BANGLADESH: Abused independence deepens problems

Bangladesh celebrates its National Martyred Intellectuals Day today, 14 December 2017. The country recalls the martyrdom of some of its citizens who had high professional integrity at the time–1971. The Pakistani occupying forces and their local collaborators were known to be involved in abducting intellectuals. This included physicians, academics, journalists, and writers. The occupying forces and their local collaborators abducted several intellectuals between December 10 and 14 in 1971. Later on, a few bodies were found floating in the Rayerbazar area of Dhaka but most of them remained disappeared.

The wartime interim government of Bangladesh in its original proclamation of independence made a declaration promising to uphold ‘equality, human dignity, and social justice’ as the foundational principles of the newly formed State. Democracy was sworn to be the mode of governance. In independent Bangladesh, the Constitution that was adopted, echoed the guarantees of fundamental human rights. They included the right to life, the right to personal liberty and the right to protection from torture.

However, in practice, the leaders of Bangladesh post-independence maintained a double standard. While verbally promising the rule of law, most political leaders who were sworn into power in fact worked against the fundamental principles guaranteed in the constitution.

Human rights abuses such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary detentions remained inseparable from the governance in the country since its inception. Enforced disappearances, in particular, are brought back in recent years and continue under the incumbent government.

Today, in 2017, citizens are still being abducted and disappeared in Bangladesh by the law-enforcement agencies.

On the occasion of International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2017, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina, claimed in an official statementthat “the fundamentals of the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” is deeply embedded in our [Bangladesh’s] genesis”. The Prime Minister also stated “it is our conviction that human rights are at the core of any steps taken toward resolving conflicts, building peace and sustaining it.”

Contradicting the Prime Minister’s public statement, on 10 December 2017, a large number of families gathered at the National Press Club in Dhaka and were crying for their dear ones who have either disappeared or are now feared to be killed in extrajudicial executions. These persons are reported to have been abducted by the law enforcement agencies and remain disappeared since then. Some 400 and more persons have disappeared under Sheikh Hasina’s administration. They include a large number of opposition political activists, academics, students, lawyers, physicians, and a former ambassador of Bangladesh.

These facts suggest that Sheikh Hasina’s official statement is mere rhetoric without any truth in it. The pattern of enforced disappearances since 2009 suggest that the government maintains a double standard. While maintaining a public image of paying homage to the martyred intellectuals, who disappeared 46 years ago, the incumbent government is engaged in the same act, of causing disappearances across the country. The only difference is that those who were disappeared and extra-judicially murdered in 1971 had been perpetrated by the Pakistani military. In another words, Sheikh Hasina’s government is following the legacy of the Pakistani military to maintain her government’s absolute power upon the country and its population.

Successive governments have been abusing power in Bangladesh with impunity. There has been no fundamental reforms in governance. Large number of people have lost their trust in the justice processes. This has rendered constitutional guarantees meaningless and accession to international human rights treaties mere ceremonies.

Constant, widespread and largescale abuse of power has destroyed basic institutions in the country. The legislature, the executive – particularly the law enforcement divisions, and the judiciary have all suffered serious damages in the country. All these institutions today are used as coercive agencies of the state, against the will of the people, the exact opposite of their fundamental duties. Collapse of the institutional mainframe is at such a level that despite the government’s direct involvement in causing disappearances there is no accountability for the crimes committed.

The present trend of severe forms of human rights violations widespread in Bangladesh has forced many out of the country. This is the reason for the alarming influx of Bangladeshi refugees across the world.

To bring a change into this unacceptable situation what needs to be done is a sincere effort by the Bangladeshi citizens to resist absolutism that prevails in the country. The independent civil society and the people of Bangladesh have to join hands once again, and keep the vigil, as they did four decades ago to bring an end to the unbearable situation that exists in Bangladesh today. The global human rights community and the international community must not forego their responsibility to extend their hands to the people of Bangladesh. Economic, geopolitical bilateral and multilateral interests should not prevent them from doing this.