Imminent Human Rights concerns cast shadow as Bangladesh gears up for next National Election

Leading experts on human rights in Bangladesh are seeing a host of challenges regarding rapid deterioration of human rights protection in the country ahead of the national elections due in early 2024.  The major challenges include compromised judiciary, biased security forces, excessive use of forces, arbitrary arrests and tortures and enormous pressure on the human rights defenders. The experts expressed these views in a webinar hosted by Washington D.C based rights body Right to Freedom(R2F) on August 8, 2023. The panel experts apprehended that in the absence of international efforts to improve the situation, the authorities signal to continue to   undermine fundamental rights, arrange one-sided elections by completely disregarding people’s opinions.

Addressing the webinar, Deputy Director, Asia at the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Meenakshi Ganguly said defending human rights is often considered a crime by Bangladeshi authorities as they perceive human rights is only linked to political rights. She said her organization is extremely concerned that a compromised Judiciary in any form to be seen as biased and not able to address due process of law. She referred to a leaked document from Bangladesh police that indicated the government want to manipulate the judiciary and, in some way, disqualify the political opposition by ensuring convictions.

“A government that interferes with the judicial system of the country, that cannot provide due process and rule of law; that will not be viewed with great confidence by its own people and certainly not by its friends and strategic partners”, said Meenakshi.

“Criminal Justice system of Bangladesh, which is not after all a political organization, should respond to with great responsibility now and make sure that they operate in the way that upholds international standards”, she further added.

Meenakshi said Human Rights Watch (HRW) observed there has been an uptick in excessive usages of forces to shrink political spaces.  “We are concerned about political freedoms because there is an election that is coming up. And to set out the context, the two previous elections at Bangladesh have not been free and fair by any standard and almost all International, all members of the International Community have repeatedly told the government that they expect the government to do better as the country prepares for elections”.

Despite repeated calls from international bodies to restrain from excessive use of forces, egregious violation of fundamental rights is on the spike, the expert views the situation. “We’ve already seen excessive views of force last week. Previously, around elections, we have seen a spike in arbitrary arrests and torture and extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances”.

She further expressed concerns about the biased treatment from the law enforcement agencies. Reiterating the call to disband RAB, she said, “Bangladesh police has not been particularly rights respecting. We are already hearing accounts of tortures in custody, of bad beatings, of being biased in how they respond to actions of the ruling party supporters as opposed to those that that belong to the opposite or opposition.  We would like to see that security forces are not biased in how they respond to any kind of right to expression, freedom of expression or freedom of association that they enable political parties to function in a way where they’re able to express their views. The security forces should also recall that because of their previous actions there are already, the rapid action Battalion is now facing sanctions by the US government.  It is an indication of international communities’ concerns about Security forces that act in a way that is so egregious, where the abusers are so egregious, that they need to be sanctioned. We have long called for the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to be disbanded altogether”.

She also pointed out that the human rights defenders in Bangladesh are facing enormous pressures as they are drawing attention to about the gross violations by state apparatus. She further called for international efforts so that people can cast their choices in the elections in a safe manner.

Dr. Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinoi State University, spoke about the critical challenges faced by human rights activists in Bangladesh and broader spectrum around the upcoming elections. “I think this will be a transformative election. Either the country will be back on track for democracy or go through the track of being autocracy. That is what we are witnessing with respect to the human rights situation”. He also shared the description of Bangladesh’s 2014 and 2018 elections by The Economist and The New York Times; which termed those elections as ‘transparently fraudulent’ and ‘farcical’.

Professor Ali expanded on the day-to-day challenges faced by the right defenders from a recent publication he led. According to his study around 86 percent of human rights defenders who have been working at the grassroots level have been facing significant challenges including threats, intimidation and harassment. Around 46 percent of the study participants who have been chosen from ‘rigorous purposive sampling from 36 districts’ perceive the human rights situation deteriorating, as worst or near to the worst in last seven years.

“The majority of threats and intimidations on the right defenders come from state agencies including law enforcement agencies and from ruling party activists.  These are really concerning, deeply concerning that the family members of the rights activists are targeted. Threats and harassments have impaired their lives. Around 28 percent of right defenders have scaled down their works while more than 10 percent have relocated from their areas to avoid threat and harassment. 36 percent of human rights defenders chose not to report incidents because of their lack of trust in the legal system and they are afraid of retribution. There are inadequate investigations”, shared Dr. Ali Riaz.

