• Thursday, March 05, 2015

Year of shrinking democratic space, violence and disenfranchisement

C R Abrar
Photo: star
Photo: star

2013 in all likelihood will be remembered as the year that was marked by steady erosion of civil and political rights of the citizens of Bangladesh and that ended with them being disenfranchised by the political leadership.  It is the year that has seen the widening of the chasm between the State and its citizens. A review of the actions of those in charge of the State and an appraisal of the laws and regulations that were enacted or amended during the year would clearly establish the fact that the much celebrated aspiration of the war of liberation, i.e., the establishment of a democratic order, was put under severe strain during 2013.
It was the year when Bangladesh had to face the world at the second Universal Periodic Review in Geneva and explain the conduct of its law enforcement agencies for their alleged engagement in extra-judicial killing, enforced disappearance and ill treatment of the people. It was at that meeting the Head of Bangladesh delegation was reminded of her own commitment of 'zero tolerance' of extra-judicial killing made four years earlier, during the first periodic review, soon after the Awami League government took over the reins of power.
Although the senior functionaries of the State routinely denied reports of extra-judicial killing, often justifying the actions of members of law enforcement agencies as legitimate during encounters, local and international human rights organizations have persistently expressed grave concerns at the continuance of those incidences. It has been estimated that 281 people became victims of extra judicial killings from January to November of 2013, averaging more than 25 persons per month.
Allegations have been made that members of the police force, Rapid Action Battalion and Border Guards Bangladesh committed such acts during encounters, cross-fires and gun-fights. In most cases victims were shot. In a handful instances, they were tortured or beaten to death and in one instance strangled to death. The victims included political activists and professionals to traders and alleged petty criminals. In a good number cases identities of the victims could not be ascertained.  It may be noted that so far not a single case has been investigated independently and no action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Rights organizations have alleged that enforced disappearances were also on the rise during the year, with 25 cases recorded in the first eleven months, averaging more than two each month.  In most cases members of the families of victims reported that they had reasons to believe that elements of law enforcement agencies were responsible for the disappearance. In countering such allegations the erstwhile foreign minister Dipu Moni had claimed that criminals in the guise of law enforcement agencies committed such crimes. It is unfortunate that the ministerial claim was not supported by any investigation or evidence. So far, the government has not instituted any independent enquiry into the cases of enforced disappearance. At the UPR in April 2013, as the Head of Bangladesh delegation the same minister “clarified that the term ('enforced disappearance') did not exist in Bangladesh law” and asserted that “the association of law enforcement agencies or State machinery with such criminal acts was deliberately done to undermine their credibility and create misperception in the public mind”. Any rational person would find the minister's contentions unacceptable.
Over the years resorting to torture has become an integral part of law enforcement in Bangladesh. Torture is often used to extract confession. In other instances, it has become an easy method of extortion for errant members of law enforcement agencies. There is a general acceptance among those involved in the administration of the criminal justice system that criminal investigation cannot be conducted without resorting to torture. In several instances victims of torture succumb to deaths while in custody. The administration never admits such deaths occur as a result of torture and ascribes them to cardiac arrest. Until end of November 2013, 57 deaths in torture have been recorded.
The weakness in the judicial system of the country has also created a public acceptance of the view that torture is the only method to make the criminals accountable. This distrust has also produced a situation in which people tend to take law and order in their own hands, leading to incidences of public lynching of alleged offenders. Up to November 120 cases of public lynching have been recorded, with an average of about 11 cases per month.
Erosion of democratic space has been an important feature of the political landscape of the year. In early January peaceful hunger strike of non-MPO registered school-teachers was forcibly dispersed through use of pepper spray and tear gas by the police at the central Shaheed Minar at Dhaka. About 100 protesting teachers including the president of the Teachers' Oikya Jote were injured in the brutal attack.  
On May 19 the Home Minister declared a ban on meetings for a month. In the same evening in an interview with the BBC he asserted that the ban would continue for an indefinite period. The prohibition covered peaceful rallies as well as innocuous 'human chains'.
The Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code came in handy for the regime in thwarting rallies and demonstration of opposition political parties. Often the ruling party or their front organizations declared political programmes at the same venue and time where opposition had called theirs prompted the local administration to declare Section 144. In the eleven-month period the local administration invoked the Section on fifty-three instances.
The year has also seen illegal arrests and arbitrary detention of persons including political activists. In many instances the members of law enforcement agencies without a warrant picked up individuals and neither the arrestee nor their family members were informed of grounds of arrest. International rights organizations have observed that “cases where state agents produce a proper warrant of arrest at the time of taking a person into custody are rare”.
2013 has marked a massive increase in incidences of political violence. There has been a sharp rise in death toll due to political violence. The figure rose to 391 in the eleven-month period with 52 deaths recorded in the month of November alone. The number of injuries recorded during the same period was 21,574. With much increased political violence in place in December one can safely infer that the death and injury figures for the month of December will far outnumber the average figures of the previous eleven months.  
The above figures include casualties of inter-party clashes as well of intra-party armed feuds. Often the intra-party conflicts take place for control over land, water bodies, campus, tender process and the like. Those are also due to lack of due process to elect leadership of political parties and their affiliate bodies at the central as well as local levels in many instances result in the appointment to key posts by the party supreme leaders. This often triggers violent conflicts resulting in deaths and injuries.

