WORLD REPORT 1997 - Bangladesh

Human Rights Developments

Political violence among Bangladesh=s major political parties dominated events in 1996 and led to widespread human rights abuses. A mid-year election ended the immediate crisis, but because authorities failed to disarm party cadres and prosecute leaders responsible for inciting the violence, it erupted again within a few weeks, although on a smaller scale. The conflict over land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts continued to take a toll on civilians as both the Bangladesh government forces and the guerrilla army, Shanti Bahini, carried out indiscriminate attacks. Army troops were also believed responsible for the Adisappearance@ of human rights activist Kalpana Chakma in June.

The political crisis stemmed from a longstanding dispute between the governing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the opposition, led by the Awami (People=s) League, over charges of government corruption and vote-rigging. On November 25, 1995, after a yearlong boycott of parliament by the opposition, President Abdur Rahman Biswas dissolved parliament. Fresh legislative polls were announced for February 15, 1996, but all of the opposition parties pledged to boycott the polls unless Prime Minister Zia resigned beforehand; in the weeks leading up to the elections, they stepped up their campaign of strikes and street protests to force the government to accede to their demands. As the February vote approached, the political deadlock erupted in violence as supporters, youth wings and student fronts of all political parties battled with each other, and opposition groups fought with police, paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) C both under the control of the Home Affairs Ministry C and the army, which had been called in by the election commission to retrieve illegal arms ahead of the election.

On February 4, still before the vote, at least 200 uniformed soldiers armed with guns and batons conducted indiscriminate raids in Charsayedpur village, taking three villagers into custody, rounding up and interrogating scores of others, and beating at least 200 residents, including women and children. The detainees were beaten and tortured with electric shocks. To Human Rights Watch=s knowledge, the soldiers responsible were never prosecuted. In another incident, on January 31, 1996, some 150 students were injured and about ninety-five arrested as police, backed by BDR troops, raided Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University=s dormitory for religious minority students and a stronghold of the Awami League student wing. Approximately thirty students were hospitalized as a result of the police attack. The police raid followed an exchange of fire between pro-government and anti-government factions on the university campus.

The polls themselves were marred by violence among rival political factions, intimidation of voters, and attacks on polling centers by opposition activists and credible allegations against the ruling party of vote-rigging in the uncontested election. At a protest rally in front of the national Press Club in Dhaka prior to the election, a speaker from the Awami League warned, "Anyone who goes to vote will come back dead." On and immediately before election day, several hundred polling stations across the country were gutted by opposition militants. Nationwide, an estimated sixteen people were killed and 500 injured in violent incidents over the two weeks leading up to the polls, forcing authorities to postpone voting in some areas.

In several incidents during the weeks before and after the February 15 election, journalists were assaulted, harassed or arrested either because of their suspected ties to the opposition, or because they were reporting on or photographing police shootings and other abuses. On February 10, a photojournalist for the Dhaka-based daily newspaper, Janakantha, was severely beaten by BDR troops when he attempted to take a picture of the family of a ten-year-old boy who had been detained. A reporter for the daily Banglarbani was also badly beaten, and both men had their cameras confiscated. Another photojournalist with the Dhaka-based daily Ajker Kagoj (Daily News), was beaten by police after taking photographs of a clash between violent Awami League supporters and the police. He sustained a deep wound to his head. On February 29, 1996, Ajker Kagoj=s chief reporter was arrested under the Special Powers ActCa law which provides for detention without charge. The arrest was apparently meant to put pressure the newspaper=s editor, Kazi Shahid Ahmed, an outspoken critic of the government, who was in hiding. The reporter was released on bail on March 31.

Gross mistreatment of criminal suspects by both police and judiciary were a problem outside the political sphere as well. In one case, Vladimir Lankin, a Russian citizen, remained on trial for the third straight year in 1996 on criminal charges. Neither the fact that he had been tortured into confessing by use of electric shock nor the illegal length of his trial moved the judge to speed sentencing; on the contrary, in mid-year, the judge himself caused an additional delay by taking a four-month Aretraining@ course. During the hiatus, Lankin=s health deteriorated to the point that he had to be hospitalized.

The BNP won all but two of the 207 seats for which results were declared; new voting was ordered in the remaining ninety-three constituencies because of various irregularities and charges of vote-tampering. The opposition, led by Sheikh Hasina, declared the election "illegal" and organized strikes throughout the country to force a new election on its terms. On March 9 the opposition declared an indefinite non-cooperation movement that brought the economy to the brink of collapse. The country's emerging export-oriented garment-manufacturing industry suffered a heavy toll from lost production and from the closure of Chittagong port. In the first three months of 1996 alone, the fighting among supporters of rival parties, encounters between protestors and the police, BDR and army, and bomb and arson attacks by various political groups led to an estimated 120 deaths, thousands of casualties and widespread property damage.

Zia was sworn in as prime minister for a second term on March 19 while the opposition's non-cooperation movement gathered momentum. On March 28 thousands of civil servants staged a sit-in at the main government secretariat building in Dhaka, demanding the installation of a caretaker authority. On March 30, as the opposition prepared to orchestrate a siege of the presidential palace by thousands of supporters, President Biswas dissolved the newly-elected legislature and, as Zia stepped down, appointed ex-Chief Justice Habibur Rahman as chief adviser to head an interim government that presided over fresh national elections on June 12, 1996.

