BANGLADESH: Broken down Justice Institutions key behind disappearances of the Opposition

The New York Times has published an editorial titled “The Opposition Disappears in Bangladesh” on 28 July 2017. Citing the United Nations human rights experts the New York Times editorial said that “. . . [T]he United Nations called in February for Bangladesh to act now to halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances in the country.” “But the pace of disappearances only appears to be quickening”, it adds. Referring to Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s comments that had denied the allegation of enforced disappearances the editorial concluded that “If Mr. Khan respects the United Nations, his government should invite the organization’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to conduct an investigation. Only then can the government honestly face its people, world opinion and the truth.

This is one among the few articles published in the International Media in recent months. Earlier, Radio Sweden and The Guardian published stories on enforced disappearances that consistently took place in Bangladesh for the past eight years. In November 2016, the Voice of America published a story on a similar issue.

Human rights activists, who work closely with the Bangladesh situation, know it very well. The realities on the ground in Bangladesh are much worse than what the International media has so far been able to expose. The actual figure of disappearances in the country is much higher than the statistics documented by the rights groups. Still there are cases of enforced disappearances that remain undocumented. Families have confirmed this but dare not make it public, to ensure their own security.

Enforced disappearances are not the only human rights problems that have crippled Bangladesh. In fact, disappearances by the law-enforcement agencies are one of the many symptoms of a state of anarchy. Extra-judicial executions and kneecappings of opposition activists and other detainees have been part of law-enforcement procedure. Incidents of torture in custody, coupled with arbitrary detention on trumped-up charges, are institutionalised. Dozens of people have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned through the Judiciary for mere comments about the Prime Minister and her family in the social media. The punishment for criticising the Premier’s family can be as high as 7 years of hard labour–passed by the country’s Judiciary. Peaceful assembly by associations opposing the Regime is being consistently denied in public and private.

There is another important aspect, which has hardly been discussed in assessing the situation of Bangladesh. Since 2014, the Government has not allowed independent, foreign journalists to visit the country to report on its civil and political scenarios. Fabricating criminal charges against Bangladeshi newspaper editors, journalists and private television channels is an on-going means of imposing censorship.

The State is committing crimes against its own people. Arbitrary deprivation of life through enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions; curtailment of freedom of expression and opinion; denying peaceful assembly and association in public and private places; using judiciary for infringing the right to personal liberty; preventing international journalists from visiting the country are related to Sheikh Hasina’s desire to perpetuate Government power. Powerful politicians’ anti-social behaviour characteristics have been transplanted to State Institutions.

The consequences have reached to the highest tier of Bangladesh’s Judiciary. It colludes with the Regime in denying legal solutions for victims of State crimes. The Supreme Court only opposes the Government for higher personal remunerations and extended age of retirement. There are numerous examples where the victims of human rights abuses were denied justice at the courts. Look particularly at the last eight years of cases of enforced disappearances. Both the High Court Division and Appellate Division of the Supreme Court refrained from passing assertive orders against Law-Enforcement Agencies. The role of the Justice Institutions, especially the Judiciary, is contributing to the process of intensifying the human rights violations in Bangladesh. The victims’ expectation from the Judiciary is narrowed down to seeking bail against arbitrary detentions that could last from several weeks to months. The High Court and Appellate Division of the Supreme Court’s remedy for victims of human rights abuses petitions are limited to issuance of a Ruling. It does not go further in any direction. The Supreme Court cannot refer to a single case of custodial torture, extrajudicial executions, kneecapping, and enforced disappearance that has given even a mere sense of justice to the victims. It has not used its suo motto power to dispense ‘justice’ in such cases.

Bangladesh’s ever-worsening human rights realities deserve deeper and earnest attention from the international human rights community and global media. When encroachment, by brutal Law Enforcement Agencies and the subjugated Judiciary becomes the norm, the needs of the suppressed people and the political opposition rises to a new height. Establishment of democracy and the Rule of Law must be the top priority. Both require rebuilding the Justice Institutions.