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Bangladesh: Pandemic as Pretext for Authoritarian Crackdown

Return Refugees to Cox’s Bazar; End Enforced Disappearances, Extrajudicial Killings

Women’s rights activists and others protesting against gender based violence hold placards outside the Parliament in Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 9, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/ Mahmud Hossain Opu

(New York) – Bangladesh’s Awami League-led government used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to censor free speech and crack down on critics, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The authorities arrested journalists, artistsstudentsdoctorspolitical opposition members, and activists who spoke out against the government’s response to the pandemic, or otherwise criticized the ruling party. 
“The ruling Awami League showed in 2020 that it will stop at almost nothing to maintain its grip on authoritarian control, even in the face of a global pandemic,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The ruling Awami League needs to stop worrying about cartoonists and kids criticizing the Prime Minister on Facebook, and start worrying about abuses by its own authorities amid the pandemic.”  
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 
Protests broke out after several gang-rape cases came to light, drawing attention to widespread violence against women and girls, and the impunity perpetrators often enjoy. Nongovernmental groups reported a marked increase in reports of domestic violence during the Covid-19 lockdown. Instead of heeding activists’ calls for real reform, the government hurriedly approved an amendment to allow for the death penalty for rape.  
Health workers reported insufficient personal protective equipment and alleged corruption in access to critical services. The government responded by silencing healthcare workers, censoring media, arresting those who spoke out, and increasing surveillance to crack down on Covid-19 “rumors.” 
Arrests under the abusive Digital Security Act increased dramatically. Police even arrested a child for “defaming” the prime minister in a Facebook post. 
The authorities released over 23,000 detained people to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, but did not include those held for criticizing the ruling party.  
The government continued to deny its unlawful practice of enforced disappearances, and ignored concerns raised by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Committee against Torture, and the UN Human Rights Committee.  
Security forces were accused of committing extrajudicial killings with near-complete impunity. However, when police killed a retired military officer, Maj. Sinha Rashed Khan, the authorities were forced to take action. “Crossfires” – a euphemism for extrajudicial killings – dropped precipitously, indicating that the authorities are able to end them whenever they choose. 
With Myanmar failing to create conditions for their safe and voluntary return, Bangladesh hosts nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. However, the government took an abusive turn in its approach to the crisis, deploying restrictive policies in the refugee camps in violation of basic rights.  
The authorities arbitrarily detained over 300 refugees on Bhasan Char island, and refused to allow safety assessment or protection visits by United Nations experts. Refugees on the island described being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care; some alleged beatings by Bangladesh authorities on the island. The government ignored calls from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts, to safely return them to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.  
Following massive order cancellations during the pandemic, more than 1 million garment workers – mostly women – were laid off, and many did not receive payment of owed wages. The government provided US$600 million in subsidized loans to companies to support payment of these wages, but it is unclear how the wages were paid, particularly to women who may not have financial control or access in their households. 

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