The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Human Rights under Sheikh Hasina

The human rights activists have blamed Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government for alleged violations of various rights normally enjoyed by people in a democratic polity. The key human rights problems include tortures and killings by the security forces. The law enforcement agencies had been held responsible for disappearances, custodial deaths, arbitrary arrests and detention. There were also instances of security forces personnel harassing journalists and government imposing restrictions on freedom of thought and expression. Moreover, in the eyes of international human rights organisations and a few Western countries, the government has failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities from “societal violence”.    

In the face of opposition’s violent agitations, street vandalism and continued strikes and blockades, the AL government undertook certain drastic measures to restore law and order during the January 5 elections. However, such actions had invited widespread criticisms from domestic as well as international quarters accusing the government of “highhandedness”. The law enforcement agencies had been conducting pre-dawn raids to arrest the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders on the charge of inciting violence. Most of the frontline leaders had gone underground prior to the polls. The opposition claimed that more than 3000 BNP activists were detained on “framed charges”. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia said, “It is to intimidate, to create a sense of fear”. The ruling AL denies the charge and a senior leader said, “The BNP is out to create anarchy through strikes”.

There were reports of disappearances and politically-motivated killings across the country. The disappearance of BNP lawmaker Ilias Ali sparked violent street protest and strike that claimed four lives. The elite storm troopers Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was implicated for Ali’s disappearance. Besides, a popular journalist couple was killed that generated sensation in the local media. Amnesty International in a report mentioned that about 20 people had “disappeared” in Bangladesh during January- May, 2012. All these are blamed on the bitter power rivalry between the two major political formations of the country. These are obvious fallout of over- politicisation of a society where even the most creative segment, the intelligentsia and proactive group like student particularly those belonging to Dhaka University, are not immune from the phenomenon.   

The AL government had set up the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) on 25 March, 2010 to try the war criminals and collaborators of Liberation War in 1971. But since then, it has been hit by a series of controversies. More than 100 people were killed and several others injured in protests and counter protests over the crime convictions in 2013. The human rights groups have criticised the government for flouting due process. They maintain that some of the rules are not consistent with the international standards as followed by war crimes tribunals in Rwanda or Cambodia while the anti-liberation groups, including Jamaat-e-Islami have accused the government of politicising the trial process. The rightist and reactionary forces claim that the trial process is not fair and the judiciary has been politicised. The BNP-led opposition alliance believes that the tribunal is a new device for the ruling party to try and physically eliminate some of the top opposition leaders. According to a report, “… the current prime minister is unseemingly rushed to carryout the death sentence before her government is removed from power…..” 

The rights activists have also blamed the government for infringement of civil liberties. A human rights watchdog of Bangladesh, Odhikar, has been campaigning against extra-judicial killings, disappearances, tortures and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Odhikar is vocal on alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh and has been consistently publishing reports highlighting government’s shortcomings. However, on August 10, 2013, police arrested organisation’s Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director Nasiruddin Elan for publishing “false reports” on the police crackdown on Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamic outfit. The drive was conducted by several thousand policemen as Hefazat activists organised violent demonstrations at Dhaka’s busy commercial area Motijheel on May 5 and 6, 2013.

Both Khan and Elan were detained under Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and Section 57 of the newly enacted Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), 2006. Odhikar report claimed that at least 61 people were killed in the showdown. The police disputed the report and prosecutors claimed that the head of Odhikar “fabricated information”. Police said on May 8 that eleven people, including a policeman, died in the May 5-6 unrest. Amid claims and counter-claims, the precise figure of death toll in the police crackdown still remains an issue of public debate. In the meantime, a number of human rights organisations and civil society groups called for their immediate release and urged the government to ensure that they did not face ill treatment while in detention.

The ICT Act allows police to arrest without warrant anyone posting material on social media that may “harm the image of the state”. The civil liberty defenders called it a “draconian law” after the government scrapped the provision of bail through a recent amendment. The government says such measures are designed to stop the use of social media to spread religious hatred and seditious material.

In the first week of November, 2013, a professor of National University was arrested for alleged criticism of the prime minister on face book. According to prosecutors, the professor accused Sheikh Hasina of monopolising power and said her son Sajeeb Wazed lacked computer expertise. The defence lawyer said the government action “represented a blow against freedom of speech” while the prosecutors claimed he had slandered the prime minister’s family. In another incident in October, a national award-wining popular singer complained of police harassment after she wrote face book post blaming the government for the current political turbulence.

On May 3, Bangladesh government stopped the transmission of two private channels -- Diganta TV and Islamic TV, for allegedly playing “irresponsible” role in reporting stories on Hefazat’s Dhaka seize programme. Earlier on April 13, Mahmadur Rahman, editor of pro-opposition daily, Amar Desh, was arrested. The government also closed the newspaper.  He was charged under certain provisions of the Cyber Crime Act and ICT Act for publishing a Skype conversation between Nizamul Huq, an ICT judge, and an external legal consultant. The human rights groups criticised both the government steps.

Another area of government’s concern has been the growing influence of the NGOs. Among all the South Asian nations, perhaps Bangladesh is having maximum numbers of NGOs engaged in diverse activities. Some analysts maintain that these NGOs have already developed a “constituency” which is politically significant. The AL government has tried to put them firmly under political control with the help of a new bill.

The cases of alleged human rights violations have to seen against the backdrop of Bangladesh’s prevailing political culture that the international agencies tend to ignore. Party affiliation or at least sympathy matters a lot in a country where government organs, functional and professional groups are thoroughly politicised.