BANGLADESH: Civic space denied and ruling party takes laws in hand

Bangladesh’s human rights situation has alarmingly deteriorated over the past years, and it tends to get worse. Exercising of basic freedoms by the ordinary people appears to be impossible under the current regime. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association is being denied and dealt with cruelty. Both the law enforcement agencies of the state and the ruling party’s armed gangsters join each other to hit the protesters in broad daylight. Civilian administration, judiciary, intelligence agencies, healthcare professionals, and pro-government academics are complicit in this process of oppression. This makes little sense as to what rights are enshrined in the constitution and laws.

Attacks on student protesters, who sought reforms of the 56 percent reserved quota system in public service recruitment, is going on unabated across the country for months since February 2018. These student protesters have been brutally beaten by the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), in dormitories of the public universities and on the streets. The BCL and the law-enforcement agencies jointly raided private apartment where the quota-reformist leader Muhammad Rashed Khan took shelter after their life and liberty being at serious risks. After having been in police remands for 15 days he is detained in jail. Nurul Haque Nur, the convenor of the quota reformists student groups, is fighting for his life after having been brutally beaten by the BCL gangsters on 1 July 2018. At least two leaders of the quota reforms movement namely Farukh Hossain and Tareque Rahman remained disappeared for days. Farukh is detained in jail while Tarique is under serious surveillance. The family members and relatives of the quota reformists received threats of being disappeared by the BCL leaders. There are incidents where the BCL men broke legs and spines of students by hitting with hammer and rod. The BCL threatened the female protesters with rape while there have been molestations of female students in public. The pro-government Dhaka University administration threatened students to cancel the studentships of those who participated in the protests.

Besides, the police fired shotgun bullets at the protesters causing severe injuries. Public and private hospitals have denied adequate medical treatments to the critically injured students. Several protesters have been discharged from the hospitals without treatment. All the public university administrations made contradictory remarks on the incidents taking place in their respective campuses. The proctorial teams of the universities not only ignored the brutality sustained by the student protesters but also supported the untrue narratives of the pro-governmental perpetrators.

What is more shocking is that the protesters with severe injuries have been deprived from medical treatment, and have been charged with fabricated criminal cases. The police and the judiciary cooperated with each to other to put those victims in police remands. In Bangladesh, ‘remand’ stands synonymous to torture.

A group of teachers of different universities, parents, and civil society members came out to stand beside the victims of the brutality, perpetrated by the State and the ruling party’s student wing, BCL. The pro-government university administrations and the government blame the teachers and parents for causing ‘chaos’ to ‘destroy academic environment’. Reprisals against these teachers and parents appear to be underway. Veteran leftist opinion-maker Dr. Akmal Hossain, a retired professor of the International Relations Department of the University of Dhaka, and a few others have been made the prime targets for speaking out against the oppression on the students. The law-enforcement agencies claim to have not seen anyone beating the teachers, students and parents although the attacks had happened in front of the police. The pro-government administrations of the universities are threatening the teachers who stood beside the victims. And, they are under continuous surveillance of the law-enforcement agencies.

The latest incident of attempted lynching on Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of the forcibly closed national daily Amar Desh, on 22 July 2018, has taken Bangladesh’s State-sponsored attacks to a new scale. Mahmudur appeared before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Kushtia district for one of 125 fabricated cases filed against him under the current government. The Magistrate granted him bail in a defamation case filed by the president of the Kushtia district unit of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). While Mahmudur was in the Courtroom the BCL surrounded the entire Court premises for hours. The police did not take any effective measures to protect Mahmudur while the Magistrates and journalists urged them to do so. The police suggested Mahmudur to ride on a rented car parked at the Court. The BCL gangsters vandalised the car and hit Mahmudur on his head and face with concrete pieces and sticks. While bleeding from his wounds, the local lawyers pushed him to a law chamber for saving his life. The BCL gangsters attacked on the law chamber too. Strong presence of lawyers and journalists saved Mahmudur from the attempted lynching. He later got admitted to a private hospital in Dhaka after having primary treatment on his way. While this statement being released a Court of Sunamganj district has issued an arrest warrant in a defamation case for criticising Sheikh Muzibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina, and Hasina’s niece, Tulip Siddiq, who is a Member of Parliament of United Kingdom. It may lead to another round of detention of Mahmudur at any time from now on.

The trends and patterns suggest that Bangladesh’s ruling party gangsters have taken laws in their hands in partnerships with the law-enforcement agencies.

Today, students’ personal safety cannot be thought of in university dorms, campuses, and streets. Molestations and rapes of women are made to be the tools for silencing the dissidents. Physical attacks on dissenting voices is obvious while every relevant institutions and professionals are conditioned to side with the incumbent regime.

Those who are aware of how Bangladesh’s criminal justice apparatus and policing system function will never expect any action against the ruling party’s perpetrators for the crimes they have been committing consistently. The conventional urge for‘investigate, prosecute, and punish those found guilty’ is, in fact, a useless premise in the given context.

One may ask question that why Bangladesh’s incumbent government denies all forms of civic space to the people in general. The answer is very easy and simple: the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wants to stay in office at any cost. Some external allies strongly back her for their own geopolitical and economic interests regardless of what the Bangladeshis want for themselves. In a situation of total institutional collapse, the right to franchise of the people do not exist, which allows the incumbent authoritarian government to decorate the public life and the state of affairs with fascist characteristics.

This situation of Bangladesh will not change unless democracy is re-introduced in the country and institutions of justice and governance are rebuilt, which should only begin with a credible inclusive national election.