THE ARBITRARY arrest and torture of journalist Tasneem Khalil by Bangladesh’s notorious military intelligence agency highlights abuses under the country’s state of emergency and the interim government’s failure to restrain the security forces, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. Human Rights Watch called upon the Bangladeshi government, as well as the country’s donors, to urgently tackle the endemic problem of torture.
The 39-page report, “The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power Under the State of Emergency,” graphically details Khalil’s 22-hour ordeal in May 2007 in Bangladesh’s clandestine detention and torture system – a setup well known to the government, ordinary Bangladeshis, Dhaka’s donors, and diplomatic community.
“Rampant illegal detention and torture are clear evidence of Bangladesh’s security forces running amok,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Tasneem Khalil’s prominence as a critical journalist may have prompted his arrest, but it also may have saved his life. Ordinary Bangladeshis held by the security forces under the emergency rules have no such protections.”
At a detention center operated by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the military intelligence agency, officers brutally beat and threatened Khalil, a journalist for the English-language Daily Star, part-time consultant for Human Rights Watch, and a news representative for CNN. Demonstrating just how confident they are that they will not be held accountable, DGFI officials even brought Khalil to meet the editor of his paper before returning him to the detention center for further beatings.
After his release and a month in hiding, Khalil fled Bangladesh for safety in Sweden, which granted asylum to him and his family. This report represents the first time that Khalil has spoken publicly of his experiences.
Late one night in May 2007, armed men presenting themselves as belonging to the “joint forces” came to Khalil’s apartment in central Dhaka. In front of his wife and infant, they pressed a gun against his lips, blindfolded him and brought him to a waiting car. He was taken to an interrogation center run by the DGFI, where he was held in a cell specially designed for torture. Khalil was threatened with execution and repeatedly kicked and beaten with batons on the head, arms, abdomen and other parts of the body. He was forced to confess to – and implicate friends and colleagues in – anti-state and anti-military activity, and to smuggling of sensitive national security information to foreign organizations.
Khalil was punished for his criticism of the security forces’ role in extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses.
After tremendous international and national pressure, Khalil was released after 22 hours in custody. He then had to go into hiding for a month, before international pressure compelled the authorities to allow him to leave Bangladesh safely for asylum in Sweden.
Human Rights Watch said that tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained by security forces since January 2007, when the current government came to power on a reform agenda. Many of these individuals were tortured in custody. In its popular public campaign against corruption and abuse of political power, the government has routinely used torture to extract confessions or to gain information. Torture has also been used to punish and intimidate peaceful critics of the government and army’s role as the de facto rulers of the country.
Human Rights Watch urged the interim government in Bangladesh to make the protection of human rights as much of a priority as its fight against corruption. It should discipline or prosecute, as appropriate, members of the security forces, including the DGFI, the army and paramilitary forces such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), police and other government officials, regardless of rank, who have been responsible for arbitrary arrests and torture or other mistreatment of persons in detention.
“While few would dispute that corruption, organized crime, politicization of the bureaucracy and political violence had to be addressed in Bangladesh, the interim government must realize that reform cannot be built on midnight knocks on the door and torture,” said Adams. “A peaceful democratic society requires respect for basic rights.”
International human rights law permits limitations on some rights during an officially proclaimed state of emergency to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” However, certain basic rights, such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, may never be restricted. Bangladesh is not only obligated to prohibit torture, but to actively adopt measures to end the practice, bring those responsible to justice, and provide redress for the victims.
“The security forces have been arbitrarily detaining and torturing people, but there have been no serious attempts at holding those responsible for these criminal acts to account,” said Adams. “Why hasn’t the government made the protection of Bangladeshis from this scourge a priority? Are they reformers, or do they just say they are reformers?”
Human Rights Watch expressed its appreciation for the efforts by members of the international community to gain the release of Khalil from custody and secure his ability to leave the country afterward. But it called on donors, who have significant influence, to place a higher priority and to act with greater urgency to press the government to address torture and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch noted that the government and donors know who was responsible for Khalil’s illegal detention and torture and where the facility is located, but no action has been taken.
“Bangladesh’s international friends need to make the eradication of torture a top priority in their relations with Bangladesh,” said Adams. “And they should press for the prosecution of the senior military and law enforcement officials responsible for running Bangladesh’s torture industry.”
Excerpts from Tasneem Khalil’s statement:
“[A member of the arresting party] jumped up from the chair, pulled out a revolver from his holster, pushed it against my lips, and started shouting, ‘You are under arrest.’ I started shouting back, telling them that what they were doing was illegal. Then all of them started shouting abusive words at me, telling me to shut up, otherwise there would be problems for my wife and child. Throughout, my wife Shuchi and son Tiyash were watching the whole thing.
“Then they asked me about my connections with Human Rights Watch. I told them I work as their consultant. When they inquired further, I told them I had worked with Human Rights Watch since 2006. I worked with Human Rights Watch on a report about extrajudicial killings by RAB. That suddenly infuriated them so much that all of them started hitting the table with hands and sticks and started shouting at me. ‘How dare you write against our brothers in RAB? You are a burden on society. You are an immoral, unethical insect, an anti-state criminal.’ Someone came around the table and started punching me on my head again.
“The Forum article made my interrogators furious. They started beating me again mercilessly, from all possible directions with hands and batons and kicks. I pleaded with them to give me one last chance. I said I would not do those things again. But one person said I had already ‘made the blunder.’ I think this was a reference to my lunch with the diplomats.
“The beating continued for some time. Then another person said, ‘We will think about giving you a chance, but you have to do as we say.’ He said I had to write a confession to the AIG [Additional Inspector General] of police, saying what they wanted me to say. Then I had to beg for his mercy.
