(New York, August 25, 2007) – The Bangladesh government must respect international human rights standards as it enforces a curfew and seeks to police demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today.
The demonstrations currently taking place in Bangladesh come after eight months of repressive emergency rule, which has restricted the rights to protest and to seek a legal remedy, and fails to respect basic due process rights.
"What sparked these protests is the ongoing repression of emergency rule, and the government's heavy-handed response is like oil on a fire," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "While the protesters should remain peaceful and must exercise restraint to prevent loss to life and property, the government should immediately address some of their legitimate concerns instead of arbitrarily arresting people, beating detainees and fueling anger."
The recent unrest was sparked by an incident on August 20, when soldiers beat up a student as he was allegedly obscuring their view at a soccer match. Furious students protested against the attack, and demanded the immediate removal of an army camp located on the Dhaka University campus. The protests soon spread and became violent, resulting in one death. The government imposed a curfew on August 22 and suspended cell phone services during curfew hours.
Since then, the armed forces have carried out several raids on the Dhaka campus and elsewhere, detaining academics and students, including four university teachers, presumably on the grounds of alleged involvement in the rioting.
Journalist associations in Bangladesh have alleged that law enforcement officers have harassed journalists during curfew hours. Several newspapers and television networks reported that security forces beat their journalists while they were gathering information on the demonstrations, and some journalists were detained and beaten in custody. The Daily Star newspaper, for example, said that on August 23 two policemen beat its reporter Kamrul Hasan Khan with sticks on the university campus. Police also beat reporters from the daily Samakal, from a private TV channel Baisakhi and from the online news portal www.bdnews24.com, some of them after they were detained in police stations. Many of these journalists were attacked despite carrying press identification, which is supposed to serve as a curfew pass.
Several web news portals and blogs have reported that army personnel have detained and beaten journalists and students. Sanjeeb Hossain, describing the arrest of his father, Dr. M. Anwar Hossain, a professor at Dhaka University, said that soldiers took him away around midnight and refused to tell the family where he was being taken or when he would be returned.
"The authorities are trying to silence political protest through arbitrary arrests and restricting freedom of expression," said Richardson. "The government can take steps to make sure a protest is peaceful, but it must above all respect its human rights obligations when doing so."
Since the imposition of emergency rule, Bangladeshi armed forces have been responsible for abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture and deaths in custody. The emergency laws limit access to effective remedies, including the right to bail and the right to challenge the lawfulness of a detention.
The authorities have detained more than 250,000 people since the caretaker government took over in January 2007. Several political leaders are in custody including Awami League leader and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Another former prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, is under virtual house arrest.
The caretaker government was established in Bangladesh on January 11, 2007, and was largely welcomed by Bangladeshis and international actors seeking relief from widespread corruption, political tension and severe human rights abuses that had emerged in recent years. The promise to hold free and fair elections was applauded. However, the caretaker government has presided over serious human rights violations since taking office.
Some kinds of violations, such as torture and extrajudicial killings in the form of alleged "crossfire killings," were serious problems before the caretaker government came to power, and have continued under its administration. Other violations, which stem from emergency rules that undermine basic due process rights, or the large number of arbitrary arrests and detention without proper judicial oversight, are a direct result of the caretaker government's policies. While certain restrictions on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency are permitted under international law, it is far from clear that the measures under the government’s emergency law are limited to "the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation."
"This government claims to believe in democratic principles and the rule of law. Yet, its actions demonstrate an attempt to silence critics and limit democracy," said Richardson.