A Year Marred by Violent Protests and Preventable Factory Catastrophes
(London) – Bangladesh tumbled backward on human rights in 2013 as the government engaged in a harsh crackdown on members of civil society, the media, and political opposition, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2014 released today.
The authorities often employed violent and illegal measures against protesters, and failed to initiate any investigations into credible allegations of unlawful deaths at the hands of its security forces. Measures to protect labor rights after a series of factory deaths fell far short of international standards.
“This year has been tragic for Bangladesh, with political unrest leading to unnecessary deaths of protesters, security personnel, and bystanders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has failed to stem the cycle of violence by ordering investigations into violations by security forces, and instead has become increasingly intolerant of dissent, going to extreme extents to suppress opposition and criticism.”
In the 667-page World Report 2014, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.
Violent street protests broke out in Bangladesh in February, and have continued through the year, killing nearly 200 and injuring thousands. The earlier protests were linked to decisions by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a domestic court set up to put on trial those responsible for war crimes and other abuses during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.
Street violence continued after the main opposition party alliance decided to boycott elections scheduled for January 5, 2014. While the political parties have failed to restrain their supporters from engaging in violence, state forces, on occasion, used excessive force to restore law and order.
The December execution of Abdul Qader Mollah, a senior member of opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, who was convicted and sentenced to death following the passage of retroactive amendments to the ICT law prohibited by international law, led to further protests and violence at the end of the year.
The authorities arbitrarily arrested members of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. “Atheist” bloggers were arrested, as was a prominent newspaper editor. In August, human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan were arrested.
Despite pledges, the government failed to improve worker conditions in garment and other industries after the deaths of more than 1,100 workers in the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building. Under domestic and international pressure, the Bangladeshi parliament enacted changes to the Labor Act in July. The amendments lifted some restrictions on union registrations but failed to effectively protect the right to freedom of association. Regular inspections of factories, due to start in September, remained stalled by administrative delays.
The government’s promised relocation of the tannery industries in the Hazaribagh neighborhood in Dhaka remained unfulfilled, and government inspectors failed to enforce environmental and labor laws on factories in the area.
In a positive move, the authorities dropped criminal charges against several labor rights leaders that appeared to be politically motivated. The courts also ordered all charges to be dropped against Limon Hossain, a young man shot and maimed by security forces in a botched operation in 2011.
However, problems with the war crimes trials and the mutiny trial against members of the Bangladesh Rifles (now renamed Bangladesh Border Guards) remained unresolved, and many accused were sentenced to death in trials with serious due process concerns. Human Rights Watch and The Economist, journalists, and television show guests were issued orders by the war crimes court to show cause for contempt for critical remarks and reporting on the tribunal.
“This government came to power promising democracy and a return to the rule of law, but instead has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant,” Adams said. “The crackdown throughout this year on any form of dissent has been shocking, and has exacerbated the country’s human rights crisis.”