Human rights were severely restricted under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of widespread political violence. Hundreds of thousands of people were reportedly arrested on suspicion of criminal activity or breaches of emergency rules. Torture continued to be widespread. Law enforcement agencies were implicated in the deaths of more than 100 people in custody, but no one was held to account for the deaths. At least six men were executed.
Following weeks of violent clashes between the supporters of the main political parties, a state of emergency was declared on 11 January. Elections scheduled for 22 January were postponed until 2008. President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed a new caretaker government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed as Chief Adviser and supported by the army, and the army was deployed with the police to maintain law and order.
The new government embarked on an anti-corruption programme, and took steps towards judicial and electoral reform, but the pace of reforms was disappointingly slow. There were also widespread concerns both about the role of the army in the country’s political life and about economic problems, including a sharp rise in the cost of food and other essential goods.
The government announced that it had initiated the creation of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The authorities were urged by Amnesty International to ensure that the NHRC’s mandate, independence and resources would enable it to be an effective mechanism for strengthening human rights protection.
More than 60,000 slum dwellers were forcibly evicted when the government demolished slums in Dhaka, and also in Chittagong and Khulna. They were given no alternative accommodation or compensation.
Cyclone Sidr which hit south-western areas in mid-November caused severe devastation to over a million people’s homes and livelihoods and killed more than 3,000 people.
State of emergency restrictions Emergency rules restricted freedom of association and assembly, withdrew some constitutional safeguards against arbitrary arrest and gave far-reaching powers of arrest to law enforcement agencies. The ban on political meetings was partially lifted in September to allow political parties to prepare for dialogue with the Election Commission on electoral reforms. Members of parties supported by the authorities were allowed to meet with no restrictions throughout the year.
Fair trial safeguards were weakened by the use of Special Courts which imposed tight restrictions on defendants’ access to lawyers, and by the denial of bail to defendants charged under emergency regulations.
Police and security forces – torture and deaths in custody
The security forces, including army and paramilitary units deployed under emergency rule with the police, committed human rights violations with impunity, including torture and other ill-treatment and alleged extrajudicial executions. The police force was inadequately trained and equipped and lacked effective accountability and oversight mechanisms. Army personnel accused of human rights violations remained almost entirely outside the purview of civilian judicial accountability mechanisms.
Rang Lai Mro, a community leader in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, was arrested on 23 February and allegedly tortured by army personnel. He required hospital treatment for his injuries. He was charged with possession of arms and reportedly sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. In October he was reportedly taken back into police custody, beaten again, and once more needed hospital treatment. There was no reported investigation into the torture allegations.
Sahebullah was reportedly detained on 16 May by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel and tortured in the office of the director of the Rajshahi Medical College Hospital. Both his legs were reportedly broken. He was arrested after demanding that a doctor attend to his wife, who had not been treated for 12 hours. She died the next day.
Law enforcement agencies were implicated in the deaths of more than 100 people in custody. No action was apparently taken to bring those responsible to justice.
Khabirul Islam Dulal, from Char Fashion Municipality in Bohla district, was arrested by navy personnel on 20 February. He was reportedly beaten, thrown in a pond with his hands tied with rope, and beaten again. He died that evening.
Garo indigenous leader Cholesh Richil died on 18 May while in the custody of Joint Forces (army and police) personnel. There were strong indications that he died under torture. Three other members of the Garo community – Tohin Hadima, Piren Simsung and Protap Jambila – were arrested at the same time and reportedly tortured. The government set up a judicial inquiry into Cholesh Richil’s death, but there was no news about it by the year’s end.
According to media reports, officials stated that over 440,000 people were arrested on various grounds during the year. Many detainees were detained arbitrarily, initially held under emergency rules, then served with a detention order under the 1974 Special Powers Act (SPA). Some were then charged with politically motivated criminal offences.
Some people held under emergency rules were accused of “extortion” or other criminal activity. Detainees included over 160 politicians from the main political parties, as well as some wealthy business people. A number of detainees held without trial under emergency regulations or the SPA were reportedly tortured or ill-treated.
Shahidul Islam, a human rights activist, was charged with murder on the basis of a “confession” by another detainee, Badrul, in February. This charge blocked the release of Shahidul Islam when his detention order under the SPA expired in late February. Badrul retracted his original statement in court, saying he had been forced to make it by police. However, the charge against Shahidul Islam was not dropped and he was reportedly tortured in detention before being released on bail in late August.
