Police inspect the homes of garment workers where they suspect protesters are hiding after a demonstration in Dhaka on August 30, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - The Awami League government has not kept its promise after its election victory in December 2008 to show "zero tolerance" for abuses by its security forces, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2011. Two years on, new extrajudicial killings have been reported, and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

The 649-page World Report 2011, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. Bangladesh should immediately end systematic human rights abuses, including stopping extrajudicial executions and torture by its security forces, Human Rights Watch said in the chapter on Bangladesh. It should allow the media, political opponents, and labor rights activists to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association fully, Human Rights Watch said.

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"The government should not just keep turning a blind eye to all these killings because they are not fooling anyone with their excuses," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Credibility will only come if the government follows the National Human Rights Commission's recommendation to name an impartial panel of inquiry for each killing and to hold those found responsible to account."

The joint police-military Rapid Action Battalion Force (RAB) carries out the extrajudicial killings, frequently termed "crossfire killings," and after the fact, the government has justified each killing as legitimate, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch noted that often independent groups find signs of torture and abuse on the bodies of "crossfire" victims, and survivors of RAB custody testify that torture is commonly inflicted by the RAB on those in its custody. This is consistent with information in recently leaked US government diplomatic cables that stated there was credible evidence that the RAB tortures detainees.

Human Rights Watch also found that it is not only the Bangladeshi security forces who commit abuses. Acute poverty and unemployment prompts millions of Bangladeshis to cross the border into India in search of jobs or to engage in trade. Many of them are killed by India's Border Security Force (BSF), which engages in indiscriminate and excessive use of deadly force. The Bangladesh government should be more vocal and determined in pressing the Indian government to restrain the Indian border forces and to end the killings that too often occur all along that border.

The government regularly harassed, repressed, and retaliated against its political opponents and labor union activists during 2010, Human Rights Watch said. A leading opposition daily newspaper, Amar Desh, was forced to close down and the editor was arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The editor, Mahmudur Rahman, claimed to have been tortured by the RAB while in custody.

Labor union activists also bore the brunt of the government crackdown against public protests and organized demands. While demanding further increases in the monthly minimum wage, many garment workers were arrested, and some were allegedly beaten while in custody, credible human rights institutions and journalists said.

The government also stripped the internationally respected Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) of its nongovernmental organization status, and arrested the top leaders of BCWS (along with other senior labor leaders) on unsubstantiated charges of incitement connected to worker disturbances in late July. Two BCWS leaders publicly stated they were tortured while in police custody.

In a new development, the government took steps to bring to trial those responsible for international crimes in connection with the war of 1971. The government arrested five members of opposition parties, but there are strong suspicions that the detentions at this time are politically motivated. Equally troubling, the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973 still falls well short of international standards.

"Bangladesh has a long way to go to live up to its commitments, in both national policies and meeting international obligations," Robertson said. "It is only when its people can live free of fear of torture, repression, curbs on free speech, or politically motivated actions that it can truly lay its claim to being a democratic country."