Bangladesh’s Awami League Regime Exceeds Boundaries Of Human Rights Violations – OpEd

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The Awami League government in Bangladesh has over the last 14 years and more specifically over the last 10 years has exceeded all-levels of autocratic and authoritarian oppression starting from the curbing of free speech to arresting critics and political dissenters to the practice of inhumane treatment in custody that frequently includes torture, to the killing of minority Hindu individuals through the Awami League’s policy of incessant and arbitrary crackdowns on opposition party leaders, activists and workers, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.

The Awami League regime which has been in power since 2009 and which has not since conducted anything resembling a free and fair election according to many international election observers has also extended its tenure in office through the persecution of critics and dissenters by abusing the much reviled Digital Security Act (DSA), and which has caused panic among journalists and rights activists and aggravates the sense of insecurity amongst these groups forcing them to engage in self-censorship to ensure their safety and avoid harassment. It might be relevantly recalled here that photojournalist Shahidul Alam sought to resist that trend and faced immediate arrest and detention and also torture for his having highlighted the plight of cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed who were detained in May 2020 for posting on Facebook satirical cartoons and comments critical of the Bangladeshi government’s response to COVID-19 pandemic. Denied bail six times, Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison on 25 February 2021. Released on bail, a week after Mushtaq’s death, Ahmed Kabir Kishore had suffered injuries allegedly caused by incidents of torture while in custody. To avoid a similar fate nearly all journalists and rights activists practice self-censorship. Those who defy the government diktat on censorship are normally arrested, detained, and tortured. 

The autocratic Hasina government’s recently proposed Data Protection Act (DPA) is aimed at controlling the flow of information in and out of Bangladesh, ostensibly to suit the agenda of the fascist regime. The US’s concern about the country’s deplorable conditions in human rights and democracy has been driven home in no uncertain terms by the US Ambassador to Bangladesh. Ambassador Peter Haas has said, “Ultimately, development and security cannot be elevated above democracy and human rights. These values are all linked and mutually reinforcing.” He said this at a Panel Discussion for “Online Freedom and Business Investment in Bangladesh” in Dhaka today, 5 February 2023. He expressed concern about the draft Data Protection Act (DPA) of Bangladesh and said, “The latest draft of the DPA does not provide for an independent data oversight authority and that it includes criminal penalties.” He warned that unless the draft DPA is brought to international standards, some US business may leave Bangladesh, it may also dissuade foreign companies to invest in Bangladesh. With a hint to the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) and the recent blocking of 191 websites, the Ambassador further warned that more than 2000 new business houses could be closed and millions of online daily services could be snapped, which would not be conducive to the growth of economy. 

The dictatorial and corrupt Hasina government is intolerant of any criticism of its misrule and oppression. The government detained hundreds of journalists, social and human rights activists due to reports against the government’s corruption, human rights violations, and oppressions on opposition party people. According to Amnesty International, “Bangladesh has seen an intensifying wave of state repression targeting independent media and journalists, civil society actors, and political activists.” Using the draconian Digital Security Act, the Awami League government has detained more than 1000 journalists, human rights activists in just the last few years since the Act was passed in 2018. Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was forcibly disappeared for around 140 days due to allegedly publishing a piece of defamatory news against an Awami League member of parliament. The Hasina regime has also shut down several television channels and national dailies, including the Daily Amar Desh, Diganta TV, Channel 1 (One), and Ekushey TV (which has been made to change its ownership to toe the same line as the regime). They were both vocal against government misdeeds and the editors and journalists of the two publications were also detained by the authorities. Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman suffered in prison for about five years and had faced approximately 70 false charges, and now lives in exile in Turkey. The last remaining opposition newspaper, the Daily Dinkal was forced to stop publication in the third week of February 2023 after a government suspension order was upheld by the courts. According to a Guardian report on the closure of the daily, “The Dainik Dinkal, a broadsheet Bengali-language newspaper, has been a vital voice of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) for more than three decades. It employs hundreds of journalists and press workers and covers news stories that the mainstream newspapers, most of which are controlled by pro-government businesspeople, rarely do. This includes the frequent arrests of BNP activists and what the party says are thousands of fake cases against its supporters.”  Earlier in January 2023 the Hasina’s government ordered the closure of 191 websites it accused of publishing ‘anti-state news’, citing intelligence reports. The Bangladesh government had previously blocked websites several times, notably in December 2018 before national elections. 

