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The State of Human Rights in Bangladesh

Edit Date:4/27/2011 12:00:00 AM

Apr 26, 2011

Suppression of political and media freedom, extrajudicial killings, deadly border and other issues

By Dr. K. M. A. Malik


Gross violations of human rights can be found in third world states, many or most of which are ruled by military and family dictatorships or pseudo-democratic, autocratic regimes, and some under foreign occupation. There is hardly any respect for democratic practices, mutual tolerance and equal rights of others with different colour, belief, culture or ethnicity.

The leaders of these societies/countries are mostly corrupt and morally bankrupt and possessed with unlimited greed for power and money. They lack transparency and accountability in their actions and governance. This is true in many countries including Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Scene

The worst forms of human rights violations such as unlawful torture and killings, abduction, rape and other violent crimes happened during the war of liberation in 1971 (perpetrated mostly by the Pakistani army but also by some Bengali elements, estimated 1 million deaths). Lack of proper democracy and propensity for authoritarianism (during periods of both civil and military regimes) resulted in human rights abuses in varying degrees at different times. Unfortunately, no regime in power since 1972 has ever acknowledged its responsibility in this regard, and very little has been done to stop these practices.

In recent years, the human rights situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated to an alarming stage. People are concerned specially by the denial mode of the present Awami League (AL) government and their inability or inaction to prevent or reduce the instances of human rights violations. Most worrisome is the justification by some ministers and leading politicians of the ruling party for suppressing opposition political views and media freedom.

Extra-judicial killings [1]

During Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) rule (2001-6), Bangladesh Awami League (AL) as the main opposition party criticized, very rightly, the culture of extra-judicial killings by law enforcing agencies including the special crime fighting force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) formed in 2004. Before 2008 elections, AL promised to stop such unlawful killings. Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni made commitments of ‘zero tolerance’ regarding this type of killings in different international forums including the Human Rights Council (March 01, 2010; May 12, 2009) and the Universal Periodic Review Session (UPR) in Geneva (February 2009).

But these commitments were never fulfilled. Unlawful killings have continued unabated. The victims are suspected ‘criminals’, members of the radical left political parties, or simply innocent people, all killed without the due process of law.

According to Odhikar (a non-profit human rights organization) report [2], 127 people were killed extra-judicially in 2010. Of those 127 killed in this year, 1 was a BNP activist, 2 belonged to the Islami Chattra Shibir; 1 an expelled AL leader, 33 from radical left parties, 3 small business men, 2 drivers, 1 street sweeper, 2 farmers, 1 rickshaw puller, 3 workers, 1 night guard, 2 detainees, 1 hospital employee, 9 youths, 1 father of an alleged drug peddler, 64 alleged criminals. The figure includes only the reported number of those killed in the so-called ‘crossfire’ as well as those tortured to death and custodial killings. But it does not include custodial deaths, where the causes of deaths remain uncertain.

According to ‘Law and Salish Centre’, another human rights forum, during January – December, 2009, total 229 persons were killed by crossfire. ‘Odhikar’ put the number of extra-judicial killings at 154 for the same period. Of these, 35 were killed in custody. The number given by ‘Odhikar’ is lower than that cited by the ‘Law and Salish Centre’, but the exact figure, probably much higher than those reported in the media, may never be known. A large number of detainees and prisoners die due to torture during interrogations, but the official version for such death is ‘heart attack’, ‘suicide’ or similar causes!

Custodial torture and deaths

National and international laws prohibit the use of intimidation, mental and physical torture of any detainee or prisoner by the state agencies. But in Bangladesh, like other third world countries, inflicting different kinds of mental and physical torture is a routine procedure to extract information from the accused persons in detention. In some cases, the victims simply ‘disappear’ [3].

The practice of custodial torture and unlawful killings started in the country during the first AL regime (1972-75) and has continued unabated till today. It reached a tragic stage during the army-led emergency regime (2007-2008), when hundreds of top political leaders and businessmen were mentally and physically tortured in detention and jailed after sham trials. Serious physical injuries were inflicted by torture on many leading politicians including Tareq Rahman, senior Secretary General of the opposition BNP party. More than 70,000 political workers at grass-root levels were thrown into prison without any concrete charges. Due process of law was denied to them.

