The main path to my husbandâ€™s village, in Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Photo by Nargis Rahman
Bangladesh, a country of 156 million people nudged between India and Burma, is known for its floods and poverty and to those who call this place home, a political tug-of-war.
Odhikar, a Bangladesh human rights organization, reported 14,000 people were injured and 220 were killed in political violence last year in the Annual Human Rights Report 2010.
Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy. Zubarul Chowdhury Khokon, the 13th district congressional chairman for Bangladeshi American Democratic Caucus (BADC) in Michigan said, although the government is elected, â€œDemocracy is in a very vulnerable position.â€
The country has faced outcry from human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch against Bangladeshâ€™s police brutality on protesters and the arrest of leaders from parties opposing the ruling party, National Awami League, on war crime charges.
Peaceful protestors, mainly organized by the largest opposing party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have been met by police and the Rapid Action Battalion; a state security force comprised of the countryâ€™s enforcements agencies to tackle terrorism.
Hafiz Raihan Uddin, Assistant Imam of Masjid Al-Falah in Detroit, said people have the right to disagree, but they should not be beaten by police or jailed and tortured without a fair trial, under Bangladeshâ€™s Constitutional freedom of speech right. There is, â€œExtreme human rights violation happening,â€ said Uddin. â€œI have the right to freedom of speech…If you donâ€™t like it, that doesnâ€™t mean not to give me the opportunity to say what I have to say and to hurt me.â€
RAB, known as â€œdeath squad,â€ by human rights organizations has killed over 1,000 people since its creation in 2004. Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International researcher in Bangladesh said, â€œThe RAB has a history of using excessive, sometimes even lethal, force.â€
Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit non-government organization (NGO), asked the US and UK to withdraw support from RAB; known for its beatings, taking people from their homes in the middle of the night, filing reports which are not given fair trails in court, and â€œcrossfireâ€ deaths.
Khokon said, everyone has a right to justice, â€œEven the biggest criminal in Bangladesh.â€
Earlier this year the RAB director general told The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper, the group killed 622 people in the March 2010 crossfires. Awami League said they would eliminate the agency during 2009 election bids.
Protests have emerged in the past two months due to a drop in stock market prices and the arrests of political party leaders in Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP. Last week BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia led two protests (15,000 and 10,000 people) to call for earlier elections to throw out the current government, according to the Associated Press.
The U.S. Department of Stateâ€™s website, state.gov, said protests ranging from one to 27-days, and Parliamentary walk-outs by opposing parties have been going back-and-forth in Bangladeshâ€™s political history.
Police beat protestors. Some are arrested.
â€¢ September 22, 2011 Bangladesh media NTV News, a privately-owned satellite channel, and The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi daily newspaper, reported a police officer held a protestor to the ground with his boot, during an 11-hour hortal, or strike.
â€¢ September 19, 2011 Two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and 25 people were detained for a riot which started in Dhaka and spread to other cities according to Reuters. Half of those arrests were in Dhaka, according to Jamaat-e-Islami. The protests were in response to the detainment of leaders in the party who have been in jail awaiting formal war crime charges. Rioters clashed with police who tried to obstruct the rallies, said The Daily Star. The party denies the leadersâ€™ alleged crimes of siding with Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
â€¢ November 30, 2010 Amnesty International reported, â€œMembers of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and other police personnel attacked peaceful demonstrators with batons in over a dozen raids,â€ including at least one organized protest by BNP. Peaceful protestors were beat by police on their hands, head, and legs, documented by Amnesty International. The groups Bangladesh Researcher Abbas Faiz said, â€œThe Bangladeshi government should immediately investigate these attacks by security forces on peaceful demonstrators and ensure that any people hurt receive justice and appropriate compensation.â€
â€¢ February 2010 In a public statement Amnesty International said 300 members of Jamaat-e-Islamiâ€™s student wing Shibbir were arrested from dorms or near campus in cities Rajshahi, Dhaka and Chittagong for protesting. â€œIt is not known if any of them have been charged with a recognizable criminal offence.â€
Round-up of political opponents
â€¢ August 11, 2011 Bangladesh Supreme Court Lawyer MU Ahmed, a BNP supporter, was arrested at his home by 20 plain-clothed policemen who did not identify themselves, sometime between 2:30-3:30 a.m. Ahmed was taken for â€œassaulting police and obstructing them from discharging duties on the SC premises on August 2 and 4,â€ reported The Daily Star. In a briefing, police said they held him for 30-40 minutes at the branch, while an anonymous officer who was a part of the raid said Ahmed was held for three hours. Ahmed died on August 26, after having a massive heart attack during the interrogation (The Daily Star).
