(New York) – The Bangladesh government clamped down on media and civil society and state authorities detained, maimed, killed, and disappeared members of the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Bangladesh authorities have failed to protect bloggers, secularists, academics, gay rights activists, and religious minorities from violent – often fatal – attacks by militant groups.
In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.
Initially telling bloggers and others to refrain from “hurting religious sentiments,” the government finally launched a drive in May to find the perpetrators of the killings of bloggers, secularists, academics, and LGBT activists. However, instead of identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators of the killings, the authorities rounded up nearly 15,000 people over eight days in June. Shortly after, following the attack on the Holey Café in Dhaka on July 1, in which 29 people died (including the five perpetrators), dozens of members or supporters of alleged extremist groups were killed by state forces in so-called armed encounters. Several persons, including two who had been held hostage by militants during the attack and a Holey Café staff member, were secretly detained by state forces, with no access to lawyers or families. One of the hostages was eventually released, the other remains imprisoned.
“Bangladeshi security forces have a long history of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Justice for these abusive practices is non-existent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It is important that the Bangladeshi government act to protect its citizens from what has obviously been a growing security problem in the country, but it needs to do so in a rights-respecting manner.”
The government’s crackdown on civil society, the media, and political opposition intensified in 2016. The editors of two leading newspapers were charged with multiple crimes, including sedition and criminal defamation. Civil society groups, primarily those working on civil and political rights, continued to face ongoing hurdles in their work, including being barred from accessing funds. In October, the government passed the draconian Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Act, gaining comprehensive and arbitrary control over all activities of nongovernmental organizations.
Many members of opposition political parties have gone into hiding. Many others face criminal charges, while others are in prison or are disappeared.
“The government’s campaign to shut down dissent, whether through protests, the media or nongovernmental organizations, has had a devastating impact across civil society and the political opposition,” said Adams. “Human rights organizations, lawyers, and the political opposition are targeted and afraid to speak out. Only the ruling Awami League can now operate freely in Bangladesh, and the government it runs is increasingly authoritarian and abusive.”