(New York) - The Bangladesh interim government should use its last months in office to seriously address persistent rights abuses rather than deny that they are happening, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the government. Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about continuing reports of torture and extrajudicial killings by state security forces and the government's failure to hold those responsible to account.
On August 8, 2008, the Bangladesh government sent Human Rights Watch a three-page response by the Ministry of Home Affairs to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2008. The ministry denied all allegations that torture has been carried out by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the country's most important military intelligence agency, and claimed that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), its elite law enforcement agency, has not committed extrajudicial executions but only killed armed criminals in self-defense and to protect government property.
"The Bangladesh government is well aware that the security forces have killed and tortured people in custody," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It is a tragedy for Bangladesh that the government is burying its head in the sand rather than taking action to protect its citizens."
Human Rights Watch said it is also critically important for the political parties to begin to think about how to address these issues, with Parliamentary elections scheduled for December 18, 2008.
Since the February 2008 release of a Human Rights Watch report describing the arbitrary detention and torture of a journalist and human rights worker, Tasneem Khalil, by the DGFI in May 2007, Human Rights Watch has collected detailed and consistent independent accounts from witnesses of the torture of businesspeople, politicians, and others at the DGFI offices in the military cantonment in Dhaka, the capital.
RAB's involvement in extrajudicial executions, since the agency was established in 2004, has been well documented by Human Rights Watch, other human rights groups, and journalists. The Ministry of Home Affairs' claim that all of the 93 killings by RAB during 2007 that the ministry acknowledges were carried out in self-defense or to protect government property is contradicted by the accounts of witnesses, evidence of torture on the victims' bodies, and the fact that many victims were killed after being taken into RAB custody.
In January 2008, the Home Affairs Adviser, Major General (ret.) MA Matin, acknowledged the problem of deaths in custody and instructed the security forces to ensure that such incidents would stop. While reported cases of RAB killings initially decreased, the numbers have recently increased, and the government has not acted to hold any members of RAB or any other security force criminally responsible.
"The government's offhand rejection of documented reports of abuse is not only a slap in the face to those whose lives have been shattered by the actions of the security forces, but also shows that its talk about restoring the rule of law is little more than empty rhetoric," Adams said.
In its response to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Home Affairs also stated that, "the government and its law enforcing agencies and security forces are always respectful to the Court's verdicts and orders...." Human Rights Watch's research has found, to the contrary, that in many instances when the courts ordered that an inmate be released on bail, the release was delayed because prison authorities had not been granted the "required" DGFI permission.
Human Rights Watch said that there are also numerous due-process violations reported from the special anti-corruption courts, and several lawyers representing high-profile prisoners have been harassed by DGFI. Human Rights Watch has also interviewed businesspeople who say that members of the armed forces extorted substantial sums of money from them, threatening them with arrest or imprisonment.
"The government and DGFI have engaged in rampant interference in judicial processes," Adams said. "Even in anti-corruption cases, extortion has been common and violations of due process appear to have been the norm."
Regarding the media, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that they are "free and working without hindrance," but Human Rights Watch said that assessment is not shared by many in the media. On several occasions, newspaper editors and senior journalists have publicly expressed concern about the interference of the security forces in their work. Journalists have also spoken about a climate of fear and self-censorship, particularly if they consider taking on the powerful military and its agencies.
"Bangladesh needs a government that acknowledges that serious human rights problems exist, and is ready to act to address them," Adams said. "As elections loom, it is important for the major political parties, which had poor human rights records when in office, to show that they are prepared to take on this challenge by developing and presenting their own human rights action plans."