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(New York) - Bangladesh’s interim government should immediately end the recent harassment of labor rights activists who are conducting legitimate activities to protect the rights of workers in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 24, 2008, Mehedi Hasan of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) was arrested and detained by National Security Intelligence in Dhaka. His arrest is believed to be directly linked to the labor rights monitoring that he carried out for WRC, an nongovernmental organization that investigates labor practices at apparel factories, largely on behalf of US colleges and universities.

Hasan is being held for violating Articles 3 and 4(1) of the Emergency Power Rules of January 25, 2007, which prohibit processions, meetings, assemblies and trade union activities. After his arrest by National Security Intelligence, Hasan was transferred to Pallabi police station in Dhaka, where he has been seen wearing shackles. On January 25, 2008, he was brought before a court and remanded into police custody for four days. On January 30, he was remanded for an additional three days.

“The interim government is abusing its emergency powers to target individuals who are trying to protect workers’ rights in Bangladesh’s most important export industry,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This should set off alarm bells among donors and governments who don’t seem to understand or care how the authorities are using the state of emergency to systematically suppress basic rights.”

Hasan’s arrest is part of a recent pattern of harassment of labor rights activists that has followed clashes between workers and police in Dhaka’s Mirpur area earlier this month. On January 22, a Bangladeshi staff member of the American Center for Labor Solidarity was arrested and briefly detained. On January 24, a Danish national who serves as the South East Asia field director of the Worker Rights Consortium was held for questioning at Dhaka’s international airport before being allowed to board a plane for Thailand.

In recent days, the authorities have invoked Emergency Power Rules and have filed criminal cases against dozens of trade union members, including leaders of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation.

Many other labor rights activists have complained to Human Rights Watch about being threatened and being under constant surveillance. According to police sources, a number of international organizations and their staff members are currently being monitored for allegedly engineering or inciting subversive activities within the garment industry.

Garments are Bangladesh’s main export, and have been a major contributor to the country’s economic growth in recent years. The industry has also been important in creating jobs for women.

“International companies that source garments in Bangladesh should insist that the Bangladeshi government end harassment of labor rights activists,” said Adams. “They should make it clear that labor organizing and activism is part of the deal when operating in the world economic system and that they will not accept it if activists are jailed, intimidated or harassed by the authorities.”

Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency since January 11, 2007. The emergency rules have placed serious limits on civil and political rights, and have severely diluted constitutional protections of individual rights. In a letter to the government dated August 1, 2007, Human Rights Watch called for the lifting of the state of emergency.

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