Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bangladesh: Partial Lifting of Ban on Politics Falls Far Short

Photo: Police assault press photographer at cricket game in Chittagong. Security agency often intimidate, harass, detain and torture journalists with impunity, despite continuous international protests

Authorities Should Lift Emergency Rules Undermining Basic Rights

THE Bangladeshi caretaker government’s decision to partially lift the ban on political activities is not nearly enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The government imposed a total ban on politics on March 8, two months after it imposed a state of emergency. On September 10, the head of the government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said that the authorities were lifting restrictions on “indoor” politics in the capital Dhaka “to create an environment conducive to talks with political parties.”

“The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Politics is not a sport that can be played only in an indoor arena.”

The move was aimed at facilitating discussions between political parties and the Election Commission, which is revising the country’s election rules. The Election Commission, led by ATM Shamsul Huda, has been assigned the responsibility to institute electoral reforms. However, the commission said that these reforms would not be possible without consultations with the political parties. The government announced the partial lifting of the ban before the commission begins discussions with political parties, scheduled for September 12.

However, the partial lifting of the ban will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about emergency rules that undermine basic due process rights. While certain restrictions on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency are permitted under international law, the measures under the government’s emergency law have not been limited to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

Under Bangladesh’s current state of emergency, the government has restricted political and trade union activities and prohibited the media from publishing anything that can be considered “provocative.” Tens of thousands of people – and perhaps as many as 200,000, according to some reports – have been arrested under the state of emergency without proper judicial oversight. A large number of offenses have been made “non-bailable,” meaning that many detainees face indefinite detention without trial. The courts have frequently been sidelined from ensuring due process of law. Many detainees are being held in unofficial places of detention.
Bangladesh’s emergency laws have created an atmosphere ripe for torture and mistreatment, which has been widely alleged by victims and family members. Human Rights Watch has confirmed these allegations in cases that it has investigated.

Freedom of the press has also come under assault by the government. In some districts, the army has summoned journalists and photographed them in blatant efforts at intimidation, warning them not to publish anything critical of the security forces. Even as the caretaker government announced that it would make the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) an effective, autonomous body, it pulled the country’s only privately owned 24-hour news channel off the air, days after it warned the channel not to broadcast footage of recent anti-government riots.

Moreover, government censors ripped out two recent articles in the The Economist on protests and Bangladeshi politics before the magazine could be distributed. Bangladeshi editors and journalists have told Human Rights Watch that self-censorship has become common.

“The government should make the same commitment to ending human rights abuses that it it has made to fighting corruption,” said Richardson. “The army and other security forces need to be reined in, and censorship has to end.

“Ripping out pages from an international magazine is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a caretaker government committed to reform and the rule of law,” Richardson added. #

Human Rights Watch, New York, September 12, 2007

For more on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, please see the August 1 letter from Human Rights Watch to the Caretaker Government, at: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/08/01/bangla16556.htm