BANGLADESH: Authoritarian repression in curbing civic space harms more than the pandemic

The Bangladesh Government continues its repressive campaigns of curtailing civic space in the country’s ever-deteriorating human rights situation. The Authorities have been using the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional excuse for encroaching on the freedoms of assembly, expression, including the freedom of the press.

Bangladesh’s Law-Enforcement Agencies kept playing their predatory role in detaining the dissenting voices often under the Digital Security Act-2018 (DSA). In 2020, the Government detained at least 138 people for criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her family, the incumbent Government’s corruption, and policies in social media and other platforms. The Asian Human Rights Commission’s local partner documented this. The detainees include journalists, teachers, students, cartoonists, writers, political activists, and ordinary citizens.

On 21 October 2020, the Police arrested journalist Ruhul Amin Gazi in his office. Gazi is the Chief Reporter for The Daily Sangram–a pro-opposition newspaper and official mouthpiece of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) party. He is also the President of the pro-opposition faction of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ). The Police arrested him in a case filed under the DSA. The Police claimed that Gazi is charged with ‘treason’ under the DSA for an article The Daily Sangram published on 12 December 2019 terming Abdul Quader Mollah a martyr. Molla was a senior leader of the BJI party. The incumbent Government executed him after having him sentenced to death through a controversial trial for his alleged war crimes in 1971. This was during Bangladesh’s War of Independence with Pakistan. The Police arrested Gazi’s newspaper’s Editor, Abul Asad, on 13 December 2019 for publishing the said article after a pro-ruling party group vandalized the daily’s editorial office. Abul Asad remained in detention for almost a year and was released on bail on 7 December 2020.

The Bangladesh authorities have finally released photo-journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol from jail on 25 December 2020. Kajol became a victim of an enforced disappearance on 10 March 2020. After 53 days’ disappearance he was shown being arrested on 3 May 2020. He has remained in detention ever since. His release on bail by a High Court Bench saw month-long criticisms by human rights groups and continued protests by the people. They included Kajol’s family and colleagues in the public domain amid continuing legal battles. The alleged fabricated cases against Kajol under the DSA remain pending.

Award-winning cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore is in detention since his arbitrary arrest in early May 2020. He is detained despite the fact that the United Nations independent EXPERTS demanded Kishore’s release on 16 December 2020. Likewise, Writer Mushtaq Ahmed remains detained since his arrest in early May last year for alleged criticism of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an article he wrote. Both of them were detained in cases registered under the DSA. Bangladesh’s Judiciary consistently rejected the petitions seeking bail for the detainees.

The Bangladesh Government continues its crackdowns against the freedom of peaceful assembly. The Law-Enforcement Agencies kept denying permission to the opposition political parties for hosting rallies and meetings. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – the main opposition political party – was denied permissions to host human chain programmes: on 10 December 2020 in front of the National Press Club on the occasion of International Human Rights Day; on 30 December to protest the rigging of general election on the election eve in 2018; and on 5 January 2021 to mark the 7th anniversary of rigged general election in 2014. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police denied permissions to the opposition in all three occasions, central leaders of the BNP confirmed it to the Asian Human Rights Commission.

The attackers of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party unleashed violence against Anti-Rape protesters for rapes committed by the offenders associated with the ruling party. Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party, is found to be always in the forefront in attacking protesters across the country. In October 2020, protests sparked against incidents of rapes and gang-rapes allegedly committed by the leaders and activists of the ruling party while the perpetrators consistently enjoyed impunity for their crimes. The BCL goons attacked the Anti-Rape protesters in MoulvibazarChottogramFeni, and most of the districts in Bangladesh. The ruling party lawmaker of the Feni district, Nizam Uddin Hazari, reportedly provoked violence against the anti-rape protestors during a long march in the region.

In the capital city, Dhaka, the Police, who are blamed for their inaction against the pro-ruling party rapists, termed the anti-rape protesters as a ‘vested group trying to manipulate the movement’. Instead of ending the impunity for the pro-ruling party perpetrators, the BAL Government of Sheikh Hasina hurriedly amended the Law introducing the death penalty for individually committed rapes. Note that gang-rapes were already punishable with the death penalty in the same Law. The ruling party leaders continue raping and sexually abusing womendespite the amendment of the Law.

In November 2020, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police dispersed the medical students’ protest. The public and private medical college students were demanding the following: reducing jam sessions, hosting online-classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, refusing to sit for exams before the completion of teaching and not charging tuition fees from the private medical college students for more than 60 months, some five years. This is the duration of the MBBS degree according to the academic sessions originally planned by the Authorities that they often fail to maintain.

Bangladesh’s incumbent Government maintained its hallmark practice of rigging elections to control the power structures during the municipal elections across the country. Despite establishing a system of overwhelming rigging on the ruling party’s behalf and destroying the citizens’ interests for casting votes, the country’s Chief Election Commission claimed in November 2020 that the United States should learn from the Bangladesh elections. The forced destruction of an electoral democracy has established a fascist one-party rule, which disregards human rights and the Rule of Law where civic space has hardly any place.