Outlining the fault lines in institutional arrangements for protecting human rights, Professor Ali Riaz said the two constitutional instruments which are the judiciary and the country’s Human Rights Commission, only reflect bleak scenario.  Referring to an incident in which the High Court Judges pointed that they couldn’t provide anticipatory bail to 18 attorneys of the court saying, “previously people who have been arrested despite being granted bail by the court and those who have been arrested, also have been tortured”;  Dr. Ali Riaz said, “ That’s why there are tortures in custody.  The High Court doesn’t have that standing anymore”.

About Bangladesh’s Human Rights Commission, Dr. Ali Riaz said, the commission has failed to achieve respect of the rights activists because their activities are not supportive to the right defenders. “You have not seen that enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings has been investigated by National Human Rights Commission. They have either shied away or actually skipped. If there is any kind of state agency involvement, they have not investigated it except few minor examples”.

On political freedoms, he apprehends the opposition members would experience more ‘ghost charges’ which are frivolous cases and unfounded cases in coming days, ahead of the elections.  He shared concern that the judiciary might not be actually acting neutral or ‘it is being used’. “As a matter of fact, what we have seen in these ghost cases, incidents have not taken place, yet the cases have been filed and the activists are still being targeted. We have also seen ghost cases such as incidents taking place that have been exaggerated and hence, they have added names just those who are activists in the area and those who have been speaking out against the government. Another type of ghost cases is completely frivolous in the sense that one person has been charged with five cases of five different places for five different incidents which is physically impossible”, he added.

South Asia Campaign Director at Amnesty International Yasasmin Kaviratne spoke about the challenges of defending human rights in Bangladesh. In her view, the culture of state sponsored impunity for the perpetrators of rights violation is matter of deep concern as that continuously enables complete disregard for human rights. She elaborated that there has been enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killings, severe custodial tortures, attacks against minorities committed by security forces yet the authorities fail conduct impartial and independent investigations in those crimes and failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. “You are building a culture where crimes are tolerated, and rights are violated”.

Yasasmin observes the rights violations are deteriorating by limiting constitutional guarantee, the right to peaceful assembly which includes right to assembly. She said Amnesty International analyzed verified photos and video footage from protests and collected eyewitness statements. They found the witness statements and video footage correspond. “It shows that it was the police who initiated the attacks and fired tears which violated the people’s right to protest. That violates the constitutional guarantee”.

About using lethal weapons on peaceful protesters, she further said, “We are not talking about excessive use of force anymore, we are talking about unlawful use of force because the state is the duty bearer”.

Yasasmin expressed her concerns over the expanded state interference on the judiciary, related to the Digitial Security Act and the new Cyber Security Act. “ The Digital Security Act is not the only tool that has been used to curtail freedom of expression. There have been so many people arrested under the act simply by exercising their right to freedom of expression. At Amnesty International, we have called to repeal the DSA and we still stand by the call. And we don’t know what the new Cyber Security Act entails. It is important that the government allows open discussions before voting it as an Act because there is bad precedence. We know how the ICT Act was repealed and the Digital Security Act emerged”.

The human rights expert also observed ‘many layers of human rights violations’ by the authorities’ attempts of shrinking space for the civil society organizations who have been working on enforced disappearances and other cases of rights violations. “Their family members are targeted. This is a vicious cycle. This impacts many groups, including journalists and activists as they raise human rights issues”.

She further touched upon the plight of the Rohingya refugees due to lack of inadequate funding. “There is a huge responsibility for the International Community as well as for the Bangladesh government. It is very important to note that the Rohingyas human rights are protected in the leading up to the elections and after elections”.
Convenor of Maayer Daak (Mother’s Call, platform of families of victims of enforced disappearances) Sanjida Islam briefly spoke about the ordeals the families go through since their loved ones have been picked up by plain clothes security forces. “The authorities carried out enforced disappearances to inflict panic among the dissidents. All apparatus of the government worked in sync to carry out the operations. We didn’t get support from the institutions, even the High Court didn’t deliver justice for the victim families”.

“It is purely political that the government is undermining human rights”, she added.

She also explained how the social media giant Facebook has become instrumental in muzzling freedom of expression. “Facebook is collaborating with the government by recruiting local stuffs, to silence the critics and block the critical contents and dispose information about all the corruption committed by the government”.

About her experiences on blocking information about enforced disappearances and other gross human rights violations Sanjid observe that media has been practicing self-censorship while the government also carrying out censorship so that information do not go out to public.

She reiterated the call for the safe return of the victims of enforced disappearances. “We want them back from secret detention centers of the government. We want the international community to continuously raise voices for our loved ones’ safe return”.

The R2F President William B. MIliam presided over the webinar while the organization’s Board Director Jon Danilowicz moderated the discussion. Executive Director of the organization Mushfiqul Fazal introduced the human rights experts and their contributions in the field of defending human rights.