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(New York) - Bangladesh’s new counterterrorism ordinance violates fundamental freedoms and basic fair trial rights and should be repealed or amended to meet international standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The military-backed interim government kept secret the far-reaching provisions of the new law until its adoption on June 11, preventing the public and civil society from commenting on the law’s contents.

The ordinance sets out an overly broad definition of terrorist acts, including mere property crimes as well as attacks targeting individuals, contrary to United Nations recommendations. It criminalizes speech meant to support or “bolster the activities of” a banned organization, without showing that such statements constitute incitement of criminal conduct. The new law also allows convictions for financing terrorism based on mere suspicion of criminal conduct, violating the basic criminal law requirement of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Bangladesh needs fair and effective laws to combat terrorism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But, as we’ve seen in countries around the world, bad counterterror laws drafted in secret lead to abuses and a loss of public support for legitimate counterterror efforts.”

Among the new counterterrorism law’s worrying provisions are:

  • The law’s definition of terrorist acts is overly broad. Besides violent acts and kidnapping, acts that cause “damage to any property of any person” may be deemed terrorist under the law if they are carried out for a specified purpose. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights has explained, the concept of terrorism should be limited to acts committed with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages, and not property crimes.
  • The law provides that a person may be held criminally liable for financing terrorism if that person is involved in financial transactions for which there is merely a “reasonable suspicion” that the money will be used to fund a terrorist act.
  • The law allows an organization to be banned as terrorist because it has “cooperated” with another organization deemed terrorist. Moreover, the government may ban an organization as terrorist based simply on “reasonable allegations” of involvement in terrorist activities.
  • The law criminalizes speech meant to support or “bolster the activities of” a banned organization, without any showing that such statements constitute incitement of criminal conduct. To comply with international protections on freedom of expression, laws should only allow for the criminal prosecution of direct incitement to terrorism – that is, speech that directly encourages the commission of a crime, is intended to result in criminal action, and is likely to result in criminal action.
  • The law allows the imposition of the death penalty for certain offenses that cannot be considered among the “most serious crimes,” as required by international law. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irrevocable.

“The ordinance sweeps far too broadly, disregards normal standards of proof, and establishes harsh penalties for anyone who publicly expresses support for a banned organization,” Adams said. “It is also deeply regrettable, in a country where serious problems have been identified in due process of law, such as the use of torture to gain convictions, that the ordinance allows the death penalty.”

The Bangladesh government has been under pressure by its international supporters to adopt counterterror legislation. Human Rights Watch urged the United Kingdom and United States and others not to push Bangladesh into adopting laws that violate basic rights or to adopt them without adequate public consultation. The government should ensure that civil society and the public are given a fair opportunity to review and comment on any future counterterrorism legislation.

“It’s shocking that such an important law could be enacted in the shadows, without public input – particularly by a government that says it is in power to reform the political system,” Adams said.

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