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January 29, 2009

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Prime Minister's Office
Old Sangsad Bhaban
Tejagaon, Dhaka-1215

Via facsimile: +880 2 8113244; +880 2 8111015

Re: Human Rights in Bangladesh

Dear Prime Minister,

Congratulations on your recent election success. As you know, Human Rights Watch has consistently raised human rights issues with the interim government put in place and supported by the army from January 2007-December 2008. We have also raised concerns with its predecessor, the coalition headed by the Bangladesh National Party.

The Awami League and its allies have a unique opportunity and the responsibility to address major human rights problems that have been ignored by successive governments. We hope that with the strong mandate you and your party have obtained that you will tackle the very serious abuses that Bangladeshis face at the hands of the security forces and others.

I urge your government to use the February session of the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review to show the priority it places on addressing longstanding human rights problems by making concrete and specific commitments. We offer suggestions below. This will be an early test for your government.

In order to ensure that Bangladesh lives up to its obligations under the Bangladeshi constitution and international human rights law, we urge you and your government to give high priority to the following issues:

Extrajudicial executions and torture

Since the establishment of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in mid-2004, RAB and the police have jointly executed well over a thousand people in what they often refer to as "crossfire killings." Many, and probably most, of those killed in "crossfire" have been killed not in crossfire but have been executed in custody after being subjected to torture.

Torture generally appears to be a routine feature in criminal investigations, as well as a means for law enforcement officials to extort money. Legal provisions that give the authorities a broad mandate to arrest and detain people without a warrant have contributed to these problems.

An agency of particular concern is the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which has been used by successive governments to silence opposition politicians and other perceived government critics. The agency has over the years been responsible for numerous arbitrary arrests and acts of torture.

Since the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent state, members of the security forces have committed violations of human rights without being prosecuted for their actions. This has resulted in almost total impunity for human rights abuses.

Arbitrary detentions

As you and members of the Awami League, the opposition Bangladesh National Party, and others experienced under the caretaker government, arbitrary detentions are a widespread problem in Bangladesh. But this is not a new problem. Many Bangladeshis, whether prominent individuals such as yourself or average rural dwellers, have for many years experienced the scourge of arbitrary detention by the security forces. We hope you will make ending this practice among the highest priorities of your administration.

In particular, we urge you to repeal the Special Powers Act, 1974, which has over the years been misused for political and other reasons to keep thousands of people detained for long periods of time without due process and a chance to challenge their detention before an independent tribunal. Detentions have often been based on mere allegations or politically motivated grounds. Under the military-backed caretaker government, the Special Powers Act was frequently used. The Act and its implementation have been repeatedly criticized by the Supreme Court, but remains in force despite past commitments by the political parties to have it repealed.

Many other individuals have been also been arbitrarily detained in situations in which the Act has not been invoked. They have been denied the right to counsel, denied the right to be produced in court in a timely manner, denied their right to a speedy trial without undue delay, and denied the right to trial before an independent tribunal.

Protection of Minorities and Women

Ethnic and religious minorities have since long been victims of intimidation, discrimination and land grabbing. According to one study, more than one million Hindu households have lost their land over the past 40 years through abuse and arbitrary application of the Enemy Property Act 1965 and the Vested Property Act 1974. The Vested Property Return Act of 2001, which provides for property to be returned to its original owners, has been ineffectual and land loss has continued at an alarming rate. There are continuous reports of indigenous groups, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other parts of the country, being subjected to land grabbing, unlawful evictions in the name of development, and destruction of their homes and property.

The Ahmadis have been subjected to violent attacks as fundamentalists demand that they be declared non-Muslims, thereby violating their religious freedom.

Discrimination against women is common in both public and private spheres. Domestic violence is a daily reality for many women and dowry-related crimes are reported to be increasing. Sexual minorities are also subject to discrimination and consensual homosexual conduct is a crime.