Another frequently used tactic or device of the Awami League government to retain power by force and intimidation is to plot and conspire in various violent incidents using the country’s law enforcement agencies in what are effectively a form of false flag operation as a mechanism to blame and then detain and punish opposition party leaders, activists and workers on fabricated and spurious charges. Under the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the government administration has in this way during the last 13 years detained millions of opposition party leaders and activists including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, who had been the country’s three-time prime minister. She remains under house arrest after being jailed for more than two years on what many legal experts consider a politically motivated conviction based on patently absurd charges and enforced against her by a compliant, corrupt and politized judiciary.  

The recent countrywide attacks on the minority Hindu population during their main religious festivals was yet another ploy of the Awami League government to initiate another crackdown on opposition BNP and alliance parties just as they were to undertake countrywide political rallies and demonstrations for a return to a caretaker government to ensure free and fair elections in the country in 2024. The attacks on the Hindu population in several parts of the country were led and sheltered by the pro-Awami League activists and supporters and in particular the notorious and widely detested student wing of the Awami League. The late-October 2022 countrywide attacks on the Hindu population erupted from allegations centering on the defaming of the Holy Quran. According to human rights groups, Bangladeshi minorities, including the Hindu population, have faced over 3600 attacks since 2013, and pro-Awami League supporters and activists were connected to almost every single incident. However, the government persecuted the BNP and other opposition party workers blaming them for those attacks. For example, the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) organized a protest rally in front of its central office in Dhaka against the attacks on the Hindu community described above but were themselves attacked by the pro-Awami League police force and which detained 44 BNP activists. The government has in the last few months started yet another round of countrywide crackdown on opposition leaders and activists, blaming them as attacks on Hindu temples.

The authoritarian Awami League regime has made the practice of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings a regular phenomenon in the country which started almost after the party attained power in 2009 with the first such incident occurring the following year involved the abduction of local BNP leader Chowdhury Alam whose whereabouts remain unknown and who is most likely dead. Opposition leaders, activists, journalists, teachers, and even army officials have faced similar persecution from the government. Around 600 BNP and other opposition men faced enforced disappearance, and 86 of them are still missing, including BNP central organizing secretary Ilias Ali. Awami League party leaders and law enforcement officials are closely connected with the enforced disappearance policy as they sometimes took this as a money-making game or opportunity and often demanded high ransom for the release of those abducted. 6 However, those who have been abducted and had political connections with the BNP or other opposition parties such as the BNP Organizing Secretary Ilias Ali, local leader Chowdhury Alam, former member of parliament (MP) Saiful Islam Hiru, Abdul Quader Bhuyan, Nur Hasan Hiru, Barrister Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem still remain missing after several years and these are amongst only a few of the 86 opposition leaders and activists that have been forcibly disappeared and whose whereabouts remain unknown or their bodies having been recovered from rivers, ditches, paddy fields or forests with signs of severe torture having been inflicted on them prior to their demise as documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Odhikar and the US State Department. In one of the few exceptional cases where an abductee has returned alive after being detained incommunicado for several years was former Lt. Col. Hasinur Rahman whose shocking experiences were described in an investigative report by Netra News titled ‘Secret prisoners of Dhaka’ and published on August 14, 2022. The Netra News report contained the following disturbing details of Lt. Col. Hasinur Rahman’s abduction and secret detention, “Since 2009, as the Bangladesh Awami League returned to power, enforced disappearances have become a brutally effective weapon in the government’s arsenal of repression. According to a tally maintained by the rights group Odhikar, at least 605 individuals became victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh between 2009 and September 2021… Our investigation into Aynaghar suggests that this particular facility is principally used to incarcerate “high-value detainees”… Hasinur Rahman, a former lieutenant colonel with the Bangladesh Army, had little doubt about his “high value” status when he was detained on August 8th 2018 — his second stint as a victim of enforced disappearance (the first time he became a victim of enforced disappearance was in July 2011). He has been a decorated military officer who had been accorded the title “Bir Pratik”, a major military gallantry award… The men who captured him from his house in 2018 at Mirpur Defence Officers’ Housing Society (DOHS), a residential area for current and former military officers, wore the jackets of the Detective Branch (DB), according to family members (DGFI does not have any legal authority to detain people — its members often assume the identities of civilian agencies such as DB when they carry out abduction operations.) … After being picked up in August 2018, he went “missing” for 18 months. When he was released in February 2020, after 1 year, 6 months, and 14 days in secret detention.”     