Following clashes in August between law enforcement agencies and students in Dhaka and Rajshahi demanding an end to the state of emergency, 10 university lecturers from Dhaka and Rajshahi universities were detained. They were prisoners of conscience. Dozens of students were also arrested, accused of involvement in clashes. The six Rajshahi University lecturers were released in December but the four Dhaka University lecturers remained in detention.
Freedom of expression
Although wide-ranging emergency restrictions on the news media were not strictly enforced, their continued existence intensified self-censorship by journalists and editors. Journalists were threatened with arrest if they criticized intelligence agencies or the army.
Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist, was arrested on 17 September over a cartoon that used the name of the prophet Muhammad, following threats by Islamist groups. He was charged with “hurting religious sentiments” and was a prisoner of conscience. A 30-day detention order was issued against him under the SPA and extended for a further three months.
Human rights defenders
As in previous years, human rights defenders were subjected to arbitrary detention and torture. Lawyers were allegedly threatened with arrest on corruption charges if they took up high-profile cases.
Prisoner of conscience Tasneem Khalil, a journalist who worked with the Daily Star newspaper, CNN and Human Rights Watch, was detained on 11 May and reportedly tortured because he had supplied information on human rights violations.
Prisoner of conscience Jahangir Alam Akash, journalist and local head of two human rights organizations, was arrested on 24 October by RAB agents in the north-western city of Rajshahi. He was reportedly given electric shocks, was beaten on the soles of his feet with a stick, and was hung from the ceiling with his hands tied. He was transferred to the Rajshahi Jail hospital with multiple injuries. His detention followed his television news report in May about the shooting of an unarmed man by RAB agents. He was charged with extortion, a charge widely believed to be false and politically motivated, and held in detention for over a month before being released on bail.
The government took steps to implement the Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling requiring separation of the judiciary from the executive, including amendments to relevant laws. On 1 November the new system came into effect. However, reports indicated that executive magistrates would retain some judicial powers.
Past human rights abuses
Demands gathered momentum during the year for the investigation of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed in 1971. However, as in the past, no action was taken by the government to implement the 1973 International Crimes (Tribunals) Act and no official commission was ever established to provide a comprehensive account of the events of 1971, to determine responsibilities and to make recommendations for reparation for the victims.
Violence against women
Violence against women continued to be reported, including beatings, acid attacks and dowry deaths.
In Kushtia district, in the month of June alone, police and hospital records reportedly revealed that at least 19 women committed suicide and 65 more attempted suicide because of violence by their husbands or family members.
At least 90 men and three women were sentenced to death, and at least six men were executed.
Amnesty International visit/reports
An Amnesty International delegation visited Dhaka, Jessore and Khulna in March to assess the impact of the state of emergency on the human rights situation.
The recent press reports from different parts of Bangladesh on the alleged repression committed against the minority community, the Hindu community in particular, is regrettable and anti-human rights. In the last three decades, human rights abuses against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh have largely gone unreported. Sadly, Bangladeshi nationalism has not been fully successful to accommodate the Hindu minority with propriety. The continuance of the Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965 of the then East Pakistan Government albeit, under a new name, for about thirty years in independent Bangladesh testified the deplorable trend. The infamous Vested Property Act was repealed only early this year. It is also unfortunate that the present Home Minister, despite admitting some incidents had, in a wholesale manner termed the press reports of repression on minority people exaggerated and unfounded.
In today’s world, multi-ethnic states are the norm. The traditional nation- state, where a distinct national group corresponds to a territorial unit, has become an endangered species. Globalization and the increasing movement of people across borders threaten to kill off the nation state once and for all. However, some myths resist reality, and majority or dominant cultures in countries around the world still seek to impose their identity on other groups with whom they share a territory. The South Asia is a stark reminder of this trend.
The state religion of Bangladesh, as incorporated in the Constitution of Bangladesh by the former dictator cum President H.M. Ershad, is Islam. The purpose was to cash in religion for heinous political gains. About 87 per cent of the population of Bangladesh is Muslim. However, the minority Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have the right to practice their religious beliefs. Article 2A of the Constitution of Bangladesh clearly states that, "â€¦other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic."
The Finish approach
Although no country has a perfect record on minority rights, a country like Finland for example has worked hard to implement legislation in order to promote good ethnic relations among its population. The Swedish-speaking Finns are the largest minority in Finland at 5.71 per cent of the population. The status of the Swedish-speaking Finns is exceptional compared to that of other national minorities, due to the fact that Swedish is, in addition to Finnish, an official language of Finland. In recent years, the Government has redoubled its efforts to settle the question of land ownership by the Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. Finnish, Swedish or the Sami language is taught as the mother tongue of the student, and under the new legislation, children who reside in Finland permanently, thus including immigrant children, have both the duty and the right to go to comprehensive school.