Photo: star
Photo: star

In many instances issue-based spontaneous movements of youth also become target of blind political partisanship. In a scandalous case of political violence the student wing of the ruling party in mid-July attacked general students protesting against the quota system that exist in all government service including the Bangladesh Civil Service. More than 100 students were injured in the attack.
The year has also seen unwarranted police raids on offices of political parties and mass arrests of top leaders of opposition political parties. Often such arrests were accompanied by pressing of fabricated charges. The negation of freedom of assembly and expression has forced many leaders into hiding.
Denial of constitutional rights to freedom of assembly has pushed the opposition parties and political activists to resort to imposition of blockade and general strikes. Excesses of the State agencies in quelling protests have contributed to the opposition taking recourse to extreme measures. The logi-boitha (poles and oars) political culture of the Awami brand has taken a nosedive and under the BNP-Jamaat patronage reincarnated in the form of petrol bombs and removal of fishplates of railway tracks.
The major political parties have become engaged in a senseless tussle with severe impact on the life and livelihood of common people. Little respect is paid to the personal safety of individuals who are forced to eke out a living under such difficult conditions. The charred bodies of students, bus drivers and other ordinary men and women have become the stark reminders of the depth of the abyss to which Bangladeshi politics has sunk.
Freedom of expression came under severe control during the reporting period. As the alienation of the government became more pronounced, the State became more intolerant of public criticism. In April a daily and in May two television channels voicing opposition viewpoints were shut ostensibly on charges for giving coverage to events and issues that compromised public order. The editor of the daily was arrested under the Section 56 and 57 of the Information and Communication Technology and was placed on a 13-day remand that was granted against a petition of 24 days.
More than 100 journalists were injured and scores were threatened, attacked and assaulted by the police, members of parliament and political activists during the reporting period. The situation was particularly dire for the grassroots level journalists who reported on corruption, arbitrary exercise of power and wrong doings of public representatives, government functionaries, political leaders and law enforcement agencies.
The ruling regime's increased intolerance of dissent was further reflected in its effort to control the talk shows of various television channels. In mid-December news reports informed that TV channels were 'advised' by the executive arm of the State not to invite political commentators who were known for their independent views. Furthermore, they were 'encouraged' to host certain pro-establishment intellectuals. Hearsay was rife among media circles that to placate the authorities some channels changed anchors of popular talk shows. It may be noted that such an approach to quell dissent come as a follow up to recent incidents of threat, intimidation and harassment of eminent persons who expressed critical views about the government.
The situation of religious minorities continued to remain precarious in 2013. Although the government took concrete measures to rebuild the Buddhist temples that were destroyed and damaged during September 2012 violence in Ramu, little has been done to bring masterminds and perpetrators to justice. The Buddhist monks have alleged that those who led the attack and were roaming scot-free while the innocents were arrested.  
The tense political atmosphere prevailing throughout the year has taken disproportionate toll on the Hindu and Buddhist communities. During the course of the year verdicts of the International Crimes Tribunals against Jamaat leaders made the religious minority communities particularly vulnerable. Religious bigots and fortune seekers got engaged in targeted violence against Hindu and Buddhist localities and villages in different parts of the country.  
On 1 April Kali Mandir in Bhuapur in Tangail was set on fire and 20 idols were destroyed. Cases were filed by the president of the temple committee against the advisor of the Jubo League and General Secretary of the BNP. On 5 April the Mirpur Hindu temple in Dhaka was looted. On 12 May another Hindu temple was torched in Ramganj upazilla of Laxmipur. On 28 May the vice-president of the local Krishak League was accused for torching the house of a Buddhist family in Thakurpara of Comilla. The last six months of the year had witnessed unabated injury of persons, looting of property, demolition of deities and arson of Hindu and Buddhist temples in various parts of the country. In most cases the discredited obscurantist forces committed these acts that for some unknown reasons members of law enforcement agencies failed to contain.
Quite a few legislations that have bearing on enjoyment of human rights were amended in 2013. These include the Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act 2013 (ICT Act), Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill, and the Bangladesh Labour Law Amendment Act, 2013.
The 2013 amendment to the ICT Act has made some of the non-cognizable and bailable 'cyber-crimes' under Sections 54, 56, 57 and 61, now cognizable and non-bailable. In the earlier version there was no provision for minimum penalty, which was set at seven years in the current version and the maximum penalty has been increased from ten years to fourteen years. Under the amended law police and the state agents have been empowered to file a case, a power that they did not enjoy under the earlier version. During the reporting period the editor of Amar Desh, General Secretary and Director of human rights organization, Odhikar and several bloggers have thus far been detained and charged under various sections of the ICT Act.
