused medical treatment, despite a serious heart condition which could lead to a heart attack at any time. Mr. Rang Lai Mro, who had been arrested on January 27, 2007, was finally released on bail on January 8, 2009. In 2007, Mr. Rang Lai Mro had been convicted and sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment after an unfair trial for possession of an unlicensed pistol. Following his arrest, he was hospitalised after being severely beaten by army officers and it was discovered that he had suffered a heart attack. The torture inflicted by the army officers has never been investigated. It is believed that Mr. Rang Lai Mro was targeted as a result of his activities to improve facilities for the Mro people in the CHT.

Urgent Interventions issued by the Observatory in 200811

Names of human rights defendersViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Mehedi Hasan and Mr. Bent GehrtArbitrary arrest / InterrogationUrgent Appeal BGD 001/0108/OBS 012January 29, 2008
ReleaseUrgent Appeal BGD 001/0108/OBS 012.1February 4, 2008

1 In 2008, the human rights NGO Odhikar recorded 50,215 cases of arbitrary arrests. See Odhikar, Human Rights Report 2008, January 15, 2009.

2 In 2008, Odhikar recorded 149 extrajudicial cases (See report above-mentioned), and the NGO Hotline Human Rights recorded 168 extrajudicial killings by RAB and police forces.

3 The High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh made this ruling on July 13, 2008 and also declared all ordinances made by the Caretaker Government to be unconstitutional, although it stayed this order for one month. See Asian Legal Resources Centre, Bangladesh: Prolonged State of Emergency threatening the judiciary and human rights defenders' ability to work, August 21, 2008.

4 See Report by the Secretary General's High Level Panel on threats, challenges and changes, A more secure world: a shared responsibility, 2004, in which the High Level Panel proposed the following definition: "any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004) that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act". In his recommendations following a visit to Turkey, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism stated that definitions of crimes constituting acts of terrorism should be confined to "acts of deadly or otherwise grave violence against persons or the taking of hostages" (See UN Document No. E/CN.4/2006/98/Add.2, March 24, 2006).

5 This is a lower standard of proof than the criminal law requirement of "beyond a reasonable doubt".

6 This is contrary to freedom of expression under international law.

7 The Ordinance provides eight security and intelligence agencies are totally excluded from the purview of this law. They are: National Security Intelligence Agency (NSI), Directorate of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Defence Intelligence Units, Criminal Investigation Department of Bangladesh Police (CID), Special Security Forces (SSF), National Revenue Board's Intelligence Cell, Special Branch of Bangladesh Police, RAB Intelligence Cells. Most of these agencies are responsible for serious human rights violations. This provision generates the unaccountability of said agencies.

8 See Odhikar, Human Rights Report 2008, January 15, 2009.

9 See IFEX Press Release, October 28, 2008.

10 See Hotline Human Rights, Hotline Newsletter, April-May 2008, 154th Issue.

11 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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