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HUMAN RIGHTS IN BANGLADESH Forced Disappearances, Arbitrary Arrests, Detentions, Custodial Deaths Order of the Day

Cover Story

SK. ENAMUL HOQUE, in the light of the US Report on human rights in Bangladesh, paints a graphic picture of the human rights condition in the country.

The United States has identified forced disappearances, discrimination against marginalised groups, poor work environment and not ensuring labour rights as the main human rights problems in Bangladesh. In its annual human rights report, the State Department has criticised a host of human rights problems in Bangladesh, particularly arbitrary arrests, detentions, and custodial deaths.

Bangladesh has been also cited for suppressing labour rights, official corruption and related impunity, self-censorship in the media, government’s failure to investigate and prosecute cases of security force killings. The US Secretary of State John Kerry on 19 April submitted the 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, commonly known as the Human Rights Reports, to the United States Congress.

The report said suspected extrajudicial killings, disappearances and kidnappings continued in the country, with human rights groups alleging the involvement of the country’s security services. The government had neither released statistics on total killings by all security personnel nor taken comprehensive measures to investigate cases, despite statements by high-ranking officials that the government would show “zero tolerance” and fully investigate all extrajudicial killings by security forces, the report alleged. “Marginalised groups, particularly Rohingya refugees, indigenous people and women, suffered from unequal treatment and in some instances violence,” the Human Rights report said adding, “Workers continued to face difficulties in forming unions and suffered from poor safety conditions in factories.”

The US report said official corruption and related impunity remained problems. Weak regard for the rule of law had not only enabled individuals, including government officials, to commit human rights violations with impunity but also prevented citizens from claiming their rights. As in the previous year, it said, the government did not take comprehensive measures to investigate and prosecute cases of security force killings. Other human rights problems included arbitrary arrests, detentions and custodial deaths. Weak judicial capacity and resultant lengthy pre-trial detentions continued to be problems, it said. “Authorities infringed on citizens’ privacy rights. There were instances in which the government limited freedom of speech and assembly. Some journalists practised self-censorship,” the report observed.

About the freedom of the press, it said independent media are active and express a wide variety of views; however, media critical of the government sometimes experienced government pressure. Sometimes, journalists were subjected to physical attacks, harassment and intimidation from both state and non-state actors. Regarding censorship or content restrictions, the report said the government indirectly censored the media through threats and harassment. According to journalists, on multiple occasions government officials asked privately owned television channels not to broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements.

This government, like its predecessors, issued new broadcast licences to like-minded people and denied them to political opponents. The State Department report further said politically motivated violence and pervasive official corruption remained problems in Bangladesh while some NGOs faced legal and informal restrictions on their activities. Some of the salient features of the report are mentioned here.

 

FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND PRESS

The constitution provides for these rights, but the government sometimes failed to respect freedom of speech and press. There were some limitations on freedom of speech and perceived misrepresentation or defamation of Islam. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment.

Freedom of Speech: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years to life imprisonment. During the year the courts did not sentence anyone under these laws. The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes a hate speech, leaving the government with broad powers of interpretation. The government can restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.

For example, university student Sohel Molla Raj (alias Sohel Rana) implied on his personal Facebook account that the prime minister was connected with Ilias Ali’s disappearance. A university official filed a complaint with the Trishal police station, which filed a sedition charge against Sohel Rana with the MHA. The deputy commissioner of Mymensingh seconded the request to the MHA. On 18 May, the police arrested Sohel, whose first court hearing was on 9 July last year. Sohel remained detained in the Mymensingh jail.

Freedom of Press: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media critical of the government sometimes experienced negative government pressure.

The government owned one radio station and one television station. The law mandates that the public television station, BTV, remain the country’s only terrestrial (non-satellite) broadcast channel. An estimated 60 per cent of the population did not have access to private satellite channels, and surveys indicated that almost 80 per cent of citizens received their information from television. BTV broadcast parliamentary sessions and government programming but rarely broadcast opposition views. Cable operators generally functioned without government interference. The government required all private stations to broadcast, without charge, selected government news programmes and speeches by the prime minister.

Fiction writer Humayun Ahmed’s recent novel Dewal discussed the killing of the country’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On May 15, the High Court pronounced the novel “wrong and objectionable” and requested the government to order Ahmed to correct the “misinformation” in his book.

Police in Bogra continued to provide security for correspondent Hasibur Rahman Bilu of the newspaper Daily Star in compliance with a November 2011 High Court order. The order followed attacks and death threats in response to reports published in the Daily Star on alleged corruption by the ruling AL party leader in collusion with the then deputy commissioner.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation from both state and non-state actors. According to Odhikar and media watchdog groups, during the year four journalists were killed, 118 injured, 50 threatened, six attacked, and 43 assaulted.

On 11 February, unknown assailants killed Sagar Sarwar, news editor of the private channel Maasranga TV, and his wife, Meherun Runi, a reporter for the private channel ATN Bangla. The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists protested the killings. After some media reports speculated on the killer’s identity, on 28 February, the Supreme Court ordered the press to refrain from publishing speculative news about the case. On 10 October, the police released the names of eight suspects, but the family and colleagues of the deceased dismissed the findings. No one was arrested for the killings.

Privately owned Ekushey Television (ETV) faced harassment from the National Board of Revenue (NBR) and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) following its failure to heed alleged demands by unnamed government officials to cancel two programmes that discussed contemporary political issues. On 12 January, the ETV Chairman, Abdus Salam, received a backdated letter from the NBR asking him to pay 128 million taka ($1.58 million) in past-due income taxes and fines. In July the NBR charged Salam with tax evasion. Salam claimed ETV did not owe any outstanding taxes. The case continued at year’s end, and Salam’s petition to have the case dismissed was pending.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government indirectly censored the media through threats and harassment. According to journalists, on multiple occasions government officials asked privately owned television channels not to broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. For example, Bangla Vision, and Islamic TV defied unofficial requests not to broadcast a live opposition alliance rally on March 12. Government intelligence officials allegedly forced cable operators to suspend the transmission of the three channels until after the rally ended. According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government retribution. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, the media – particularly print media – depended on government advertisements for a significant percentage of their revenue. As a result the media had an incentive for self-censorship.

This government, like its predecessors, issued new broadcast licences to political supporters and denied them to political opponents. The government did not subject foreign publications and films to stringent review and censorship. A government-managed film censor board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but was less strict than in the past. In practice video rental libraries and DVD shops stocked a wide variety of films, and government efforts to enforce censorship on rentals were sporadic and ineffective.

 

DENIAL OF FAIR PUBLIC TRIAL

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but a longstanding temporary provision of the constitution undermined full judicial independence in practice. According to the provision, the executive branch is in charge of the lower courts, judicial appointments, and compensation for judicial officials.

HRW reported that law enforcement and government officials intimidated defence counsel for leaders of the Islamic political party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami who were accused of war crimes.

Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials due to witness tampering, victim intimidation, and missing evidence. Human rights observers stated that magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases filed during the year.

(to be concluded)



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