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HRW says govt stifling dissent, state minister rejects report

  • Published at 11:13 pm January 15th, 2020
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Regarding the findings, State Minister for Information Murad Hasan told reporters that the government rejects the report

Winning the third straight elections marred by allegations of fraud and a crackdown on the opposition, the Awami League-led government stifled dissent and failed to hold law enforcement accountable for abuses, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday in its World Report 2020.

However, the government rejected the claims, saying the rights group is spreading falsehood and its role is questionable. 

The report published on Wednesday, said: “In 2019, Bangladesh participated in a review of its practices by the UN Committee against torture for the first time in 20 years. But when the committee pressed it on enforced disappearances and torture – consistently documented by human rights groups – the government denied the allegations.” 

Security forces engaged in these grave abuses with impunity and covered up hundreds of unlawful killings, claiming that the deaths occurred in “crossfires.” At least 24 people were forcibly disappeared in 2019, including Michael Chakma, an indigenous rights activist, it added.

“Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League took office after securing 96 percent of seats in the parliament, with international concern about an increasing bent towards authoritarianism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. 

“Instead of restoring international and public faith in the government’s respect for rights, the ruling party has only tightened their grip on civil society,” he added.

Regarding the findings, State Minister for Information Murad Hasan told reporters that the government rejects the report.

“We don’t have any need or intention to stifle dissenting voices. A number of major opposition leaders appear on the media regularly and criticize the government,” he said.

“The leaders even spread anti-government propaganda on social media,” the junior minister said, questioning whether the HRW monitors these things. 

Talking about HRW’s findings on law enforcement agencies, he said: “They are playing a great role. They are neutral to all.”

“When BNP leaders and activists carried out vandalism near the High Court recently,  law enforcement caught very few of them even when the agitators set fire to their vehicles,” he said.

“Does the HRW not see these? Where did law enforcement torture the opposition leaders and activists? What did the rights body do when BNP-Jamaat men created a reign of terror following BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s orders from her Gulshan office,” he questioned.  

Journalists, activists, students, and other critics self-censor for fear of arrest, violent attacks by ruling party supporters, or threats from authorities, while the government censors expression online.

Arrests of journalists, especially under the Digital Security Act, is common in Bangladesh, which ranked 150th among 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Recently, In March, at least 7,500 garment workers were dismissed from their jobs following strikes in which they demanded wage increases, in what was the largest crackdown on workers in Bangladesh in recent years. 

Protests broke out nationwide in April, calling on the government to reform and enforce Bangladeshi laws and practices concerning sexual assault. The move was followed by the death of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 19, who was set on fire after she filed a complaint of attempted rape against her madrassa teacher.

Bangladesh is host to nearly one million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar. Bangladesh has kept its commitment under international law not to force returns, despite serious economic, political, and environmental strains. But conditions in the camps worsened as a result of Bangladesh’s government policies and violence by security forces.

In September, the government restricted refugees’ access to the internet and online communications, and in November, began building fences around the camps. Bangladesh made repeated threats to relocate refugees to the silt island of Bhasan Char, despite serious concerns over the island’s habitability.

In March, Bangladesh welcomed the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on its first mission to Bangladesh as part of a preliminary examination into alleged crimes against humanity against ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, and in November, the Court authorized opening an investigation.