Bangladesh has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world (routinely placed at or near the bottom of Transparency International's index). Corruption has had a severely negative impact on the Bangladeshi people's enjoyment of economic and social rights. It is essential that the government undertakes effective measures to address the problem of corruption and that it ensures that all such efforts are undertaken with full regard to international human rights norms and international and domestic fair trial standards. The counter-corruption efforts of the caretaker government were marred by arbitrary and illegal detentions and reports of torture and mistreatment in custody in order to obtain confessions. These practices must end. 


The Anti-Terrorism Ordinance, 2008, 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.

Human Rights Watch expressed its concerns about the Ordinance in a June 2008 statement (see Parliament should either allow the Ordinance to lapse or amend it to bring it into conformity with international law before codifying it into Bangladeshi law. The government and parliament should also ensure that any new laws drafted on the subject are developed through a thorough public consultative process.

Death penalty

There are currently about one thousand people on death row awaiting execution. Through a resolution adopted in December 2007, the UN General Assembly has called for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. As the death penalty is a punishment of an inherently cruel, inhuman and final nature, we urge the government to take immediate steps to abolish it.


To address the above problems, Human Rights Watch urges the government to:

  • Take all necessary measures to put an end to the security forces' involvement in extrajudicial executions, acts of torture and other abuses of human rights.
  • Address impunity by ensuring that all human rights violations are thoroughly investigated and that those responsible, regardless of rank and political affiliation, are prosecuted and brought to justice.
  • Disband RAB which has since the outset based its operating culture on practices such as extrajudicial killings. In the event RAB is retained we urge you to establish an independent commission to assess RAB's performance, to identify those believed to be responsible for serious violations such as extra judicial killings who should be excluded from a reformed RAB and prosecuted, and develop an action plan to transform RAB into an agency that operates within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms.
  • Disband DGFI which has too long depended on illegal practices such as arbitrary detentions and torture. In the event that DGFI is retained we urge you to establish an independent commission to assess DGFI's performance, identify those believed to be responsible for serious violations such as torture who should be should be excluded from a reformed DGFI and prosecuted, and develop an action plan to transform DGFI into an agency that operates within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms. DGFI's operations should be strictly limited to lawful military intelligence activities and in no circumstances should it engage in surveillance of the political opposition and critics of the regime.
  • Amend Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and any other legal provisions that give the authorities overly broad detention powers which facilitate torture and other human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch urges the government and parliament to change existing law to:

  • Amend the military legislation currently in force and the Armed Police Battalion Ordinance to ensure that members of the armed forces and RAB involved in violations of human rights are tried under the civilian criminal justice system.
  • Amend all legal provisions, such as articles 132 and 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which in effect shield law enforcement officials from being held to account for violations of human rights.
  • Initiate a process, in accordance with stated intentions, for bringing to trial those responsible for war crimes such as acts of murder, rape and wanton destruction and pillage of civilian property, in connection with the 1971-war. 
  • Repeal the Special Powers Act, which has been used to carry out arbitrary detentions for many years.
  • Review existing legislation, such as the Vested Property Act, which has allegedly contributed to large scale land loss among members of the Hindu minority. Take effective action to ensure that ethnic and religious minorities are protected from land grabbing, intimidation and discrimination.
  • Provide training on gender sensitivity to all law enforcement officials.
  • Finalize the draft law on domestic violence and ensure that it is consistent with international standards and that it is implemented effectively.
  • Repeal Section 377 of the criminal code, which criminalizes consensual homosexual conduct.

Human Rights Watch further urges the Bangladeshi government to make international legal commitments to promote and protect human rights by:

  • Acceding to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
  • Acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Acceding to the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
  • Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
  • Ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • Remove declarations and lift reservations made to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Covenant on Civil of Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

We know this is a big agenda. But we also know that with the majority your government enjoys in parliament you have an historic opportunity to engage in long overdue reform. We urge you and your government to grasp this opportunity to bring real change to the lives of Bangladeshis.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to discussing these and other human rights issues in greater detail with you and the members of your government.


Brad Adams

Executive Director

Asia Division

Cc: Minister of Foreign Affairs: Dr. Dipu Moni; Minister of Home Affairs: Advocate Sahara Khatun; Minister of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs: Barrister Shafique Ahmed

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