Escalating human rights violations foreshadow unfree and unfair parliamentary elections

Press release

A statement ahead of parliamentary elections in Bangladesh

According to local sources, political violence across Bangladesh in November this year will have occasioned 52 reported deaths and 4,213 persons injured. Of these, five people were allegedly shot dead by law enforcement agencies during demonstrations. Over the same month, 20 journalists were injured, two assaulted and three threatened, with four reporters facing charges filed against them. On 9 November, Mosharaf Hossain, a photojournalist with Focus Bangla, was hit by a bullet fired by police, losing his sight in one eye as a result. Electronic and print media supporting the political opposition, including Channel 1, Diganta TV, Islamic TV and the daily Amar Desh, have recently been closed down, whilst acting editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, has been detained in Kashimpur Central Jail-2 since 11 April 2013. Human rights activists have also recently been tried for defamation under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 (amended in 2013).

The situation in Bangladesh further deteriorated after the Election Commission declared that it would proceed with the 10th parliamentary elections, due to take place on 5 January 2014, without reaching any compromise with the major political parties. The removal of the caretaker government system through a 15th Amendment to the Bangladeshi Constitution in 2011 is a key factor behind the current crisis as several elections had formerly been conducted under this system. Opposition parties claim that the Government lacked the mandate to make such changes to the Constitution. On 11 December, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, concluded a five-day visit to Bangladesh to broker a political deal ahead of the elections. However, on 13 December, the Jatiya Party led by H.M. Ershad – one of the present government’s allies – withdrew a number of its candidates from the elections, allowing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to proceed with only minimal opposition.

The main opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have, over past weeks, declared rail, road and waterway blockades and general strikes seeking to postpone the election schedule and demanding that the elections be held under a neutral government. Widespread human rights violations have followed. In particular, some protesters have fallen victim to indiscriminate police firing while other incidents such as arson and petrol bombs attacks on public transport have led to serious injuries and deaths. Children have not been spared. In addition, cases have been filed against a number of unknown persons, with accused individuals allegedly tortured in remand after arrest. Neither the Government nor the opposition has so far taken any responsibility for these casualties, instead blaming each other.

On 12 December, one of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, 65 year-old Abdul Quader Molla, was executed after the Supreme Court of Bangladesh rejected his appeal against the decision by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) [1] to commute his life sentence into a death sentence on 17 September. He was the first person to be executed following a death sentence laid down by the ICT. This has already sparked further violence in Bangladesh: on the following day, at least 4 people died as a result of street clashes between political militants.

Recommendations to the international community

Under such tumultuous circumstances, FIDH calls upon the international community to monitor the human rights situation in the country and to make the following recommendations to the Government of Bangladesh:

  • Refrain from using repressive methods while a peaceful solution to the on-going political crisis is urgently needed: The two main political parties (the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party) must immediately devise a political agreement through dialogue in order to resolve the on-going political crisis. Law enforcement agencies must stop indiscriminate firing and torture in custody. The perpetrators of politically-motivated violence must also be brought to justice.
  • Mass arrests of people should be stopped: Mass arrests and cases filed against ‘unknown’ persons lead to human rights abuses. Not all those arrested may be found guilty. Therefore, cases filed at random against ‘unknown’ persons must cease. All political prisoners should be released.
  • Human rights defenders should be protected and freedom of expression respected: The Government must not obstruct freedom of expression and should withdraw the ban on media, including those imposed on Amar Desh, Channel 1, Diganta TV and Islamic TV. The acting editor of the daily Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, must be released immediately. Any act of violence and harassment, including at the judicial level, against human rights defenders should be brought to an end.
  • Eliminate all forms of torture and ill-treatment: In spite of being a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture since 1998, the Government of Bangladesh has so far not been able to eliminate practices akin to torture. In particular, deaths in custody remain frequent. The recent adoption of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act last October must be followed by effective implementation.
  • Repeal the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 and Anti-Terrorism Act 2009: National counter-terrorism policies must be confined to the strict limits imposed by international human rights law, including provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh has ratified. Notwithstanding concerns long raised by FIDH about the vague definition of ’terrorist’ activities in the Anti-Terrorism Act, new amendments to the Act have further opened the door to arbitrary applications. A 2012 amendment included crimes punishable by death. The Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 criminalises opinions expressed online through social media, websites or blogs. A 2013 amendment to the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 has raised the penalty available for this offence to 14 years of imprisonment (from 10 years) and excluded offences under this law from being subject to bail (being formerly bailable) whilst making them cognizable. [2]
  • Abolish the death penalty: FIDH calls upon the Government of Bangladesh to repeal the death penalty, which is a violation to the right to life, as well as being a cruel and degrading form of punishment. In addition to denouncing last week’s execution of a prisoner sentenced to death by the ICT, which in no way responded to victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation, FIDH urges the Bangladeshi courts to commute the recent sentences to death of 152 soldiers for the involvement in the 2009 Bangladesh Rifles mutiny.

For more information: “Bangladesh: human rights defenders trapped in a polarized political environment”, a report by the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders (a joint FIDH-OMCT program), November 2013.

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