Odhikar compiled a report (from print media) with 68 proven cases of custodial torture during 2009. Despite denial by the authorities, it is a common knowledge that those who are supposed to uphold the law are often themselves the violators.

Case of Mahmudur Rahman [4]

The practice of custodial torture and barbaric treatment of prisoners and detainees has been highlighted recently by Mr. Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of the Bengali daily Amar Desh, in a series of articles. Mr. Rahman was targeted by the government for vendetta and revenge for publishing a report on the alleged corruption by some government leaders including the prime minister’s son, Sajib Wajad Joy. He was arrested without warrant in June last year, interrogated under remand and put into prison. He was seriously tortured both physically and mentally. The case aroused nationwide protests and condemnation. Mr. Rahman was released from prison on March 17, 2011, but there are still dozens of false cases against him.

Deaths of BDR prisoners in custody

In the aftermath of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) rebellion on February 25-26 in 2009, thousands of BDR personnel were detained for interrogation and trial. Many of those prisoners met with ‘unnatural deaths’ while in custody. According to informed sources, some key witnesses simply ‘disappeared’. The number of deaths cited earlier does not include the custodial deaths of BDR prisoners. According to Odhikar [2], a total of 51 BDR members died during February to 31 December, 2009. Among them, 26 BDR members died while in custody, of which 6 have allegedly died due to torture. Some sources suggest that the ‘unnatural deaths’ of BDR members in custody were close to 100. We do not know exactly how many of the thousands of detainees were illegally tortured, but considering the culture of barbaric torture of our ‘crime investigators’, one may presume that the number would run into hundreds, if not thousands. Allegations of serious torture to extract confessional statements have been made.

Violations of Women’s rights

Custodial torture, rape, acid violence and dowry related violence

Treatment of women prisoners are even worse than that meted out to male prisoners. There is no reliable statistics on the number of women prisoners and the number abused while in custody. They are probably supposed not to exist in our society. However, it is widely known that common abuses to women prisoners involve the denial of food and bed, and on many occasions, rape, especially to women from poor sections of the society. Many are held in prison without any concrete charges or trial for months and years, under sub-human conditions. In recent years, high profile women prisoners including the family members of some leading political figures were ill-treated in prison and many were denied bails pending trial.

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – A New Rakkhi Bahini?

It has become quite obvious during the last six years of RAB’s operations that the some members of the force have been responsible for serious abuses of human rights. Compared with the earlier BNP regime, it became more powerful and desperate in its acts during the army-led Care Taker Government (CTG). The present AL government seems to be more dependent on RAB for not only crime fighting but also for suppressing opposition political forces and dissenting voices.

There is a growing suspicion in the country that the present government wants to remodel this force after the ‘Rakkhi Banini’ that existed during 1972-75 [5]. This Bahini was formed as the main security arm of the then AL government (under the supervision of a top Indian army officer). It recruited only the AL party loyalists and was given more power and authority than the regular police, army and other security forces. They engaged in indiscriminate murders and torture of thousands of political opponents and became a dreaded force (like death squads in Latin America). Rakkhi Bahini was disbanded after the change of government in August 1975.

It is perhaps too early to say if the AL government really wants to recruit more party loyalists and cadres to remodel RAB after ‘Rakkhi Bahini’ or not. What is evident, however, that the culture of extrajudicial killings and custodial torture, disregard for acting within the framework law and acting as an instrument of the ruling party are facing increasing criticisms not only from the human rights defenders inside, but also from concerned persons and organizations abroad. International human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed deep concerns about the ongoing violations of human rights by different organs of Bangladesh state including extrajudicial killings and suppression of opposition.

Mr. Abbas Faiz, South Asia researcher for Amnesty International, Lord Eric Avebury of the UK House of Lords, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch raised this and several other issues with prime minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent UK visit [6].

