Bangladeshis hold photos of missing relatives during a press meeting in Dhaka on December 4, 2018.  Hundreds joined in the protest demanding justice for the victims. 

© 2018 Munir UZ ZAMAN / AFP/ Getty Images

(New York) – Bangladesh violently cracked down on criticism of the ruling Awami League in advance of national elections in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Instead of responding to calls for accountability, security forces engaged in violence, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. The victims included the political opposition, journalists, members of nongovernmental groups, and students.The 2018 election was marred by serious allegations of electoral fraud, including attacks on opposition members, voter intimidation, and partisan behavior by election officials.

The continued influx of Rohingya refugees since August 2017 from Myanmar created a severe strain on humanitarian and government aid agencies. The government obstructed certain infrastructure improvements in refugee camps, particularly in shelter and education, insisting that the solution to the refugee problem is for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, where their lives and liberty are at serious risk.

“The Awami League may have won the election, but to do so, the government criminalized free expression and lodged blatantly trumped-up cases against thousands of opposition supporters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It appears that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government is willing to abuse the rights of its own citizens to maintain its grip on power.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The security forces killed more than 100 people and arrested thousands in Bangladesh’s “war on drugs.” Student protesters were beaten up by ruling party supporters and were tortured in police custody. The government locked up hundreds of political opposition supporters on flimsy allegations ahead of the elections.

The draconian Information and Communication Technology Act, and the Digital Security Act, which replaced it, were used to arrest social media critics of the government, the prime minister, and her relatives. One of those detained was photographer-activist Shahidul Alam, who was held for 107 days after criticizing human rights violations in an interview in August with Al Jazeera television and on Facebook.

The authorities failed to hold security forces accountable for serious violations including extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.

The government also failed to properly enforce laws to protect women in cases of sexual violence, rape, domestic abuse, and acid attacks. Despite government commitments to end child marriage by 2041, a law remained on the books allowing girls to marry before the age of 18 under “special” circumstances.

Five years after the collapse of Rana Plaza building, which led to the deaths of over 1,100 workers, Bangladesh authorities, instead of ensuring reforms, moved to end external international oversight systems.

“The run-up to the 2018 general elections in Bangladesh laid bare the government’s increasing bent toward ruling with an iron-fist,” Adams said. “The government needs to recognize the democratic value in free expression, rule of law, and a vibrant civil society.”