A Rohingya refugee stands next to a pond in the early morning at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 26, 2017. 

© 2017 Marko Djurica/Reuters

(New York, January 18, 2018) – Bangladesh authorities failed to respond to repeated and serious allegations of secret detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, denying the abuses instead of holding perpetrators accountable, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2018. Although the government did not refoul Rohingya refugees seeking sanctuary from across the Burmese border, Bangladeshi citizens themselves saw no reprieve in their quest for justice.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Starting in late August, Bangladesh saw over 655,000 Rohingya refugees cross the border from Northern Rakhine State in Burma fleeing a campaign of rape, arson, and killings by the Burmese military that amounted to crimes against humanity. Bangladesh is already host to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, including about 80,000 who similarly fled to Bangladesh between late 2016 and early 2017. While Bangladesh does not officially recognize the majority of the Rohingya as refugees, the government has allowed those seeking shelter to enter the country.

“Bangladesh deserves credit for not forcibly returning Rohingya refugees, and for doing what it can with strained resources to provide safety for them for the time being,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “However recurring plans to move the refugees to uninhabitable islands or to return them to Burma without key citizenship rights and protections remained a concern.”

In domestic rights concerns, scores of Bangladeshis remained victims of enforced disappearances, even as law enforcement authorities continued to target both opposition supporters and militant suspects. Security forces, including members of the army, responsible for serious human rights violations continued, in the main, to be free and unaccountable. Despite evidence of flawed trials and coerced confessions, the High Court upheld the death penalty against nearly 140 members of the Bangladesh Rifles, as the border security force was formerly known, who are accused of participating in a deadly mutiny, killing officers and raping their female relatives.

Civil society groups, including the media, continued to face pressure from both state and non-state actors, while dozens of Bangladeshis were arrested for criticizing the government or the political leadership on Facebook.

Although the official government policy is to eliminate child marriage, in February 2017 the government passed a law permitting girls under 18 years of age to marry under special circumstances – effectively eliminating the minimum age for marriage in this exception. The government failed to take steps to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In May, Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) raided a gathering in Dhaka, arrested 28 men, paraded them in front of the media while saying they were gay, and accused them of drug possession.

“It is hard to find a bright spot in Bangladesh’s record on human rights in the past years,” said Adams. “Particularly as the country heads into general elections in 2019, it is vital to restore the rule of law, and end all efforts to silence dissent.”