The state sanctioned and orchestrated incidents of extrajudicial killings has become the usual and favored method and tactic of the Awami League administration to suppress the opposition as well as political and social dissent in the country and which has the added effect of instilling fear in the general population. In the last decade, thousands of people have been literally gunned down by law enforcement agencies who then allege various fictitious cases against those killed. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and other law enforcement agency members have killed many innocent people in this way, including Army officials, and have thus abused state power with minor or no repercussions or accountability. Police officer Pradeep Kumar Das, who allegedly killed retired Army officer Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan, was allegedly previously involved in around 144 ‘crossfire’ incidents (in reality extrajudicial murders) that killed 204 people.  According to Amnesty International, “Bangladeshi authorities have allegedly killed 466 people in 2018 under the guise of an anti-drug campaign in what appears to be a wave of extrajudicial executions.” According to Odhikar, a top human rights group in Bangladesh, the government had killed around 2600 people illegally in the last several years. 

The cumulative effect of 13 years of Awami League rule in Bangladesh has been severely deleterious for the country and wholly pernicious to its democratic values and this undermining of democracy, human rights and the rule of law has been married to massive corruption with the multibillion dollar megaprojects of the last 5 years providing the greatest opportunity for ‘loot’ as is implicit from the remarks of commentator Shafi Md Mostofa in The Diplomat magazine, “The AL government promoted the mega projects with the slogan, “More Development, Less Democracy” to justify its undermining of democracy. The economic crisis has damaged the claims the slogan made. The AL has given the people neither democracy nor development.” The mega projects have not only provided an opportunity for massive corruption (with initial costs exceeding original estimates by three or four times with absolutely no transparency in expenditures) but also failed to guarantee development and lured Bangladesh into a debt-trap burdening the country at a time of severe and extreme economic crisis. 

Aside from this form of corruption there has been numerous instances of money laundering as, under this authoritarian regime, massive amounts of money, in billions, are being looted and laundered every year. For instance, “Bangladesh lost nearly $50 billion in six years to trade-related illicit financial flows, according to data analyzed by Global Financial Integrity.” And also. “Bangladesh loses $8.27bn annually over trade mis-invoicing: GFI report.” The regime members and administration are all involved in the bank and share market loots and plunder including the corruption of the mega project costs inflated three-to-four times the cost of the neighboring and other countries. Most of this looted and smuggled money goes to Switzerland, Singapore, UK, Canada, Malaysia, USA and other countries.

Since 2009 when the Awami League came to power the government of Sheikh Hasina has systematically and methodically entrenched itself in power initially through force and intimidation but then by repealing the caretaker government system for holding free and fair elections and then taking full control of Parliament by attaining a two-thirds majority in highly dubious and contentious elections held in 2014 and 2018. This all coincided with the coopting of the police force and RAB to act as the Awami League’s protector and enforcer against the opposition and civil society critics through the use of enforced disappearances and extra judicial murders as already described above. With two branches of state under total Awami League control and the cooption of the police force and RAB to the Awami League agenda to transform Bangladesh from a democratic state into an autocratic and authoritarian one only the judiciary was left to take over. In a process spanning more than a decade the Awami League inducted hundreds of lawyers into all levels of the judiciary with people who were known party stalwarts and had previously been members of the Awami League or one of its front organizations. The final denouement for an independent judiciary came with the forced resignation of Chief Justice S.K. Sinha in November 2017 after he along with the others judges of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had issued a unanimous judgment in the 16th Amendment case that would have prevented the government from taking effective control of the judicial system and putting an end to the idea of an independent judiciary. In the end, Chief Justice S.K. Sinha was forced to resign and the decision in the 16th Amendment case was overturned by executive fiat and so rendering the judiciary a compliant, highly corrupt and wholly politicized entity. It is no wonder then that the judiciary has never in the last five years once raised the issue of the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings incidents although a clear violation of the constitution and the fundamental rights of the citizen and the laws of the country as set out in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 and Penal Code, 1860 as well as the Appellate Division ruling in the case of Bangladesh & ors Vs. BLAST & ors. In effect what we have been witnessing over the last four years is the literal weaponization of the judiciary against the opposition and civil society dissenters of whatever political hue and with many judges eagerly prepared to undertake witch hunts against opponents of the government.