RAB – the British/US/India connections

It was suspected from the very beginning that one of main purposes for the formation of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) (apart from ordinary crime fighting) was to ‘eliminate’ the threats posed by various left radical groups operating in the western districts and also by the so-called Islamic militants. There are reasons to believe that the force had also the blessings of some foreign powers (USA, UK, India). The challenges coming from the extreme left and extreme right forces are also said to threaten Indian security. While the ambassadors and policymakers of these countries make daily public comments on smaller issues in Bangladesh, they have hardly ‘advised’ any government since 2004 (BNP/CTG/AL) to stop unlawful killings and custodial torture by RAB. The first prominent victim of RAB’s unlawful killing during the present AL government was the leftist ideologue Mr. Mufakkarul Islam Chowdhury who was arrested unarmed and killed in a so-called ‘crossfire’.

In fact, the links of the USA, UK and India to RAB are no longer secret. The rulers of all these countries are obsessed with the potential threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ in Bangladesh and as revealed in WeakiLeaks cables, they consider RAB as a potential counter-terrorism ally [7]. Wikileaks disclosures have also revealed that the USA wanted RAB to become ‘Bangladeshi FBI’ and that that they were providing training to Bangladesh security forces on interrogation techniques. The EU proposal for a ‘Counter-Terrorism Training Centre’ in Dhaka to ‘fight terrorism in the region’ indicates deep western (and Indian-Israeli) involvement.

A Guardian report on January 17, 2011 [8] revealed that the “UK authorities passed information about British nationals to notorious Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and police units, then pressed for information while the men were being held at a secret interrogation centre where inmates are known to have died under torture.”

According to this report, “a number of the British suspects were taken to the secret interrogation centre, known as the Task Force for Interrogation cell (TFI). The location of the TFI and the methods employed by those who work there became clear during the Guardian investigation, with both former inmates and intelligence officials speaking out about its operations.

“Faisal Mostafa, from Manchester, was taken to the TFI after Smith’s visit to Dhaka (2008) and is alleged to have been forced to stand upright for the first six days of his incarceration, with his wrists shackled to bars above his head. He is then alleged to have then been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while being questioned about Bangladeshi associates. At the point at which he was to be questioned about his associates and activities in the UK, he is said to have been blindfolded and strapped to a chair while a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip.”

Following this and several other reports published recently in the Guardian and other media on the collaborations of the UK authorities with the Bangladesh security forces on detention and torture are being questioned by human rights defenders across the world.

According to a UNB report (January 6, 2011) Phil Shiner, a human rights lawyer in Britain, has called for a UK-led international inquiry into the activities of RAB to uncover the truth behind RAB’s highly dubious human rights record [9]. “If it is found that RAB consistently violated these rights in carrying out their operations, the UK government can be dissuaded from providing the training and support facilities that it has been to RAB over the last three years, as revealed in US embassy cables relating to Bangladesh released by whistleblower site WikiLeaks.”

Phil Shiner described RAB as a reckless, Latin American-style “death squad”, as described in a damaging report published in the Guardian, on December 23, 2010. He further said, “all states owe duties to each other to cooperate and uncover RAB’s activities, and to bring all unlawful activities, including of executions, to an immediate end.”

Dubious role of the government

The government position on the issue seems to be dubious, to say the least. The home minister Ms Sahara Khatum denies about the existence of extra-judicial killings and custodial torture, whilst some other ministers have condoned the law enforcers’ actions as ‘acts of self-defence’. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remained silent on extrajudicial killings and custodial for a long time, only last week while visiting London, she said that her government is trying to reduce such practices. The fact, however, remains that her government has been ignoring or violating an earlier High Court order to completely stop extrajudicial killings and custodial torture by the security forces.

Indo-Bangladesh border – South Asian Killing Fields

One of the most significant but least discussed violations of human rights of Bangladeshi (some Indian) citizens occurs along the India-Bangladesh border. Mainstream media including the TV channels and most of the otherwise outspoken members of the so-called ‘civil society’ in Bangladesh remain mostly silent on the barbaric ‘shoot-to-kill’ practices of India’s BSF along the border.

The problems along the border are not something new. There are cross-border movements of people living in the border area, without permission. These movements are of course illegal, and anybody doing this may be arrested, but the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) adopts a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy. This has resulted in regular and systematic violations of human rights for hundreds of Bangladeshi and also of some Indian citizens.

