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BANGLADESH: Miserable Human Rights Situation

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By Dr. K. M. A. Malik *

The current government led by Awami League (AL) came to power in early 2009, with a manifesto that included zero-tolerance on human rights abuses. Bangladesh Constitution prohibits human rights violations and it is obligatory for the state organs to respect the principles of universal human rights.

Unfortunately, the government has failed miserably to protect human rights for all its citizens. A well documented report by Odhikar reveals that the Human rights situation in 2011 deteriorated very seriously compared with previous years (

The areas of general concern:

In recent years, the rights issues in Bangladesh have been discussed covering the following areas:

Suppression of political opposition, curtailing media freedom, attacks on journalists,
Restricting dissent and criticism of government policies by threats and physical attacks,
Unlawful detention and torture in remand,
Using police and security services as party tools,
Politicization of judiciary, restricting the scope for justice,
Increasing political, administrative and economic corruption,
Patronizing criminality and violence by ‘party cadres’,
Mass withdrawal of criminal cases out of ‘political consideration,
Presidential clemency to party cadres convicted for murder,
Violence against women, garment and domestic workers,
Attacks on religious minorities and inter-ethnic violence,
BSF atrocities along the border,
India’s water aggression, etc.

All these issues together with the very sensitive issue of the BDR massacre trial have been highlighted, in varying degrees, in different media, both nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, none of the stories have enhanced the good image of Bangladesh and her rulers in the international stage.

International rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Commission, etc., have expressed grave concerns at the rights situation in Bangladesh, but the government has not taken any concrete actions. Utterances by different ministers and government leaders tend to give the impression that ‘everything is fine’; they forget that it is not their words but actions that are under public and media scrutiny, both at home and abroad, and that the much sought after democracy, rule of law and a truly civilized society would remain only pipe dream if remedial measures are not taken to improve the overall rights situation in the country.

‘Goom’ or ‘Enforced disappearance’

In a short essay, it is not possible to a full picture of all the aspects of Human Rights Abuses in present Bangladesh. (All details can be found in the Odhikar Reports, I shall, therefore, very briefly deal with the most recent concern of ‘GOOM’ or ‘Enforced disappearance’, which was once associated with ‘death squads’ or ‘vigilante groups’ operating in some South and Latin American countries during 1970s.

Political and social violence has been more or less a curse for Bangladesh from the beginning. The government and their party followers have resorted to all types of legal and illegal means to marginalize, intimidate, harass, defeat and, on some occasions, even to kill, some of their respective opponents or ‘enemies’, which led to cycles of violent confrontations and political and social instability. This evil culture has continued over the years, with ups and downs, but truly it never ended. When the regime in power (whether civil or military) became unpopular and lost public support, they resorted more to ‘hard line’ tactics for suppression of all opposition and perpetuating their misrule. Even all the ‘elected governments’ showed this tendency in the past.

The Elias Issue and the dubious government role

But, apart from the old culture, the country is now faced with a new threat of extreme concern – that of ‘GOOM’ or ‘enforced disappearance’. The culture of ‘GOOM’ has been going on for a while, with little notice from national and international media, but this has now become the greatest concern after the ‘forced disappearance’ of Mr. Elias Ali, an ex-MP and a powerful leader of BNP. Elias Ali along with his driver was picked up at midnight about 3 weeks ago by some unidentified persons. Nobody knows about the identity of the miscreants, but it is widely believed that they are members of the security agencies or of a pro-government vigilante group. So far, there is no concrete news on the whereabouts of Elias Ali and his driver; we do not know if they are dead or still alive. Mrs. Elias Ali met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for help, but so far the promise to help find Mr. Ali has remained unfulfilled.

The government has not only failed in their duty to find Mr. Ali but several AL leaders have made some very rude remarks about the personal character of Elias Ali, even suggesting that the BNP leader Khaleda Zia might be responsible for the ‘disappearance’! Obviously, BNP and its allies, already ‘under seige’ by the government (thousands of their party leaders and workers being charged with allegations of corruption, extortion, terrorism, etc.) and fighting for their political and organizational survival, reacted very strongly and decided to challenge the government both inside the courts and on the streets.

The Elias issue has thrown the country into a new phase of controversy and uncertainty. Even the US Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton expressed deep concern during her visit to Dhaka last week and asked for proper investigations into the ‘disappearance’ of Elias Ali and the trade union leader Aminul Islam. Ironically, this caused anger within the ruling circles, some of them even accused Secretary Clinton of ‘unwanted’ interference.

Alarming rise in the ‘Goom’ incidents

The disappearance of Elias Ali is politically the most explosive event, but this is not the first or the last incident of this type of crime. ‘Enforced disappearance’ started from the beginning of the current government and has only increased during the last 3 years.

The rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra says that at least 22 people have disappeared during the first four months of this year. According to Odhikar, 30 persons were victims of ‘enforced disappearance’ in 2011, 18 in 2010 and 2 in 2009; this shows an alarming increase in such incidents. In comparison, extra-judicial killings by law enforcing agencies fell from 127 in 2010 to 84 in 2011. This suggests that “a shift is taking place by which citizens are placed outside legal protection and legal trials by terminating them. The State might have adopted the ‘GOOM’ tactic because of the national and international outcry against extra-judicial killings.”

The daily New Nation ran a horror story yesterday (09 May, 2012). It says that Police have recovered 100 bodies from different parts of the capital city and 60 bodies from different Thanas of Dhaka district during the last four months. The skeletons, bodies or parts of bodies were recovered either from the rivers Turag and Buriganga or from canals and open-fields. Most of the victims could not be identified. “The actual number of unidentified bodies would be much higher as all of them could not be traced after they went missing. Many of the bodies might have been dumped into rivers which were carries away by strong current.” Nobody knows if all or some of the dead bodies belong to the victims of ‘enforced disappearance’ (at the hands of state organs) or they were victims of ordinary ‘disappearance’ (perpetrated by non-state actors such as underworld criminals or terrorists).

Who are the culprits?

The government denies that any of the state agencies is involved in ‘enforced disappearance’ or any other type of extra-judicial killings. But it does not explain the ‘disappearance’ of the driver of the car carrying 7 million taka in cash allegedly bound for the Minister Shuranjit Sengupta’s residence about a month ago. The minister’s APS and other passengers of the car came out of hiding a few days after the incident, but the driver still remains ‘disappeared’. One or two witnesses of the sensational Saudi diplomat murder case are also without trace. Involvement of the state is clearly suggested.

The government may deny it, but there is widespread public perception that some rogue elements within the government and/or within the security establishment or even some foreign special forces are involved in this type of crimes. Their aim is not yet totally clear, but in the absence of transparent governance and in an atmosphere of all pervading lust for absolute power on the part of some people, conspiracy theories thrive. People cannot differentiate the truth from falsehood or propaganda. Even the topmost political leaders become suspect in the public eye due to their short-sightedness or stupidity. This causes political process to fail and creates a destabilising situation that invariably invites undesirable ‘outside’ actors to usurp political power.

Crusader 100?

One very dangerous story found its way in some print and internet media recently. In short, it says that about 100 AL activists were secretly trained in 2009 by Indian R&AW in different techniques of covert operations. Code named “Crusader 100” this group maintains safe houses or operation bases in secret locations in Dhaka and carry out abductions, torture and killings of targets selected from the opposition groups. (

It is difficult to prove the truth or falsehood of such story, but in the prevailing circumstances of unending distrust and suspicion, and from the past records of ‘joint efforts’ by the Indian Intelligence Agencies and some elements with AL camps, operations of such ‘death squads’ or ‘vigilante group’ cannot be totally discounted. It is not improbable that the enemies of Bangladesh would try to discredit all political forces and lead the country to a ‘failed state’ status, so that a ‘direct foreign intervention’ could be justified at a future time.

The current government has lost much of its popular support due not only its failure to solve the ever increasing economic and social crises, but also to what is seen as the policies of appeasement and subservience towards New Delhi. It is assumed that it lets the Indian security forces and intelligence agencies enter Bangladesh territory ‘in discreet manner to hunt for anti-Indian elements within the country and gradually eliminate them’. This is also consistent with the ruling elites’ dictatorial actions and with their not-so-hidden agenda for establishing ‘one-party’ dynastic rule.

The ‘Goom’ culture must stop

The use of ‘GOOM’ culture as a weapon against selected targets is a dangerous development and must be discouraged and condemned by all people with a minimum degree of sanity. This is something different from and more dangerous than the usual violent confrontation with political opposition, and unlawful detention, custodial torture, and extra-judicial killings by the state law enforcing agencies. The killings of alleged criminals and terrorists, mostly by stage managed incidents of ‘cross-fires’ or ‘encounters’ by Police and RAB, have led to these forces being termed as ‘death squads.

We do not know exactly who is playing the new game of ‘GOOM’ in Bangladesh and what it wants to achieve by playing this dangerous game. It is an urgent duty of all patriotic citizens of the country, irrespective of party or political affiliations, to remain vigilant on this latest danger and to put pressure on both the government and opposition parties to unmask and punish the criminals. The barbarian crimes of ‘enforced disappearance’ in Bangladesh must be stopped.

The essay is based on the keynote paper presented at London Seminar on “Human Rights in Bangladesh” organized by Bangladesh Centre for Social Development, UK, on 10 May 2012.

* Dr. K. M. A. Malik is a retired professor of Dhaka University and lecturer, Cardiff University. He may be contacted via e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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