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Bangladesh: A State-Run Attack on Democracy

By Johana Bhuiyan

Sakib* changed his cell phone number three times in the past few weeks. He works hard to keep a low profile. As a student at Dhaka University, being a member of a government opposition political party is enough to get you beaten up by student members of the pro-government party and then turned over to the police for detainment. He and fellow members of Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the unofficial student wing of Jamaat-E-Islam—the  largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh— never discuss the locations of party meetings on the phone­. They are wary of the government’s tendency to tap phone lines. When traveling long distances to attend party meetings, they avoid public busses – hiring private cars instead­­­ – and don hats to avoid attention. Sakib and his fellow party members are not alone in their struggle to hide from their own government and he says he’s one of the lucky ones.

“To be frank, my experience is far better than an average activist or leader of my party […] But I saw fellow brothers constantly changing homes, night after night. Even some of them could not reside in a single home for two consecutive nights,” says Sakib, who refuses to give his full name, fearing retaliation against himself and his family.

The Awami League (AL) government­­ – led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – came into power in 2009 ending the two-year-regime of a military caretaker government. In a record-high voter turnout (70.3 million out of the 81 million eligible voters), AL secured a landslide victory, mirroring only the country’s desperation to replace the repressive military regime. Four years later, much like their predecessors, the AL regime has waged and continues to wage a war on any and all opposing forces. The West has come to know little about Bangladesh beyond its garment industry and the manufacturing oligarchs who prey on millions of workers. But behind this corrupt system lies a political and security apparatus prepared to do whatever it takes to perpetuate the status quo.

In 2010, blogger, Hossain* was detained during an anti-government rally. “When [my friends and I] were arrested in 2010, we did not know what we were arrested for. It was like protesting against the government was deemed a crime,” Hossain says.

Bangladesh has established a long history of torture, “forced disappearances” by the secretive Rapid Action Battalion (R.A.B.), unreasonable detainment, and extrajudicial killings, among other human and civil rights violations, Sakib says. As a result, Sakib and many like him live in constant fear of the Bangladesh government. Openly admitting to supporting an opposition party is not an option.

Most recently, on May 5 and 6 several branches of government security forces responded to the initially peaceful gathering of apolitical coalition group, Hefazot-E-Islam with lethal arms and force, eyewitnesses say. Though some report the death toll to be easily 200, the government has denied any violence or wrongdoing on their part.

“We did not attack anybody, did not vandalize cars, busses or even a rickshaw,” says Junaid Al Habibi, general secretary of Hefazot-E-Islam. “Nobody can prove that our followers have done any violence. During our long march to Dhaka the government suspended all transportation to prevent our supporters from joining the long march. Our supporters barricaded themselves on the way to Dhaka in many remote places, but nowhere did we do any violence.”

The security forces, on the other hand, used tear gas, rubber bullets, sticks, bricks, and allegedly real bullets to prevent members of the coalition group from entering the premises of the Baitul Mukarram, the National Mosque of Bangladesh. 

Sakib and several of his friends participated in the protest. “As I was approaching the National Masjid, from at least one kilometer away, police barricades were already there and continuous police gunshots were heard. I was struck by tear shells twice [and] I saw at least 10 people being injured by police shot guns,” Sakib says. “Police was just reckless that day, they were not using any civilized riot control tools. From the beginning they were opening fire with live ammo.”

Hossain joined the rally early that morning and says the AL began to assault the protestors at approximately noon: “All hell broke loose, Hefazot retaliated by throwing bricks and stones, the AL retaliated with the same and also used sticks and sharp weapons. [There were] guns in the hands of the police.”

Lethal attacks against the protestors continued throughout the day. The violence subsided as protestors retreated to Dhaka’s Shapla Square to sleep. At 3 a.m. a combination of police, security forces, and R.A.B. attacked sleeping protestors. Sakib, hiding at a friend’s house during the early morning attack, spoke to a fellow member of his organization—a journalist who at 5 a.m. went to the scene. “He saw a part of highway in Motijheel area drenched with blood, he described it as muddy as after rain,” Sakib says.