The problems along the India-Bangladesh border and India’s barbed wire fence to prevent illegal cross-border movement of people and goods have been discussed in many media reports [9-11]. Different human rights organizations including Odhikar compile annual report on the number of people who become victims of BSF atrocities. According to Odhikar, 158 Bangladeshi citizens were killed, wounded, or otherwise harmed by the BSF and in a few cases by Indian citizens in 2010. During the last 10 years, the number of such victims is more than a thousand.

India’s inhuman policy of killing unarmed Bangladeshis along the border was highlighted by Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in an article in the Guardian on January 23, 2011 [9]. The following extracts from this article would illustrate the point.

“Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings, in spite of evidence in many cases that makes it clear the killings were in cold blood against unarmed and defenceless local residents.

“Shockingly, some Indian officials endorse shooting people who attempt to cross the border illegally, even if they are unarmed. Almost as shocking is the lack of interest in these killings by foreign governments who claim to be concerned with human rights. A single killing by US law enforcement along the Mexican border makes headlines. The killing of large numbers of villagers by Indian forces has been almost entirely ignored.

“India has the right to impose border controls. But India does not have the right to use lethal force except where strictly necessary to protect life. Yet some Indian officials openly admit that unarmed civilians are being killed. The head of the BSF, Raman Srivastava, says that people should not feel sorry for the victims, claiming that since these individuals were illegally entering Indian territory, often at night, they were “not innocent” and therefore were a legitimate target.”

One very callous and cruel atrocity happened in the border area (Kurigram district) on January 7, 2011. A 15 year poor girl (named Felani) was caught in the barbed wire fence while crossing the border; BSF shot her in cold blood and kept the dead body hanging on the barbed wire for five hours. The incident has been heavily condemned in both India and Bangladesh.

The incident aroused so much indignation and condemnation that the BSF DG was obliged to express sorrow with a promise that such killings would not happen again. Senior leaders of the AL government including the home minister and prime minister use most of their time to criticize the opposition political parties but remain totally silent about the border killings by BSF. The home minister is on record to say that she would request the BSF to use ‘rubber bullets’ instead of live ammunitions to shoot at the people along the border!

Suppression of political opposition

The AL government is nominally democratic but it has narrowed down the space for political opposition by denying the rights of peaceful protests and public meetings. Thousands of criminal cases have been filed against opposition political leaders and workers. Last year former Prime Minister and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia was evicted from her residence. The national parliament has become a one-party show, a place for condemning the opposition for all failures of administration and governance. No issue of national importance is discussed in the parliament. The main agenda of the government seems to erase the name of former President and founder of BNP, Ziaur Rahman, from history and denigrate his legacy.

Attack on media, freedom of thought, expression and of speech:

In Bangladesh, in 2010, freedom of thought and conscience, and of free speech deteriorated significantly. Attacks on journalists, the press, newspapers, television increased.

1. According to Odhikar, a total of 04 journalists were killed, 118 injured, 49 threatened, 43 assaulted and 17 attacked (total 231) during 2010. Details can be found in the Odhikar report. A Mass Line Media Centre report quoted in the daily Star says that in 2010, 5 journalists were killed, 124 were assaulted while on duty, 112 after publishing report and 99 out of vengeance.

2. The opposition newspaper Amar Desh was closed down and its editor Mahmudur Rahman was arrested during June1-2, 2010. Earlier on June 1, 2010 the publisher of the newspaper, Md. Hashmat Ali, was picked up from his residence by the members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and was forced to sign some blank papers. Mahmudur Rahman was tortured physically and mentally while in remand. He was released from prison in February 17, 2011, but dozens of false cases have been filed against him.

3. On April 27, 2010, a leading television channel, Channel-1 was shut down.

4. The photo-exhibition titled ‘Crossfire’ organised by Drik Gallery, was shut down about an hour before it was due to be opened on March 22, 2010.

5. The government of Bangladesh blocked access to Facebook on May 29, 2010 for uploading some satirical images of sole leaders and also for uploading the Anisuzzaman Enquiry Report on the BDR massacre which mentioned the names of some AL leaders.

6. The private TV station ‘Banglavishion’ was compelled to take off the air a programme on the life style of a hangman, a convicted prisoner, who got 18 months’ off for working as a hangman.