The polls were considered generally fair, although there were consistent reports of intimidation of the Hindu minority and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a largely tribal area. The vote brought the Awami League to power under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Tensions between the new government and the army surfaced on August 13 when the government used the Special Powers Act to arrest three former army officers in connection with the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Hasina Wajed=s father, former Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of the members of his family.

Violence between rival student factions erupted again in August. On August 22 in Bogra, a clash left one student and one policeman dead. Police called in paramilitary units after students attacked a police station in Bogra on August 24. They opened fire on the students, some of whom were also allegedly firing guns; two students were killed. Prime Minister Hasina Wajed promised a judicial probe into the incidents. On August 25, after several days of student violence, hundreds of police raided residence halls at Dhaka University, arresting alleged outsiders and seizing numerous weapons. Opposition legislators staged a walkout of parliament denouncing Aunprecedented police barbarity@ against opposition students and supporters. September by-elections in several constituencies were also marked by violence, as the BNP raised uncorroborated allegations of vote-rigging.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a low-intensity conflict continued between Bangladesh government forces and the Shanti Bahini, a guerrilla force that took up arms in 1973 after Bangladesh rejected their demand for autonomy and began settling Bengalis in the area. Officials say up to 8,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed in the protracted insurgency. Human rights groups have documented torture and extrajudicial executions of suspected Shanti Bahini supporters. These abuses and attacks by settlers drove thousands of tribal families to flee to northeast India. On August 14 the Tripura state government in India resumed the repatriation of 50,000 refugees. On September 11, Shanti Bahini militants killed thirty Bengali settlers, beheading most of them, in the Rangamati district of the Hill Tracts. Settlers= organizations vowed revenge.

In June, outspoken tribal rights activist Kalpana Chakma was abducted by unidentified gunmen and has not been heard from since. (See below.)

In August, protests broke out over a longstanding dispute between Bangladesh and Pakistan over the citizenship of Bengali-speaking residents of Pakistan who claim to be Bangladeshi, and Urdu-speaking ABiharis@ in Bangladesh who claim to be Pakistani. Both countries deported Aillegal@ immigrants while failing to resolve the issue. On August 14, Pakistan=s independence day, hundreds of ABiharis@ scuffled with police in Dhaka, and a few tried to burn themselves alive to protest a delay in their repatriation to Pakistan.

The treatment of refugees from Burma remained a concern during the year. Bangladesh, though not a signatory to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, became a member of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Committee in 1995. This did not stop the government denying new arrivals the right to seek asylum. The strikes during February and March virtually halted all repatriations of the remaining 50,000 Rohingya Muslims who had fled to Bangladesh in 1992. During this period, when international aid agencies and staff of the UNHCR were unable to travel to the refugee camps, there were reports of beatings and food deprivation in the two southernmost camps. By April several thousand new arrivals began entering Bangladesh, reporting an increase in forced labor and other abuses in Burma. (See section on Burma.) In an attempt to stem the flood, Bangladesh authorities jailed new arrivals or prevented them from reaching Bangladesh. In one incident in April, twenty-five asylum-seekers, most of them women and children, drowned as their boat was being towed back to Burma by the Bangladesh Border Rifles. By the time the rains began in June, some 10,000 new arrivals had entered Bangladesh. By the end of the year some 250 Rohingyas remained in appalling conditions in Cox's Bazaar jail (which had a capacity of one hundred) and the Bangladesh government continued to deny the UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations access to all new arrivals, most of whom had taken shelter in the jungle.

The Right to Monitor

NGOs for the most part operated freely in Bangladesh. On the eve of the June 12 general elections, however, armed gunmen abducted Kalpana Chakma, organizing secretary of the Hill Women=s Federation, along with her two brothers, from their family home in New Lallyaghona village in Rangamati district. The gunmen attempted to shoot the two brothers, who managed to escape unhurt. One of Chakma=s brothers identified Lieutenant Ferdous, an officer from the Ugalchhari army camp, as one of the abductors. The army denied involvement in the kidnapping. As of November, there was no word on Chakma=s whereabouts. In late August the government constituted a three-member committee to investigate the Adisappearance@ of Kalpana Chakma and identify the those responsible. The committee was also asked to propose suitable legal action and steps to prevent future incidents.

The Role of the International Community

Bangladesh=s donors expressed alarm at the country=s slide into chaos in the early part of the year. The U.S. attempted without success to bring together the leaders of the BNP and Awami League to negotiate an end to the stalemate. Embassy personnel also privately expressed concern about the rising violence and electoral abuses during the February general elections. During the riots in Chittagong, the British ambassador visited several of the businesses destroyed or damaged by the mobs, and raised concerns with local authorities about the failure of the police to act promptly to protect citizens and property. A number of countries sent delegations to observe the June elections, including Japan, the European Union and the U.S.

Despite the violence committed by security forces, arms transfers to Bangladesh from the U.S. and other governments continued. In Fiscal Year 1996, the U.S. was estimated to provide US$4 million in foreign military sales, plus another $2.4 million in commercial sales, in addition to International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance budgeted at $250,000.

In July the Council of Europe approved a negotiating brief presented by the European Commission to begin negotiations for trade and cooperation agreements with four Asian countries: Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All agreements were to comprise a Ahuman rights clause@ whereby cooperation may be suspended in case of violations of human rights. On October 11, the European Commission announced that it was likely to start negotiations with Bangladesh in early November. The agreement would seek to create a climate favorable to investment and exchanges between private sectors while strengthening the base for human rights. European negotiators announced that they expected some difficulties with the human rights clause.