“They dictated some points I should include, such as admitting that I was engaged in anti-state, anti-military, anti-RAB activity, and that I smuggled out sensitive national security information to foreign organizations. That I keep close ties with the opposition Awami League party [I am friends with many in the Awami League, but I was not a member and was not involved in party politics]. That I am engaged in propaganda against the current caretaker government. That I want to destabilize Bangladesh, that I am immoral and unethical, a yellow journalist. That whatever I write, I write for name and fame and money.
“With my blindfold off, I could finally see where I was. The room I was in was a torture cell. It was a small room with no windows, one doorway with a wooden door, and a second grill, like in a prison. The room was soundproofed with a wooden wall covered with small holes, like in an old recording studio. There were two CCTV cameras in the corners attached to the ceiling. There was a fan. I was sitting in front of a table and three batons were on the table, along with some stationery. One was a wooden baton, about a meter long. The other two were covered with black plastic. Poking out of the end of these two were metal wires which appeared to fill the plastic covers. The plastic and wire batons were a little shorter than the wooden one. I assume these were the batons they tortured me with. When one guy saw that I was looking at them, he put them aside. I’m not sure if they used electricity on me. The pain often came like shocks, but they were hitting me so hard that I’m not sure whether it was just the force that hurt like this or if it was electricity.
“Then I glanced behind me and I saw what looked like a metal bed frame. It was the same size as a normal single bed, but it was placed on a platform with steps up to it. The bed had straps fitted at the top and bottom, presumably for tying people on to it. There was a wheel to change the angle of the bed to lift it up or down. There were spikes at the top of the bed. Right beside that there were ropes fitted to the ceilings with rubber loops for wrists to go through.”
In a sense, Tasneem was fortunate. He had the advantage of foreign friends, colleagues, and diplomats who were in a position to appeal to the government for help. However, there are thousands now in custody, unable to secure bail and often subjected to torture, who are not so well connected.
The consequences of the emergency for many Bangladeshis have been severe. The interim government had initially been welcomed by many Bangladeshis because it was installed by the army on the promise to end corruption, abuse of power, and political violence. But after one year, the state of emergency remains in place, seemingly as much to limit party political activity, restrict freedom of expression and assembly, and provide political protection to the government as to address corruption or real internal security problems.
Many Bangladeshis are worried about the indefinite suspension of rights and have begun to question whether the military will be willing to give up power to one of the main parties following the 2008 elections. As The Daily Star, a newspaper that has often supported the interim government, lamented in a July editorial:
The only reason that the caretaker government has survived six months in power, and the chief advisor acknowledges it every time an occasion arises, is because the general public think of it to be an instrument to strengthen democracy. But now if this very instrument of “strengthening democracy” becomes a symbol of mindless and arbitrary use of power, then how will the public distinguish it from such previous abusers of power and continue to lend it support?30
When challenged on the rights situation, government officials often claim that the human rights situation is no worse than under the previous democratically elected government. This is a highly contested assertion. However, even if true, this is not the appropriate standard. Torture is never acceptable. The government’s failure to address it seriously is a black mark on its record.31
The government as well as donor countries point to the scheduled 2008 elections as a panacea, suggesting that the government needs to focus on elections and that other problems either will be resolved by, or can wait for, elections. This is a false assumption. Ongoing and future victims of abuses cannot wait for a future government to end their suffering, provide redress, and prosecute those responsible.
The interim government may claim that it does not have the power to move against the DGFI and other human rights abusers in the security services. It is unclear how much control the army, under the interim government, has over the DGFI. Many senior Bangladeshi officials and some diplomats have told Human Rights Watch that they believe that the DGFI operates as a de facto independent entity beyond army control. Others argue that it is under the control of the army. Under elected governments, the DGFI reported directly to the minister of defense. Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina simultaneously held the defense portfolio while prime minister, ensuring the DGFI was under their direct control.
However, referring to article 61 of the constitution, the current interim government does not have responsibility for defense. Instead, this rests with the president. But President Iajuddin Ahmed was removed as chief advisor by the army in January 2007 and is in no position to supervise or give orders to the military. Thus, at present, the army and DGFI appear to be powers unto themselves. For this reason, many argue that DGFI now has the ability to run a de facto parallel government in Bangladesh with no institutional or legal oversight. The result is rampant impunity for DGFI officials, who continue arbitrarily to arrest and detain suspects without charge and to torture detainees, such as Tasneem Khalil.
But, whatever the extent of its power, there are no signs that the interim government has made any attempt to rein in the DGFI or that it even disapproves of its actions when taken against government critics and opponents. Politically, however, the interim government is in a strong position to take on issues like torture. It has claimed to be reformist, it has considerable international backing, and the army needs the interim government as much as the government needs the army, since if it resigned it would expose the reality of military rule.
The government knows who was responsible for Tasneem Khalil’s torture—Human Rights Watch informed government officials soon after he was released—and that of the many other DGFI victims. The government knows where they work and where the torture centers are located. To date we are unaware of any disciplinary or legal action taken against any of those responsible for Khalil’s arrest and torture. The government is aware that his case was not an isolated one—credible reports of torture continue to be legion, suggesting that torture continues to be frequently used by both law enforcement officials and members of the armed forces. The chief advisor and other members of the government chose to enter government. We do not believe they did so in order to preside over a government and security forces that routinely abuse human rights. But that is the reality in Bangladesh today. #
To view the Human Rights Watch report, “The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power Under the State of Emergency,” please visit: http://hrw.org/reports/2008/bangladesh0208/