â€¢ December 2010 BNP Minister of Parliament Salauddin Quader Chowdhury was picked up by police in connection with a private car set ablaze in June 2010 in Bangladesh, leading to one death. There are allegations of, â€œBangladeshi security forces have tortured Salauddin Quader Chowdhury during interrogationsâ€¦applying electrodes to his genitals, beating him, slitting his stomach with razors and twisting his toenails and fingernails with pliers,â€ reported Amnesty International. Charges were changed to crimes against humanity in the Liberation War of 1971, which he denies. He was 63 during his torture.
â€¢ June 27, 2010 Former Mayor of Dhaka, Mirza Abbas, a BNP member, was arrested along with family members and supporters attacked by RAB following allegations of violence during a textile strike. RAB claimed people threw bricks, not visible in the video obtained by Amnesty International.
â€¢ July 6, 2011 YouTube footage from NTV International News Division in Bangladesh showed BNP parliament member Zoynul Abedin Farok chased by police during a hortal. Police beat him with sticks until his clothes came off and he passed out in Dhaka. Police tried to pull him into a vehicle, but left him behind. An officer interviewed in the video said Farok resisted arrest and was not beaten. CNN reported he was wounded and hospitalized.
Journalists picked up by RAB, police
FreedomHouse.org, an institution which rates the freedom of press in countries around the world, rated Bangladesh as a partly free press with partial civil liberties in 2010. Khokon said journalists are the constructive criticism needed by (democratic) government.â€œItâ€™s healthy for a party.â€
Odhikar reported attacks on journalists: 2 killed, 52 injured, 35 threatened, 29 assaulted, 15 attacked, in the Human Rights Monitoring Report from January 1- June 30, 2010.
â€¢ October 22, 2009 M.F. Masum of the daily newspaper New Age was arrested and blindfolded by RAB-10 members. He was hit from behind, beat on his feet, and other body parts with iron rods and a blade. RAB officers accused him of being an â€œassistantâ€ of his homeowner, Mohammad Salauddin in South Jatrabari, Dhaka, who was arrested for narcotics trade (Odhikar). The lieutenant responsible for his torture was withdrawn from RAB-10 (The Daily Star).
â€¢ June 1, 2010 Editor of Amar Desh, a Bangla daily newspaper, Mahmudur Rahman was arrested by armed police in a suit against him by the former Publisher Hasmat Ali, who was suing Rahman for publishing under his name. Prior to the arrest Rahman filed paperwork to change the publisherâ€™s name in the newspaper, a request shot-down by officials.
â€¢ Facebook access was blocked between May 29 â€“ June 5, 2010, by the government after Mahbub Alam Rodin posted cartoons of politicians Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Begum and Begum Khaleda Zia. He was later arrested. The government faced negative feedback and regained the social network access.
Tribunals Act: charges, trails of war crimes do not meet international standards
The 1973 International Crimes Tribunal was adopted in March 2010 by the Bangladesh Parliament to try those who sided with Pakistan during the Liberation War. The original Tribunal was formed to try 195 Pakistani Prisoners of War, who were later freed.
The current adoption has been used to charge political leaders with war crimes including genocide, rape, and crimes against humanity â€“ nearly 40 years ago. Five Jamaat-e-Islami and two Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders have been arrested.
Human rights groups, the Supreme Court Bar Association, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, and the International Bar Association have criticized the act for not meeting international standards for war crime trials.
In January, US Ambassador to Dhaka John Moriarty told The Daily Star standards are met, but more time should be allowed for defense, which allows a trial to start three weeks after formal charges are made against the accused. Jamaat-e-Islami leader Moulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was the first charged in early October for alleged looting, rape, and arson during the Liberation, said The Guardian. Sayeedi has denied allegations.
The Tribunals act has started a ripple effect in the US with protests in New York and small rallies in Michigan.
BADC members were recommended not to take a party stand. In an email memo Chairman Nazmul Shahin of BADC, a political wing of the Michigan Democratic Party, said to membersâ€¦the party, â€œShall stay neutral as an organization on political issues in the country of origin rather focus on political process, elections, and the Democratic Party activities in the USA and in Michigan,â€ however individuals are allowed to stand for their beliefs on the War Crimes Tribunal.
Bringing it home: local reaction
Khokon said he believes Bangladeshi people will rise up beyond the alleged human rights violations. â€œ[Problems] should be resolved by the people [who] should raise their voice,â€ he said.
Uddin said people can ask US officials and humanitarian groups to put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to stop human rights violations.
Dr. Zaikirul Haque, who is on the sub-committee of Bangladesh-US relations committee of the Michigan Democratic Caucus said interaction between the countries is a â€œwin-winâ€ situation.
The U.S. Department of State Report says there is a good relation between the countries. The US gave $163 Million in aid in 2009, totaling over $5 Billion dollars for food and other services to the country. Bangladesh had $4.3 Billion exports in 2010 according to the US Embassy of Bangladesh exports report.