With the Awami League now in effective control of all branches of state and with no pretense at a separation of powers or a system of checks and balances the police and RAB were free to engage in the worst excesses that naturally included human rights abuses resulting in a campaign of terror through the use of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings while also profiting handsomely from the policy and without any expected repercussions or accountability. This was the situation that pertained in Bangladesh until the US Treasury Department intervened and sanctioned several senior officers of RAB and the police force in December 2021. For a short period enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings had completely stopped but Awami League audacity and arrogance was still in full view as described by Meenakshi Ganguly (South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch), 

As security force commanders in Bangladesh remain implicated in grave human rights abuses including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has offered them promotions and rewards instead of ensuring accountability. On September 30, 2022 Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun was promoted to Inspector General of Police, less than a year after he was sanctioned by the United States government for his command as director general of the notoriously abusive Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from April 2020 until now, during a period when the RAB committed grave human rights abuses committed. The US also sanctioned the RAB itself as an entity “that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” Outgoing police chief Benazir Ahmed is also sanctioned by the US government, naming the abuses committed by RAB while he was director general from 2015 to 2019. During that time, officers under his command allegedly committed 136 reported extrajudicial executions and 10 enforced disappearances. While Ahmed faces travel restrictions to the US, the Bangladesh government made him part of an official delegation to a meeting at the United Nations in New York to bypass the ban. When asked about calls from the US, the UN, and others to reform RAB, Al-Mamun made clear that business would continue as usual. “We are not doing anything for which we need to reform RAB,” he said. “So, there is no question of reformation.” Earlier this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina awarded Al-Mamun and another sanctioned RAB official, additional director general Colonel Khan Mohammad Azad, with prestigious police medals for their “bravery and service to the country.” In response to the announcement of US sanctions, deputy chief Azad said, “If bringing down a criminal under the law is a violation of human rights, then we have no objection to violating human rights in the interest of the country.” These actions send the message to Bangladesh security forces that not only will the government ignore abuses, but it will reward them. But the US and other concerned governments see through the accolades and so should other Bangladeshi law enforcement officers. As US ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas said, “there is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability.”

In the last few weeks it appears that the policy of enforced disappearances has once again resumed with the case of lawyer and human rights activist Abul Hossain Rajon recently coming to light as he alleges that he was abducted and was physically and mentally abused by law enforcement agents. Similarly, according to a Netra News report of February 10, 2023, 

Four UN Special Rapporteurs, along with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, have jointly written to the Bangladesh government asking it to respond to their concerns about the use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests by law enforcement officials in their policing of  demonstrations held by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) between July and December 2022. “We are deeply concerned by the apparent use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against peaceful protesters across various districts in Bangladesh, including the use of tear gas, live ammunition and birdshot, resulting in injuries of several protesters and the death of at least five individuals,” states the letter which is dated December 27th 2022. “We are also deeply concerned at the allegations that live ammunition may have been used against protesters.” … The correspondence, addressed to the Bangladeshi ambassador in Geneva, notes that the UN had not yet “received a response” to a previous letter written in May 2021 which had raised similar concerns over  the use of “excessive force” by law enforcement officers to deal with protests relating to the visit of the Indian prime minister two months earlier which had led to at least 17 people being killed. This new UN Special Rapporteurs’ letter concerns the response by the government and law enforcement to dozens of protests that took place between July and December 2022, many of which were in response to an increase in food, electricity and fuel prices, and most of which were organised by the opposition BNP. The rapporteurs also highlight the “strong” statements made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the lead up to the planned rally. They state: “On 8 December, the prime minister directed Awami League supporters and leaders to stay vigilant and “hit back” if attacked. She also said that “the hand that wants to beat us will have to be broken. The hand that wants to torch things must be burnt in that same fire. They must be made to feel the pain of burns”. On 9 December, the prime minister continued her remarks, warning media outlets against “oiling” the BNP, a term used to describe pleasing an entity, and that she will “see to” media outlets who do so. The prime minister also reportedly called on Awami League supporters to come to the streets to stop the BNP.” The Rapporteurs state that they were not just concerned about excessive force but also arbitrary detentions of political leaders, participants at the meeting and civil society groups.  They state: “[W]e are troubled by the reported arrests, detentions and legal cases that have been filed against individuals for participating in protests and for being members of the opposition political parties or critical civil society groups, despite reports that the protests were peaceful. We are further troubled by reports that individuals faced physical violence from the authorities while in detention, and were also denied medical treatment, which could possibly amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment…” “We are further concerned the allegations of arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals, and the use of false charges, including against opposition political leaders and independent civil society groups, in relation to their participation in peaceful protests and their membership in an association.” The rapporteurs say that, “the reported attacks and use of excessive force against members of opposition political parties and civil society organizations critical of the government may create political tension and have a negative impact on Bangladesh’s ability to hold free and fair elections as scheduled in 2023 […] These attacks also hamper the ability of individuals to raise human rights concerns, including the economic and social rights issues related to the rise in food and energy prices, creating a chilling effect on civic space.”

