Bangladesh rejects US human rights report as ‘one-sided’

The government has rejected as “one-sided and unacceptable” a human rights report in which the US criticised Bangladesh over “lopsided” 2018 parliamentary polls.

Staff Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 13 March 2020, 02:47 PM
Updated : 13 March 2020, 03:04 PM

“In fact, the world needs, and has a right, to know about the human rights situation in the United States,” Information Minister Hasan Mahmud told bdnews24.com on Friday.

Hasan Mahmud. File Photo

The organisations that provided data and information for the report had already “lost credibility with the people of Bangladesh”, said Hasan, who is also a joint general secretary of the Awami League.

“They had published one-sided reports on Bangladesh earlier. It is unacceptable that the US State Department published a report on human rights in Bangladesh with data from them [the organisations],” he added.

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman speaks during the launch of a study in Dhaka. File Photo

But Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Berlin-based Transparency International’s Bangladesh chapter TIB, believes there is no scope for the government to ignore the report as it “reflects the reality”.

“I think the information and the studies they [US] took into account are correct,” he told bdnews24.com.

“There can be debates, disagreements over this issue at different levels, but there is no way but to take it into account. It must be considered because it reflects the reality.

“The government and related organisations have no alternative to taking effective measures to address the situation,” he added.

WHAT’S IN THE REPORT

The US has cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process in Bangladesh, describing the December 2018 parliamentary election as ‘improbably lopsided’ and one that was “not considered free and fair”.

The polls were marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters, the State Department said in the 2019 report on human rights practices.

During the campaign leading to the election, there were “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence” that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely.

“AL-affiliated organizations such as their student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups.”

International election monitors were “not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission” and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were approved to conduct domestic election observation, it said.

The report went on to identify ‘significant’ human rights issues in the country, which include unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, torture, arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and significant acts of corruption.

The State Department pointed out that there were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Human rights organisations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings, it added.

Citing Amnesty International which reported 466 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions in 2018, the state department noted a three-fold increase from the previous year, and the highest number of incidents reported in any single year by local human rights organisations.

“Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators, accomplices fired on police and killed the suspect as well,” it said.

The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings” and took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces, according to the report.

The government neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases, the state department said.

“In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received only administrative punishment.”

It also criticised the government for making limited efforts to prevent or investigate reported disappearances and kidnappings, allegedly committed by security services.

The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.

Referring to a report of Paris-based organisation International Federation of Human Rights, the state department observed that between 2009 and 2018, enforced disappearances followed a pattern that included individuals subjected to such disappearance had previously been targeted by authorities.

“Witnesses observed similar law enforcement tactics when detaining individuals who later disappeared; and following the disappearance, authorities treated relatives either dismissively or with threats.”

Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats, the report observed

“The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) maintained that thousands of its members were arrested arbitrarily throughout the year, often in connection with planned and preauthorized political rallies in an attempt to both intimidate and prevent activists and political leaders from participating.”

Unlike in the preceding years, the government allowed BNP limited freedom to hold a few rallies and form human chains demanding release of jailed party chief Khaleda Zia and free and fair elections, the state department said.

Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials, according to the report.

The state department said there were significant limitations on freedom of speech, adding some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

“The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrimes, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.”

“Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA for suppressing freedom of expression and criminalizing free speech."

While both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, media outlets that criticised the government experienced negative government pressure, the report said.

In October, the World Economic Forum found press freedom declined over the past year.

“The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge,” the state department said.

“Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.”

Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA, the report noted.

The government ‘restricted’ and ‘disrupted’ access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents, according to the state department.

In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services, it said.

“It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.”

Corruption remained a serious problem in Bangladesh, said the state department, citing the Anti-Corruption Commission chairman’s statement in July in which he pointed to a crisis of public trust in the agency as most of its investigations were only against petty instances of corruption.

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases, the report observed. But government officials were “rarely cooperative and responsive to their views”.

“Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship.”

The report highlights an alarming increase in rape cases in the first half of the year, with Ain o Salish Kendra, the Human Rights Support Society, and the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP) estimating 630-738 women raped between January and June, figures higher than the same timeframe of the previous year. In comparison, the BMP reported a total of 942 women were raped in all of 2018.

According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove, using medical evidence, a rape occurred.

The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country, according to the report. The state department further noted that the government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Nevertheless, accountability for crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem, it observed.

According to the report, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers and other criminals.

Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread in the country.

Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace, the report said.

“Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems.”

Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions, the state department said.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher