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Mr. Fakhruddin Ahmed
Chief Advisor
Government of Bangladesh

Re: Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh

Dear Chief Advisor:

When your caretaker government was established in Bangladesh on January 11, 2007, many Bangladeshis and international actors were reassured by the appointment of apparently non-partisan and competent officials. The initiative largely had the support of Bangladesh’s influential civil society as well as the international community. Many had despaired at the state of near political anarchy, widespread corruption, and severe human rights abuses that had emerged in the country in recent years. The promise of free and fair elections in the light of attempts to rig elections was also welcomed.

Your government has taken some strong initiatives to clean up corruption and hold political and business leaders accountable for their actions. Measures to reform the civil service and bureaucracy have been welcomed by many Bangladeshis, though we caution that due process for civil servants must be observed. And, unlike the previous government, you have made it clear that you will not tolerate or condone the actions of violent militants.

However, we are deeply concerned that the laudable goals of fighting corruption and reforming the political system are not being matched by efforts to protect human rights. Serious and systemic human rights abuses are taking place on your watch. Many of these, such as torture and feigned “crossfire killings,” were serious problems before you took office and continue today. Others, such as emergency rules that do not respect basic due process rights, or the large number of arbitrary arrests and detention without proper judicial oversight or public accountability, are a direct result of your government’s policies.

Since your administration took over, torture of persons in the custody of the security forces has continued to be routine. Many people have died in custody in unexplained circumstances. Your government has not put into place the most basic safeguards to ensure proper independent access to places of detention, requiring all persons to be held in official places of detention, and establishing a process whereby independent investigations are routinely undertaken when deaths in custody occur.

The joint forces, led by the army, have shown almost complete disregard for established legal norms conducting arrests and holding people in detention. Instead of being brought immediately before a magistrate, detainees are routinely taken to army barracks and other unofficial places of detention and tortured, both as punishment and to force them to sign confessions. Many people are being picked up in the middle of the night without warrant. Led by Bangladesh’s military intelligence unit, the DGFI, the security forces are often in plainclothes and offer no identification. When asked, they claim they can do anything they want because they are thus empowered under Bangladesh’s emergency laws.

Bangladeshi civil society and the media, which have often been celebrated in the past for courage and freedom, are under severe threat. Activists and journalists have been summoned by members of the army, particularly those claiming to be members of the DGFI, and threatened. Many have been silenced for fear of arbitrary arrest because they know of other cases of arbitrary detention, torture, and death.

We are particularly concerned because the rule of law appears to be breaking down under your administration. Under the emergency laws, the right to bail and the right to appeal are routinely denied. Court decisions are regularly ignored. Bangladesh’s many fine judges and lawyers are not being allowed to play their legitimate roles in the legal and judicial process. When some judges began ordering bail when habeas corpus petitions were filed, public prosecutors have secured contrary rulings from the Appellate Division, even in cases where there is clearly no threat to public security or risk of flight. This is all happening under an administration that claims to be committed to reform.

Illegal acts by the security forces are being enabled by the sweeping emergency rules your administration has put in place, which are being misused on a daily basis by the armed forces. Under emergency rules that ban protests and limit effective legal remedies, the security forces believe they can commit abuses with impunity.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, permits limitations on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency. However, such measures are limited to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Certain basic rights, such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, may never be restricted. The principles of legality and the rule of law require that the fundamental requirements of a fair trial be respected even under emergency regulations.

Because the sweeping emergency regulations under the state of emergency now in force do not comply with international requirements and have been misused in practice, we urge you to repeal them immediately. All persons currently detained under the emergency regulations should be charged with a cognizable criminal offense or released. Those mistreated in detention should be able to seek legal remedies through competent authorities.

When challenged about the human rights situation, officials of your government cite the commitment to create a national human rights commission. Creating an independent and competent national human rights commission in accordance with the UN’s Paris Principles on national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights would be an important step, one in which Human Rights Watch would be happy to offer advice. However, a national human rights commission will take years to set up and act effectively. With so many arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, much more has to be done, and without delay (see recommendations below).

We would particularly like to use this opportunity to remind you of the case of journalist Tasneem Khalil, who has worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch and as a stringer for CNN. On May 11, 2007, Mr. Khalil was taken into custody after midnight by men in plainclothes claiming to be Bangladesh’s “joint task force.” Mr. Khalil was taken from his home in front of his wife and child, blindfolded and driven to an interrogation center, where he was tortured and questioned about his work as a journalist, writings on his blog, as well as his employment with Human Rights Watch and CNN. Many of Mr. Khalil’s possessions, including computers, phones and passport, were confiscated when his home was ransacked. We immediately contacted your government for help, and Mr. Khalil was eventually released after more than 22 hours in custody.

We have since learned that Mr. Khalil had been held and tortured by the DGFI. The interrogation center Mr. Khalil was taken to is an extension of the DGFI headquarters in Dhaka cantonment that houses at least one torture chamber and a detention facility. This is a full-time illegal detention and torture facility. Mr. Khalil saw sophisticated torture equipment and could hear other detainees screaming in pain. At least five DGFI officers took part in the torture sessions that left Mr. Khalil with severe injuries. At one point he was photographed with a revolver and some bullets placed before him, suggesting that he was being set up for a faked “crossfire killing.” Before his release, Mr. Khalil was forced to make false confessions, and asked to sign documents and testify on video admitting to acts that could be considered treasonous. We have received other credible reports of the same type of activities by DGFI.

As you know, Bangladesh’s military forces have become notorious for taking people into custody, torturing them to death or executing them in faked “crossfire killings.” We were concerned that Mr. Khalil would meet a similar fate even after his release. He had to remain in hiding until, after long and unnecessary negotiations, his passport was eventually returned and he and his family were able to leave Bangladesh for safety abroad.

In a sense Mr. Khalil was fortunate. He had the advantage of foreign friends, colleagues, and diplomats who were in a position to appeal to your government for help. However, there are thousands now in custody, unable to secure bail and often subjected to torture, who are not so well connected. We do not know who is being tortured at this very minute by DGFI or others, but we do know that it is happening.

We appreciate your personal intervention and that of other government officials to ensure Mr. Khalil’s release and safe exit from the country. But as his case makes clear, arbitrary arrest and detention and torture are a significant problem in Bangladesh today.

Your government knows who was responsible for Mr. Khalil’s torture – and that of many other victims – where they work, and where the torture centers are located. Your government knows that these are not isolated cases – an untold number of people are being tortured every day. As a matter of basic human decency as well as your obligations under international law, you must act to close down such torture centers without delay. We look forward to public statements from you and members of your government on this subject, as well as action.

We take your government’s claims to be reform-minded seriously. For that reason, you would expect nothing less than to be held to the domestic and international standards that Bangladesh has long committed itself to uphold. It is therefore time for your administration to act with the same sense of urgency to end human rights abuses as it has to end corruption.

Specifically, Human Rights Watch urges your government and the armed forces to take steps to protect human rights and follow the rule of law by:

  • Immediately repealing the emergency regulations under the state of emergency and restoring fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.
  • Charging or releasing those detained and give them access to legal counsel and family members.
  • Restoring the right to petition for bail and challenge detentions.
  • Using only official places of detention and end the use of irregular sites, such as the one maintained by DGFI, to prevent torture.
  • Ensuring that those whose rights have been violated have an effective remedy before competent authorities.
  • Allowing access by independent monitors to all places of detention.
  • Prosecuting members of the army, RAB, police and other government officials responsible for human rights violations.

While some in your government claim that the human rights situation is no worse than under the previous democratically elected government, I’m sure you will agree that this is not an appropriate standard. You and your colleagues have chosen to lead the government. We are certain that you did not take your positions in order to preside over a government and security forces that routinely abuse human rights, but that is the reality in Bangladesh today.

It is now your responsibility to ensure that the rights of all persons in Bangladesh are respected. We are disappointed that we have not seen any significant signs that your government is attempting to tackle these problems. This is surprising given your stated commitment to reform. We look forward to a public and strong commitment to making the protection of human rights the highest priority of your time in office.

Thank you for your consideration. We would be pleased to meet with you and appropriate officials in your government to address these matters further.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Asia Director

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