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May 1, 2011

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed

Prime Minister's Office

Old Sangsad Bhaban




Via facsimile: +880-2-8113-244; +880-2-8111-015

Re: Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS)

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to follow up our August 10, 2010 letter to you and raise serious concerns about the continuing campaign of legal harassment against the leaders of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). Three BCWS leaders have been charged in a total of ten criminal cases. At least two of the cases involve charges that could bring the death penalty, and each case consists of a range of charges with punishments ranging from three months to ten years to life in prison.

In one case, Ashulia police charged BCWS leader Babul Akhter and BCWS staff member Aminul Islam with criminal intimidation, voluntarily causing hurt, mischief causing damage, house trespass and theft, and unlawful assembly during a protest at a factory operated by the Nassa Group on June 18, 2010. Workers were protesting the failure of management to meet their demands for pay increases and improvements in working conditions. Witnesses have indicated Babul Akhter was not present at the factory at that time. Instead, he was meeting with Isrfil Alam, an MP from the ruling Awami League.

In addition, ten separate criminal cases have been filed against Babul Akhter,  Aminul Islam and another BCWS leader, Kalpona Akhter, on a wide range of charges in connection with labor protests over wages that turned violent on July 30-31, 2010 in Gulshan, Tejgaon, and Ashulia. The charges include attempted murder, criminal intimidation, violence against civil servants, mischief causing damage, and theft connected to violent incidents, and violation of the Explosive Substances Act of 1908. Yet no evidence has been presented to the defendants or their lawyers that indicates that Babul Akhter, Kalpona Akhter, or Aminul Islam planned or incited violence. Gulshan and Tejgaon are industrial areas where BCWS states it has had no activities for more than a decade. Six of the ten cases involve incidents that took place in the morning and early afternoon of July 30. Witnesses state that Babul Akhter and Kalpona Akhter were in an all-day meeting in Borabari, Gazipur, more than 15 kilometers from the protests. BCWS leaders say that not only did they not incite violence, but they urged workers to peacefully petition the authorities instead of demonstrating in the streets.

Babul Akhter, Kalpona Akhter, and Aminul Islam have also been charged with crimes related to protests in Ashulia on July 31, 2010. Yet all of the accused say they have witnesses to attest they were nowhere near the Ashulia area during the incidents and had nothing to do with the violence. For instance, Aminul Islam asserts that he has witnesses who can attest that on July 31 he was more than 90 kilometers away in Tangail district. He says that between mid-June and the end of August 2010 he did not step foot in the Savar-Ashulia area.

Human Rights Watch calls on your government to press prosecutorial authorities to review the evidence against Babul Akhter, Kalpona Akhter, and Aminul Islam. Prosecutorial authorities should either drop the charges or, if they have lawfully obtained evidence justifying a trial, produce that evidence to the defendants, file appropriate charges, and accord each a fair trial.  Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, requires that every person charged with a criminal offense must be "informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him."

Human Rights Watch is also gravely concerned about serious allegations of torture and mistreatment of BCWS leaders and staff. Babul Akhter alleges that he was blindfolded and severely beaten by unknown interrogators while he was in custody at the Ashulia police station on August 30, 2010. He claims that he heard police planning his extrajudicial execution in a faked "crossfire." This took place despite explicit concerns expressed by diplomatic missions in Dhaka and international NGOs about possible mistreatment of BCWS detainees. Aminul Islam alleges that he was repeatedly tortured and threatened with death while in National Security Intelligence (NSI) detention on June 16, 2010. He was also asked to sign blank documents that he was told would be used to incriminate BCWS leaders.  Despite these allegations we are not aware of any official investigation having been carried out to determine if the two men were tortured. 

Sadly, as you know from the experiences of many of your party members while in opposition, allegations of mistreatment are consistent with longstanding patterns of behavior by the police which predate the formation of the current government. Human Rights Watch urges your government to launch an impartial investigation of these allegations. It is disappointing that the authorities are pursuing Aminul Islam on what appear to be flimsy charges instead of investigating and holding accountable any officers responsible for inflicting the severe injuries he suffered during his detention on June 16, 2010. The government should prosecute anyone found to be responsible for custodial torture, issue clear guidelines to prevent torture in custody in all cases, and ensure that no evidence obtained through torture is deemed admissible by a court.

To address the broader issue of preventing torture we urge the government to throw its support behind the draft anti-torture law currently before parliament.

We are also concerned that the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB), which operates under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister's office, revoked BCWS's registration. The NAB's initial decision on June 3, 2010 was carried out in a summary fashion without transparency and based on sweeping allegations of involvement in "inciting to create riotous situation," "creating labor unrest," and "anti-state and social activities," which the NAB proclaimed had been "proved."

BCWS vehemently denied these charges but was given no formal opportunity to challenge the revocation of its registration. BCWS immediately filed an appeal against the NAB's revocation of its registration but it was not provided with any information about when its appeal would be heard. 

The government has changed its explanation about why it cancelled the BCWS' registration in the first place, raising concerns that the government's actions are arbitrary and focused on shuttering this NGO using whatever rationale it can find. When the NAB could not provide evidence to support its contention that the BCWS was involved in instigating riots and the government came under heavy criticism from international organizations and governments, a July 22, 2010 "non-paper" issued by the government added a new claim that the BCWS lost its registration because it had missed an NAB registration renewal deadline. Subsequently, the government issued another undated "non-paper" saying that the BCWS was working on issues and in geographical areas beyond what its registration stipulated. The NAB has failed to operate transparently, failed to give timely responses to inquiries and not revealed reasons for its decisions.

Following instructions from the NAB, BCWS filed a new application for registration on March 21, 2011.  We urge the government to uphold the principle of freedom of association and immediately re-register BCWS.  Previous demands by the government for BCWS to "disassociate" Kalpona Akhter and Babul Akther as a condition to resume operations are arbitrary and should be dropped by the NAB. The government should also renounce the NAB's letter of April 18, 2011 to BCWS, demanding that BCWS withdraw its case at the high court against the NAB's revocation of the BCWS's previous registration before the NAB agrees to proceed with its consideration of the new BCWS registration application. 

We urge the government to cease what appears to be a campaign of harassment against BCWS and its staff, something we hope is not the policy of your government. This is damaging Bangladesh's reputation. There is widespread international concern about the charges against BCWS leaders and their treatment. A significant number of members of the United States Congress have raised concerns about the treatment of BCWS in repeated letters to you and your government, the US Trade Representative, and the major garment brand companies sourcing from Bangladesh. Major international labor union bodies such as the AFL-CIO and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have raised concerns, as have reputable international NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium, International Labor Rights Forum, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Maquila Solidarity Network. 

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to your response. 

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams

Executive Director

Asia Division


Shahara Khatun, Minister of Home Affairs

Dipu Moni, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, Minister of Labor and Employment

Dilip Barua, Minister of Industries

Muhammad Faruk Khan, Minister of Commerce

Nur Mohammad, Inspector General of Police

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