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(New York) - Bangladesh is stoking an emerging AIDS epidemic with violent police abuse of sex workers, injection drug users and men who have sex with men, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.

The 51-page report, “Ravaging the Vulnerable: Abuses Against Persons at High Risk of HIV Infection in Bangladesh,” documents rapes, gang-rapes, beatings and abductions by both police officers and powerful criminals known as mastans.

Their targets—sex workers, men who have sex with men and injection drug users—are both at high risk of HIV infection and the people most capable of bringing AIDS information and services to their peers. In a direct blow to the fight against AIDS, some of the abuses are committed against AIDS outreach workers.

“Bangladesh is brutalizing exactly the people it most needs as allies if it is to avoid a severe AIDS epidemic,” said Vivek Maru, researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Violence against at-risk people traumatizes them and drives them out of reach of HIV prevention services, which can increase their risk of infection.”

In one region of Bangladesh, HIV prevalence among injection drug users jumped from 1.7 percent in 2001 to 4 percent in 2002. While HIV prevalence in the population overall is reportedly still low, the country’s poverty, gender inequality, and proximity to raging epidemics in India and Southeast Asia point to the possibility of an AIDS explosion.

“This is a critical moment,” said Maru. “Strong intervention now could save countless lives, but time may be running out.”

Bangladesh acknowledged in late 2002 that the mastan problem was an enormous threat to the population at large and that the police were too corrupt and ineffective to control it. The government’s solution was to send the army into the streets. But “Operation Clean Heart” resulted in its own abuses, including at least 40 deaths in custody. Now the government is using the paramilitary “Bangladesh Rifles” to fight crime.

“Military reinforcements are no substitute for systemic reform,” said Maru. “The reforms that can stop the attacks on people vulnerable to AIDS and help stave off an epidemic are the same reforms the country needs to resolve its crisis of law and order.”

Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh to institute civilian review of police officers, to prosecute police and mastans who perpetrate abuses, to bring its criminal procedures in line with international standards, and to support peer-driven AIDS prevention services among persons at high risk of HIV.

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