Bangladesh’s state apparatus stands accused of a growing number of crimes, police brutality, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances.
The government says it is taking former political rivals to task for their role in the country’s partition from Pakistan nearly five decades ago.
Here are 10 things to know about the country’s human rights record:
1. Police frequently use excessive force—and some say they’re raping the government’s opponents
Bangladeshis have been sexually and physically assaulted during arrests, Sumaiya Rabeya, the daughter of Mir Quasem Ali, one of the leaders of an opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat) in Bangladesh, told TRT World.
“Many women have been raped during custody. There are incidents where police shot in the leg at the little distance when the persons in still handcuffed,” Rabeya said.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that: “As the head of the government, I'm giving [the police] the liberty to take any action wherever and whenever it will be deemed necessary to stop the arson attacks in the country.”
But giving the state carte blanche has had consequences.
Dr Salman Al Azami is the son of Ghulam Azam, one of the former leaders of Jamaat who died from a heart attack a year after being found guilty of war crimes. He said the police use arbitrary excessive force for no reason.
“In many cases, they harass someone, and then they take money. They do this throughout the country,” he said.
2. Arbitrary arrests are a hallmark of the state
Police frequently arrest people without pursuing any legal charges, Rabeya said.
“They take family members if the person they are looking for is not available. In these cases, most of the time the family members are released for money,” she said.
Al Azami told TRT World that police officers didn’t have an arrest warrant when they went to arrest his brother, Amaan Azmi at his house.
“There are no allegations — there is nothing. So none of us could ever raise anything against it. But that is the reason they took him that way. Because otherwise, they had to go through the normal process,” Al Azami said.
3. Enforced disappearances are rife
According to a report released by the Amnesty International last month, enforced disappearances have continued to rise at an alarming rate.
“Enforced disappearance is a practice which has unfortunately become completely routine in Bangladesh, and has to end,” Champa Patel, South Asia Director at Amnesty International said.
Supporters of opposition parties — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami — are being targeted.
An academic spoke to TRT World on a condition of anonymity said she knows of multiple victims who have been arrested arbitrarily, abducted, disappeared.
“When faced with these scenarios, the families have no one to turn to for help. In fact, the families themselves live in fear of retaliation from the state if they open their mouths to anyone — including the press,” she said.
But the government says it is not behind these disappearances—and denies that security forces were involved.
4. Bangladesh’s opposition has been silenced
Bangladesh’s Awami League government, led by Hasina has been criticised for silencing members of opposition parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP.
In 2013, Bangladesh’s Election Commission declared Jamaat ineligible to participate in to the country’s next general election.
Mohammed Hossain, who was held as a political prisoner in Bangladesh, told TRT World that the commission is linked to the current government—and that explains why Jamaat was barred.
5. Opposition groups have historically been targeted by the regime
The Jamaat has long been a target of Hasina’s regime. The party opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan at the time of its separation in 1971.
Some of its members, who were officers in the Pakistani army at that time, allegedly fought alongside the Pakistani army.
At that time, India provided training and weapons to Bangladeshi guerilla Mukti Bahini who fought for the independence of Bangladesh.
In 2009, Hasina’s Awami League government set up what it refers to as the “International War Crimes Tribunal” — not to be confused with the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal, to conduct what it refers to as war crimes trials.
The tribunal has issued death sentences for many Jamaat party leaders. Since 2013, it has executed six elderly opposition leaders, in what rights organisations have roundly condemned as kangaroo trials.
6. The International War Crimes Tribunal is not “international” enough
“The International War Crimes Tribunal is more of a local war crimes tribunal because it does not comprise international standards,” said Hossain.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly condemned the tribunal for falling short of international standards.
“The proceedings of the Tribunal violated international fair trial standards, including by denying the defence the possibility to challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses.” Amnesty International said.
This tribunal is a domestic organisation. The three judges sitting on the tribunal are from Bangladesh. No international agencies such as the UN have oversight of the group.
Opponents argue the prosecution doesn’t have expertise to try war crimes. They also say that the defence also doesn’t have sufficient training in such trials.
7. How has Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina uses the tribunal?
Al Azami describes the tribunal as “a political show trial of political gains.”
“She [Sheikh Hasina] is using the tribunal for her political gains. The people who are being tried — who have been executed in this court are opposition leaders,” he said.
Al Azami said most of the Jamaat officials are already either detained or executed. “The rest are fearful.”
8. Do people do anything to protest these human rights violations?
Rabeya said street protests, seminars or press conferences take place time to time. But she says “the people protesting are facing repercussions.”
“Sometimes people protest against the violations in Bangladesh. But these protests are very selective. Only relatives of political prisoners, and supporters of opposition parties join those protests.” Hossain said.
Al Azami noted that there are many people supporting Hasina’s policies. “But they are not the majority,” he said.
“The majority is aware of these human rights violations. However, people are fearful. They fear that can be arrested, they can be harassed or abducted. Even on social media, people are very careful.”
9. Why is the problem neglected by the international community?
“I will not say no one cares. Many international agencies and countries including the United States and and Turkey have voiced out against it. But under so many problems worldwide, this may be overshadowed.” Rabeya said.
The academic TRT World spoke to on condition of anonymity said Bangladesh is “ignored. There's perhaps a colonial feeling amongst outsiders that the "natives need a strong hand" to regulate themselves, so they're willing to let these violations slide,” she said.
However, Hasina’s tactic to eliminate opposition will not succeed, she said.
It is designed to “send a message to wider society that the govt is unjust.
“This then creates pockets of discontent, where young people are attracted towards extremism. We have seen this happening in other countries. Unless Bangladesh tackles its democracy deficit, extremism will become an even bigger problem.”
India is involved in the repression, activists allege. Rabeya noted “the fact that India is the big brother for the current government also plays a role for silencing international community. India is meddling in Bangladesh since this government took power.”
10. Is there a hope?
“In the current political climate, I am not actually hopeful.” Hossain said. But things may change as “the nature of the politics in this sub-continent is very very dynamic.” Hossain said.
Rabeya said she has faith on the people of the country. “But of course not on the government,” she said.
“I can guarantee you, if the election is allowed to be done free and fairly, this government will be overturned in a landslide,” said Rabeya.
“We desperately need the international community to come along and intervene, so the people of the country can voice their opinions and receive justice for the ongoing violations of human rights in Bangladesh,” she said.
Author: Zeynep Sahin