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(New York) - The government should immediately end the recent wave of mass, arbitrary arrests under the Emergency Power Rules, Human Rights Watch said today. The thousands detained should be either charged on the basis of credible evidence of criminal activities or immediately released.

Using emergency rules put in place in 2007, Bangladesh’s military-backed interim government has arrested at least 12,000 persons since May 28, 2008. The arrests follow the breakdown of prospects for negotiations between the government and the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, over planned national elections in December. Many of those arrested are local-level political party leaders and activists. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the health and safety of the detainees, given massive prison overcrowding and well-documented patterns of torture and mistreatment of detainees.

“The timing and targets of the arrests are a dead giveaway they are politically motivated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s obvious that they are paying the price for the political parties’ refusal to accept the government’s conditions to participate in the elections.”

The government has rejected suggestions that the arrests are politically motivated, claiming that it was a planned sweep against criminality. Political parties and human rights groups have alleged that arrests are being carried out to pave the way for pro-government candidates to be elected in upcoming local and national elections.

The crackdown started just days after the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party declared that they would boycott a government-initiated dialogue aimed at developing a roadmap for parliamentary elections in December and sustainable reforms of the country’s troubled political institutions. To take part in the dialogue, the parties demanded the release of their leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who are currently detained on corruption-related charges. The parties also stated that they may organize mass movements to secure their release.

Through the Emergency Powers Rules, adopted shortly after a state of emergency was declared on January 11, 2007, soldiers and members of paramilitary forces, such as the Rapid Action Battalion and Bangladesh Rifles, have been granted the same arrest powers as the police. The rules allow for arrests without a court warrant on the mere grounds of a reasonable suspicion that a person is related to an offense and allow for lengthy periods of preventative detention.

“Emergency rule is once again being used to carry out arbitrary arrests and to harass political opponents,” Adams said. “The government’s stated commitment to reform is undermined by its continuing disregard for basic due process rights.”

Since the state of emergency was introduced, the authorities have reportedly arrested well over 500,000 people. Even though the majority were released within days of their arrests, the prison population has nevertheless increased significantly. As the right to seek release on bail is restricted under the Emergency Power Rules, there are fears that the ongoing wave of mass arrests may result in a total breakdown of the prison system. With approximately 90,000 detainees and convicted prisoners in a prison that has an official capacity for just over 27,000, overcrowding is already severe, leading to inhumane and unsafe sanitary and other conditions.

Among those currently incarcerated are several hundred former politicians and businesspersons in pretrial detention or convicted on corruption-related charges.

“The government’s determination to pursue party members stands in stark contrast to its unwillingness to prosecute soldiers and police for torture and killings,” said Adams. “As usual under this government, it’s not clear whether it is the civilian authorities or the army that is behind these decisions. Either way, they are indefensible.”

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