The Anti-Terrorism amendment further widens the scope of sanctions provided in the Anti Terrorism Act (ATA), 2009 by approving the courts to accept videos, still photographs and audio clips used in Facebook, twitter, Skype and other social media for trial of cases. Earlier, in 2012 through another amendment death penalty was introduced as maximum penalty for financing 'terrorist' activities. It may be noted that the amendment was made without any consultation of civil society organisations ignoring the views of opposition members of the Parliament.  
The vagueness of the definition of 'terrorist activities' under the ATA opens it for potential abuse and is incompatible with the principle of legality requiring that criminal liability and punishment be limited to clear and precise provision as stipulated in the Article 15 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that Bangladesh is a state party to. Observers have noted that the amended law remains vulnerable to worst kind of abuse. “Criminalization of opinion expressed online through social media or blogs, is not only a violation of freedom of expression and the right to privacy, it also represents a new pattern of persecution of any voice of dissent as well as human rights defenders”, observes Karim Ladhiji, the president of the International Federation of Human Rights.
Rights activists have also expressed concern on the increased tapping of all possible means of communications of private individuals and organizations by the police, paramilitary force and intelligence agencies under Sections 97A of the Telecommunications Regulatory Act of 2010. Members of opposition political parties, free thinking public intellectuals and human rights defenders often become target of such telephone tapping. Silencing the critics of the government by releasing recorded private conversation in the public domain has become the latest dirty weapon in the State's arsenal. The practice was initiated during the Caretaker Government to malign opposition leaders; it reached a new low under the Awami League during the reporting period.
The amended Bangladesh Labour Act 2013 has been criticised on grounds that it fell 'well short of international labour standards'. Hundreds of thousands employed in the country's export processing zones, were still barred from forming trade unions and they are only allowed to form associations, which have little power. Framed in the wake of disasters of Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions the provisions of the new law would work as obstacles to organise unions and bargaining collectively with employers and thus make it more difficult for them to negotiate for fair wages and safe and decent conditions.
In sharp contrast to the rights enjoyed by the trade unionists during Pakistani period that allowed a handful of workers with advanced awareness to initiate a trade union, the amended law kept provision for at least a third of the workers of any enterprise to give prior consent. Moreover, the law has given the office of the labour directorate the discretion to grant registration to trade unions. Instead of addressing the arbitrary power of retrenchment enjoyed by the employers under the earlier version of the law, Article 23 of the amended version accorded them enhanced authority to dismiss workers for misconduct that would allow the employers forfeit all benefits due to the worker.  All these would work as major deterrence to active unionism. While the new law does reflect some positive changes, including on occupational safety and health, under pressure from the employers and influential members of parliament the government largely failed to empower the workers to bargain with employers.
In this general atmosphere of curtailment of rights and shrinking democratic space the redeeming legislation has been the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act, 2013. This new law came into effect in November 2013. It made torture and custodial death a criminal offence in compliance with the UN Convention against Torture. After a sustained campaign by rights activists, through the passage of the law torture has been criminalized in Bangladesh. This new legislation essentially fulfills the requirement under Article 35 (5) of the Constitution that stipulates: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment”. Over the years torture became endemic because of the impunity granted to the perpetrators by the successive regimes. It is hoped that new legislation will provide effective mechanism to combat this heinous practice.
The ruling party kept reserved the trump card of robbing people's democratic rights for the final months of the year. It is going ahead with a charade in the guise of general elections that has been aptly dubbed as 'dubious, controversial, exclusive and unilateral'. By bagging 154 of 300 seats parliament the Awami League headed coalition has already secured the right to form the next government. Thanks to the machination of the ruling party and its pliant Election Commission 4.9 crore out of 9.2 crore voters have been provided with the respite from going to the polling stations and standing in long cues to cast their votes. All these led to a situation in which people were unequivocally disenfranchised of their inherent right for which they paid so dearly both during the war of national liberation and subsequently in overthrowing the autocratic regimes, both civil and military.

The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is President of Odhikar.

Published: 12:01 am Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Last modified: 9:36 pm Wednesday, January 01, 2014

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