The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has observed that the rule of law institutions have been made utterly dysfunctional in the last few decades; all these institutions are in their worst condition ever. In Bangladesh, “prompt, impartial and effective investigation of all killings committed” is impossible. Only the international justice mechanisms can provide some redress to victims, if the global rights body is sincere about its interest in standing beside the helpless people of Bangladesh in the given circumstances.
Since 15 January 2015, the Bangladesh government has deployed “Joint Forces”, comprising the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), and the police to conduct operations against the opposition. Houses and shops of those identified as opposition supporters in northern Bangladesh are ending up demolished. Hundreds of people, including women and children, have been internally displaced as a result of the crackdown.
Villagers are fleeing from their homes to find shelter. The police and paramilitary forces are facilitating vandalism of private property by ruling party cadres, who have been ransacking households and setting fire during the operation. The law-enforcement agencies and the ruling politicians are justifying the crackdown with the excuse that the government is protecting citizens from those responsible for violence and arson attacks taking place on the streets and highways of Bangladesh. It has been claimed that the Joint Forces’ drive has been launched to “normalise the public life”, which has been on standstill for three weeks now.
This standstill is the result of the opposition’s observance of a nationwide blockade since 5 January 2015, i.e. the anniversary of last year’s historic farcical election where the ruling party won 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats, unopposed, without a single vote being caste. Opposition parties boycotted the election and since then have been demanding a credible inclusive general election, asking the Sheikh Hasina’s illegitimate government to step down.
In anticipation of an intensification of the opposition’s demands in the lead up to the anniversary, since 3 January 2015, the police have sealed the central offices of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the primary opposition party, and confined its chairperson therein. The police have also banned political meetings of the opposition; they have, however, allowed the ruling party to hold public rallies.
The resultant opposition blockade since 5 January 2015 has intensified the clash in Bangladesh. Hundreds of vehicles have come under arson attack, causing deaths and burn injuries to innocent passengers and motor-workers. More than two-dozen people have lost their lives; six of them died due to fire bombing of public transport. Many of the attacks are taking place in front of the police; however, the police are not arresting the perpetrators in all such incidents. There have been instances where local people have caught members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings in possession of “petrol bombs”; the police have ended up releasing them without pressing any charges.
Following Commerce Minister Torail Ahmed’s threat to eliminate the opposition by extrajudicial methods on 11 January, the Minister for Food Md. Qamrul Islam has, on 15 January, termed the opposition as “terrorists” and vowed to use bullets against opposition activists. On the same day, the Director General of BGB, Aziz Ahmed, has stated in a press briefing that if anyone is suspected to be carrying a (crude) bomb his soldiers will go the “casualty” route to save the life of others, and for the self-defence of the soldiers.
The following day, Inspector General of Police, A.K.M. Shahidul Haque, and Director General of RAB, Benazir Ahmed, echoed similar ideas in a public meeting. The Inspector General of Police said that “… the police ‘with the last drops of their blood’ would protect the elected government and eliminate the terror unleashed by the ‘anti-liberation elements’ in the name of movement….” The Director General of the RAB, reportedly stated, “a handful of terrors had declared war against the state, the people and the society. Elections will be held in the scheduled time and people will give their mandate in the polls.” And, on 17 January, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “the hands of the culprits who make and hurl petrol bombs should be burnt so they can feel the pain of arson victims.”
In the days that have followed these statements, the police have extrajudicially murdered at least three activists of the opposition. The victims have been identified as Nuruzzaman Jonny, Matiur Rahman, and Imrul Kayes. Nuruzzaman (30), a leader of the BNP’s student wing, was killed by the Detective Branch of Police in Dhaka on 20 January, early morning; Motiur Rahman (20), another leader of the BNP’s student wing, was killed by the Joint Forces in Chapai Nawabganj District; and Imrul Kayes (35), a Municipal Councilor of Narail District, was killed in Dhaka on 19 January by the Detective Branch Police. The law-enforcement agencies have claimed that they had “gunfights; relatives of the victims have claimed that their dear-ones were detained much earlier by law-enforcement agents and were murdered in a preplanned manner as part of the governmental plan of eliminating the opposition from the country.
Around seven thousand people, including opposition activists, have been arrested in the last three weeks. The police have been extorting millions of Taka from the detainees by using torture and threatening to kill them in the pretext of “gunfight” or “crossfire”. The detainees are being implicated in various criminal cases.
The violence and chaos of Bangladesh is not being adequately reflected in the national media, because of serious repression by the state. Most of the private television channels and print media are owned and operated by pro-government entrepreneurs and ideologists. The few who wish to expose the reality are maintaining self-censorship, following constant intimidation from the intelligence agencies and ruling party supporters.
The Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has blocked several virtual communication applications such as Viber, Tango, What’sApp, Mypeople, and Line to prevent the opposition supporters from communicating. These communication apps are blocked to enabling law-enforcement agencies to monitor the telephone and email communications of the people, especially those of the opposition parties. It is known that Bangladesh authorities use spying software like FinFisher and other technology to monitor communication traffic. The blackout on communication apps is one of the overt attempts to silence dissenting voices and suppress the freedom of expression and opinion.
Legal redress from the existing criminal justice institutions of Bangladesh is impossible, due to high degree of politicisation in the police, prosecution, and Judiciary. The ruling party has subjugated all these institutions, including the Supreme Court. Local remedies are neither accessible nor affordable due to the subjugated roles played by the country’s institutions.
The UN Human Rights Council expressed its concern over the situation of Bangladesh. It has urged “the authorities to ensure the prompt, impartial and effective investigation of all killings committed – irrespective of whether they were committed by State or non-State actors.”