7. ‘Unfriendly’ media outlets are regularly intimidated and threatened for any criticism of the government. The editor car of Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age, was attacked by some ruling party thugs.

8. The ruling party hooligans attacked the national Press Club after the pro-government candidates failed to win its elections.

In the election manifesto of Awami League-2008, the government party promised that it would ensure the freedom of all types of mass media and flow of information. Despite having a law on right to information in place, one of Prime Minister’s unelected Advisers said on September 20, 2010, that the government is not bound to give information to the journalists. Commerce Minister Faruk Khan even accused the journalists for publishing ‘false’ reports against the government. There is no information and public discussion about dozens of treaties and agreements signed with India and with other countries and organizations that affect the vital national interests.

Failure of the Judiciary

Judiciary has been formally separated from the executive, but has still to act independently without manipulation and control by the government and the powerful.

Filing of cases against Dr. Yunus on flimsy ground has been criticized even in international media. Cases were filed against some leading figures in Transparency International for reporting on the corrupt practices in various departments of the government including Judiciary and Police.

Thousands of cases against the ruling party members (some of them facing serious charges of corruption and violent crimes) have been withdrawn by the government, while thousands of opposition members (belonging to BNP and Jamat) are facing hundreds of various charges. Personal vendetta and jealousy are said to motivate Sheikh Hasina to use the state machineries to file dozens of cases against Dr. Yunus, Khaleda Zia, and hundreds of other leaders and activists of the opposition camp. Anybody criticizing the Hasina family or India is selected as special target for harassment and intimidation violating all democratic rights, practices and norms.

Government measures and legal system have failed very miserably to ensure justice for the poor and their children, for ethnic and religious minorities, for the workers in general, but women and child labourers in particular. Trade union rights of industrial workers are restricted and sometimes their wages are withheld. 2010 witnessed a sharp rise in incidents of harassment and physical abuse of young women and girls, mostly by ruling party youths.

The investigative process and framing of charges are often influenced by government interference or due to corrupt practices. Instances of appointing judges based on party loyalty, not on merit, have resulted in the lack of transparency and fall in public confidence and respect for the justice system.

In all, 2010 has been a year of serious human rights abuses, which cover all the sectors of human rights – social, political, economic and cultural. Lack of accountability and acts of impunity persisted and prevented the redress of such violations.
Notes and references:

[1] Extra-judicial Killings and Custodial Torture: From ‘Cross-fire’ to ‘Death-squad’,

by K. M. A. Malik, Bangla Mirror, May 21 and 28, 2010


[2] Human Rights Report Bangladesh 2010, January 1, 2011.

[3] http://www.weeklyholiday.net/2011/010411/edit.html

[4] During 192-75, about 30,000 people belonging to the then opposition Jatio Samajtantric Dal (JSD) and other left groups were killed by police and Rakkhi Banini. The leftist leader Siraj Sikder was brutally killed in police custody.

[5] Suppressing media freedom: War on Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman

by K. M. A. Malik, http://newsfrombangladesh.net/view.php?hidRecord=321781



[6] Meeting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, by Abbas Faiz


[7] WikiLeaks reveals Rab’s image abroad, by Emran Hossain

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=167076, December 23, 2010.

[8] UK linked to notorious Bangladesh torture centre by Ian Cobain and Fariha Karim


[9] http://www.unbconnect.com/component/news/task-show/format-wap/id-38618

[10] India’a ‘barbed wire fence’ around Bangladesh by K. M. A. Malik, Bangla Mirror, January 20, 27, February 3, 10, 2006.

[11] India’s shoot-to-kill policy on Bangladesh borders, by Brad Adams, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2011/jan/23/india-bangladesh-border-shoot-to-kill-policy.

[12] Felani’s last steps : India’s shoot-to-kill policy claims one more innocent

http://www.economist.com/node/18073333?story_id=18073333, February 3, 201
[Dr. K. M. A. Malik is an academic, author, columnist and human rights campaigner, and Chair of Centre for Research and Strategy. He lives in Cardiff, UK, and may be contacted via e-mail: kmamalik@aol.com. This essay is based on a talk at Kings College, University of London, in February, 2011].



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