Ethnic minority students participate in a rally in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to protest violations of human rights. (Photo: UCA News)
A senior Catholic official has called on Bangladesh’s government to take effective steps to improve human rights in the country following a damning report from a global rights watchdog.
In its World Report 2021 published Jan. 13, New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed Bangladeshi authorities for failing to stop crackdowns on dissent, unabated extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances amid increasing authoritarianism under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The report reflects the reality of the rights situation in Bangladesh. Our right to freedom of expression is curtailed and a climate of fear exists. There might be many newspapers and TV stations, but repressive laws are here to censor,” Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have continued to plague the nation, while endemic corruption has been exposed during mishandling of the pandemic, the priest noted.
“The government must take the report seriously and look back to the state of affairs in the past year so that it can make amends in terms of human rights this year,” Father Gomes added.
Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League has arrested journalists, artists, students, doctors and political opposition members and activists for criticizing the government and its poor response to the pandemic, the HRW report said.
“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 HRW.
HRW noted widespread violence against women and girls in Bangladesh including brutal rapes and domestic violence, while impunity for perpetrators sparked nationwide protests. The government responded by swiftly amending the rape law to introduce the death penalty.
Covid-19 also exposed inefficiency and corruption in the health system as health workers grappled with insufficient personal protection equipment. The government responded by silencing health workers, muzzling media, detaining critics and increasing surveillance for a crackdown on “rumors.”
The draconian Digital Security Act was abused and dozens were arrested. Even a teenager was arrested for “defaming” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a Facebook post.
The scourge of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by security forces continued with near-complete impunity. In the most notorious case, police shot dead a retired military officer, Major Sinha Rashed Khan, on July 31 in Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar district. The consequent pressure forced authorities to act over the killing and to intervene to curb extrajudicial killings.
The government is also accused of arbitrarily detaining some 300 Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char island against their will and relocating several thousand refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar to the island allegedly by coercion by defying objections from the UN and international charities.
While the government allocated US$600 million in subsidized loans to the export-oriented garment industry for payment of workers as factories lost work orders worth millions of dollars during the pandemic, authorities didn’t ensure if workers were duly paid and did little to nothing when about one million workers were laid off.
Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said that poor democratic infrastructure and a lack of accountability allow the trampling of human rights in Bangladesh.
“When democracy is fragile, basic human rights like freedom of speech are violated, extrajudicial killings occur and political dissent and criticism are crushed. This is a tragic reality that every government constantly denies, thus making no efforts to improve the situation,” Rahman told UCA News.
However, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan rejected the HRW report as baseless.
“It is a routine practice for international groups like Human Rights Watch to make same allegations of rights violations like curtailing free speech, extrajudicial killings and disappearances each year. These are baseless. If there was no freedom of expression, it would be impossible for more than 50 TV channels and hundreds of newspapers and online portals to operate in the country,” Khan told Benar News Bengali version on Jan. 14.