Odhikar, a Bangladesh Human Rights Group, has since identified 61 dead, with many more injured. Hefazot-E-Islam has reported 200 dead. “They are 300 people recorded to be completely handicapped and about 5000 severely injured,” Al Habibi says.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the current regime have dismissed the allegations of violence and death at the hands of the government. In a statement released five days after the protest, the government spokesperson referred to the claims as “rumors” that were “baseless, fabricated, and ill-motivated.” The government continues to deny these attacks despite mounting evidence. Pictures of bloodied, dead and injured bodies strewn about the streets, videos of government authorities kicking and beating protestors, as well as eyewitness and participant accounts have been widely distributed across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Meanwhile, rather conveniently, in the early morning attack, security forces shut down independent news sources, Diganta and Islamic TV. Since that night, other independent news sources, Channel One and Daily Amar Desh have been closed. Access to sites like YouTube was blocked until early June. It has since become clear to Sakib as well as members of the international community that Sheikh Hasina is actively proliferating a state-run cover up. The Asian Human Rights Committee (AHRC) and Amnesty International have urged an unbiased, uninvolved party to perform an investigation into this state-sponsored violence.

Members of the Bangladeshi community in the United States have taken action.

The Counsel for Human Rights and Development for Bangladesh and Bangladeshi Americans In Greater Washington D.C. have submitted an application to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation. The application cites Sheikh Hasina and her administration’s clear and present inability to perform an unbiased investigation into these deaths and injuries.

Martin F. McMahon, the lawyer representing the two groups in the case, says they pursued an investigation into Sheikh Hasina’s state-sponsored violence rather than immediately seeking an indictment. “[My clients] only asked for an investigation because it will ensure that we see some results from the ICC.” McMahon says. “If the ICC finds that 98 percent of what we said to be true is true, then we can seek an indictment.”

McMahon went on to say he was “glad” that Sheikh Hasina and her administration denied any part in the deaths of these protestors. “Now we could say [to the ICC] the folks at the government won’t investigate themselves, so you have to. They’re saying nothing happened.” The application cites an Odhikar report that states in 2012 alone there have been 70 extra-judicial killings, 24 disappearances, 72 people tortured both dead and alive, 289 attacks on journalists, and 169 killed in political violence.

Now, Hossain says, the government is actively looking for survivors of the protests. “The government has been either intimidating, prosecuting, or threatening them.” Once the police detain those they “deem dangerous,” they build a case without releasing the prisoner, Hossain says. In fact, many people are taken in for “remand,” a word that in Bangladesh incites horror.

“Interrogation known as remand is a horrible experience. It can be compared with World War II torture cells, literally. I heard from first hand sources that they used hot water, electric shocks, blades, pins,” Sakib says.

Because of his position as general secretary of Hefazot-E-Islam, Al Habibi was forced to flee the country to the United Kingdom to avoid being detained for “inciting violence,” among other charges.

It is for this reason fear of the government is at an all time high. Torture of government opposition forces and violation of human rights is not new to Bangladesh and will not stop, McMahon says. He hopes that opening this investigation will at the very least scare the AL government into halting these activities.

“We believe that the Bangladesh leaders were active in participating in these activities,” McMahon says. “None of this could have occurred without police and judicial involvement. It wasn’t an isolated murder or torture, this is ongoing and the police can’t torture people without the judiciaries detaining them and putting them in jail.”

The West has paid little attention to these unjust killings and the continued inhumanity Bangladesh citizens are facing. This could perhaps be linked to the uncertainty of the exact death and injury toll from these two days.  But, as McMahon says, even one extrajudiciary killing should spark some attention.

In the meantime, with the election around the corner and more Jamaat-E-Islam protests planned for the near future, people like Sakib, Hossain, and other civilians who have done nothing but simply attempt to practice their democratic rights must live in the shadows, hiding from the very authority that should be defending these rights. Though the West has directed its attention solely to its interests in the garment industry of Bangladesh it has become increasingly important to call to the stand the one body that all of this corruption – garment industry included ­– stems from: The Awami League government. Those that have been hurt and the families of those who were killed, in either case, will not see justice unless the ICC or another unbiased party answers the call of groups like Amnesty International and AHRC and opens an investigation into the actions of the current administration. This is and always has been a matter of civil and human rights: it is, to borrow a phrase, a matter of life and death. 

[*Names were changed for the protection of the individual]



Johana Bhuiyan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Martin McMahon]

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