V. Tasneem’s Experience in the Context of the State of Emergency

In a sense, Tasneem was fortunate. He had the advantage of foreign friends, colleagues, and diplomats who were in a position to appeal to the government for help. However, there are thousands now in custody, unable to secure bail and often subjected to torture, who are not so well connected.

The consequences of the emergency for many Bangladeshis have been severe. The interim government had initially been welcomed by many Bangladeshis because it was installed by the army on the promise to end corruption, abuse of power, and political violence. But after one year, the state of emergency remains in place, seemingly as much to limit party political activity, restrict freedom of expression and assembly, and provide political protection to the government as to address corruption or real internal security problems.

Many Bangladeshis are worried about the indefinite suspension of rights and have begun to question whether the military will be willing to give up power to one of the main parties following the 2008 elections. As The Daily Star, a newspaper that has often supported the interim government, lamented in a July editorial:

The only reason that the caretaker government has survived six months in power, and the chief advisor acknowledges it every time an occasion arises, is because the general public think of it to be an instrument to strengthen democracy. But now if this very instrument of “strengthening democracy” becomes a symbol of mindless and arbitrary use of power, then how will the public distinguish it from such previous abusers of power and continue to lend it support?30

When challenged on the rights situation, government officials often claim that the human rights situation is no worse than under the previous democratically elected government. This is a highly contested assertion. However, even if true, this is not the appropriate standard. Torture is never acceptable. The government’s failure to address it seriously is a black mark on its record.31

The government as well as donor countries point to the scheduled 2008 elections as a panacea, suggesting that the government needs to focus on elections and that other problems either will be resolved by, or can wait for, elections. This is a false assumption. Ongoing and future victims of abuses cannot wait for a future government to end their suffering, provide redress, and prosecute those responsible.

The interim government may claim that it does not have the power to move against the DGFI and other human rights abusers in the security services. It is unclear how much control the army, under the interim government, has over the DGFI. Many senior Bangladeshi officials and some diplomats have told Human Rights Watch that they believe that the DGFI operates as a de facto independent entity beyond army control. Others argue that it is under the control of the army. Under elected governments, the DGFI reported directly to the minister of defense. Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina simultaneously held the defense portfolio while prime minister, ensuring the DGFI was under their direct control.

However, referring to article 61 of the constitution, the current interim government does not have responsibility for defense. Instead, this rests with the president. But President Iajuddin Ahmed was removed as chief advisor by the army in January 2007 and is in no position to supervise or give orders to the military. Thus, at present, the army and DGFI appear to be powers unto themselves. For this reason, many argue that DGFI now has the ability to run a de facto parallel government in Bangladesh with no institutional or legal oversight. The result is rampant impunity for DGFI officials, who continue arbitrarily to arrest and detain suspects without charge and to torture detainees, such as Tasneem Khalil.

But, whatever the extent of its power, there are no signs that the interim government has made any attempt to rein in the DGFI or that it even disapproves of its actions when taken against government critics and opponents. Politically, however, the interim government is in a strong position to take on issues like torture. It has claimed to be reformist, it has considerable international backing, and the army needs the interim government as much as the government needs the army, since if it resigned it would expose the reality of military rule.

The government knows who was responsible for Tasneem Khalil’s torture—Human Rights Watch informed government officials soon after he was released—and that of the many other DGFI victims. The government knows where they work and where the torture centers are located. To date we are unaware of any disciplinary or legal action taken against any of those responsible for Khalil’s arrest and torture. The government is aware that his case was not an isolated one—credible reports of torture continue to be legion, suggesting that torture continues to be frequently used by both law enforcement officials and members of the armed forces. The chief advisor and other members of the government chose to enter government. We do not believe they did so in order to preside over a government and security forces that routinely abuse human rights. But that is the reality in Bangladesh today.

30 Mahfuz Anam, “This Is No Way to Strengthen Democracy,” The Daily Star, July 17, 2007, (accessed August 11, 2007).

31 As pointed out in a recent editorial in the English language newspaper The Bangladesh Today: “Each government's failure to address the issue of torture has constituted a dereliction to fulfill obligations of the Constitution, of Justice, of rule of law and of human rights; inaction on the issue of torture has effectively contributed to the continuation of this endemic violation of the rights of citizens and of human beings.“ “Tortures in Custody” The Bangladesh Today, January 20, 1998, (accessed January 23, 2008).