That these egregious human rights abuses that are both encouraged and condoned by the highest political figures in the Awami League government have continued unabated since 2022 and may be seen from numerous news media reports published between January and March 2023 mostly as a consequence of the opposition political parties merely exercising their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to engage in peaceful assembly.

In summation the effect of 13 years of Awami League rule in Bangladesh has resulted in serious human rights abuses and massive corruption prevailing in the country which undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and a functioning society; has devastating impacts on individuals; weakens democratic institutions; degrades the rule of law; perpetuates violent conflicts; facilitate the activities of dangerous persons; and undermines economic markets.

The above is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and an independent and impartial investigation into the claims made in this letter will reveal a mass of criminality and wrongdoing on the part of the Awami League government. There is a vast trove of information available with a number of human rights agencies and corruption watchdogs on the abuses committed by the Awami Legaue regime since 2009 and some of which has been written and recorded on in various reports and commentaries published on the internet: 

(1) the widespread political repression perpetrated against the entire range and spectrum of the democratic opposition using the police, intelligence agencies, judiciary and any other relevant instruments of state since 2009 and includes the filing of hundreds of thousands of fake and false lawsuits, indiscriminate arrests, torture in remand and detention without bail and even in a number of instances having the accused kept incommunicado for months on end; 

(2) widespread human rights abuses including hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings; 

(3) widespread election manipulation, rigging and ballot box stuffing by the regime supporters and hired thugs and cadres and who were in turn provided cover and protection by the police force since 2009, and in particular 2018; 

(4) Massive corruption — the loot and plunder of state coffers and siphoning off of illegally acquired assets and funds through money laundering to various countries to the tune of tens of billions of dollars since 2009; and, 

(5) The corruption, politicization and criminalization of all branches and apparatus of the state including and above all the judiciary at all levels.

Among the many other sources, one may easily refer to the US State Department yearly country reports, Amnesty International reports, Human Rights Watch and many other human rights groups reports both local and international.

In conclusion, the people of Bangladesh believe that as the leader of the free democratic world, the USA has the responsibility to ensure human rights and freedom of speech anywhere in the world. Bangladesh and the USA have a vibrant bilateral relationship and a vested interest for stability in South Asia that only democratic societies can provide and especially in light of the new direction of global politics making the bilateral relationship more important than ever before.\

The USA needs to act under a dire humanitarian crisis that now exists in Bangladesh. The Awami League-led authoritarian government continues to spread its oppressive rule and torture to all corners of the country. The Bangladeshi people are tired of the constant misrule and oppression perpetrated by the Hasina regime, which has retained power for 13 years without any democratically held free and fair elections. The authoritarian government has once again started another round of crackdowns on opposition party leaders and activists ahead of the 2024 national elections. Bangladeshi people urge the global community’s attention and the United States of America to help them regain their fundamental human rights and the practice of true democracy

About the authors:

  • Barrister Ratan Komol is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • Dr. Q.M. Jalal Khan is an author, coauthor and lead editor of about 10 books on the Awami misrule and Indian hegemony in Bangladesh for the last 14 years

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