International standards and monitoring
In 1992, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. As the only United Nations instrument that specifically addressed the special rights of minorities, the Declaration can be viewed as a point of reference for the international community. It includes a list of rights that minorities are entitled to, including the right to enjoy their own culture without interference, and the right to participate effectively in decisions at the national level, among others. States are requested to take measures in the field of education in order to encourage knowledge of the history, traditions, language and culture of minorities existing within their territories. Also, States are asked to implement national policies and programs with due regard for minority interests. Multilateral monitoring of the compliance of states to their international commitments with regard to protecting minority rights has increased transparency. Within the United Nations system, this responsibility is shared by the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. A Working Group on Minorities has also been established in order to review the promotion and practical realization of the Declaration. It serves as the focal point of the United Nations in the field of minority protection and is the main forum for constructive dialogue on the treatment of minorities by Governments.
Although all of the above-mentioned bodies are integral to the promotion of minority rights, it is the reports submitted on behalf of the State parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that provide an overview of the status of minorities within a specific country. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) meets twice a year to review State party reports as well as shadow reports submitted by NGOs. In extreme cases, the Committee implements early warning measures to assist Governments to prevent problems from escalating into conflicts and identify cases where there is a lack of an adequate legislative basis for defining and criminalizing all forms of racial discrimination.
What needs to be done at national level?
No matter how effective international mechanisms might be, and they are far from being sufficiently so at present, there is no substitute for a concerted domestic initiative of implementing national obligations towards these rights guaranteed internationally. The implementation and compliance with international human rights treaties and standards are ultimately national issues a reality, which is often lost in the midst of rapid internationalization of human rights. Good governance plays a vital role in involving minorities in societies and protecting their rights and interests. Through recognition, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another concerns. The media and education have important roles to play in this regard, as do political representatives and community leaders.
Other positives action taken by States include: legislative measures that introduce higher maximum penalties for racially motivated crimes; the use of ethnic monitoring to ascertain the number of persons of particular ethnic and national origin in various kinds of employment and the setting of targets to increase the employment of persons of minority origins in fields where they were under-represented; the establishment of new advisory bodies on matters relevant to combating racism and intolerance, including the launching and implementation public awareness campaigns intended to prevent racial discrimination and increase tolerance; and the establishment of human rights institutions and ombudspersons for ethnic and racial equality.
What is happening in some parts of Bangladesh against the backdrop of peaceful parliamentary election of October 1, 2001, is not conducive to the growth of liberal democracy. The government, different political, social organisations and all concerned to come forward to resolve the problem. The government should ensure secure rehabilitation of the affected persons by providing them adequate compensation, publish reports of the incidents traced out by the government as well as taking legal actions against the offenders. Members of the society including students, teachers, social workers and scholars to take long term initiatives to strengthen communal harmony in the country. Tendency to make the minority people scapegoats for political belief must be resisted.
State authorities need to ensure that minorities enjoy the fundamental right to equality, both in written legislation and in society at large. The roles of local government, civic organizations and NGOs are important in this respect. Police, prosecutors and judges need to be more aware of what constitutes racial discrimination and racially motivated crimes and, in some cases, changing the composition of police forces to better reflect the multi-ethnic communities they serve may be appropriate. It is also incumbent upon minorities to integrate themselves into their communities. Other recommendations include monitoring hate speech, promoting empowerment through education, and ensuring adequate housing and access to health care.
Human Rights are for everyone
Politically motivated statements and multifarious propaganda are spreading misconception about the oppression and leading the crisis towards a complicated ending instead of towards a fair solution. Whatever might be the extent of the incidents, it was clear that there was oppression on the minorities and that should be stopped immediately. All concerned should also bear in mind that a single instance of act of terrorism is enough to panic the people of a whole community, at least, psychologically. The Hindu minority has little effective leadership. Its only response to the situation has been to vote with its feet. The divisive and conservative approach of the community leaders, in fact, contributes to the growth of mutual disbelief and hatred.
The mere holding of periodic elections is not the only yardstick of measuring democracy or health of a society. Religious intolerance can alone destroy the fabric of harmony from the society. Any society that claims itself as democratic should have no place for communalism. As a new century begins, each segment of our society needs to ask itself certain questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive? Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behaviour based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and all kinds of related intolerance have not gone away.
They very much persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. And while it is recognized that human fear is in itself ineradicable, it is also maintained that its consequences are not ineradicable.
Source of information: United Nations; Law Watch, A Centre for Studies on Human Rights Law; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights