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Rapid Action Battalion RAB Spezialeinheit Militär Dhaka Bangladesh
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Continued disappearances

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
September 3, 2014

Amnesty International says it is alarmed by the deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh. The group's Abbas Faiz talks to DW about disappearances, the use of torture and the increasing crackdown on free speech.

https://p.dw.com/p/1D5oJ

In a recently released report, the rights group claims it has evidence that suggests the security forces are responsible for an increasing number of enforced disappearances. "Many abductions appear to have been politically motivated, with prominent members of opposition parties targeted," the organization stated.

In several cases, eyewitnesses who spoke to Amnesty International (AI) point to involvement by the police or its special force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) (main picture), adding that there has been almost no accountability for the security forces' alleged role. The RAB, however, has always denied any involvement in this.

The briefing further documents an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression and that the use of torture is still widespread across Bangladeshi detention facilities. Abbas Faiz, AI's Bangladesh researcher, says in a DW interview that there has been a gradual deterioration in the human rights situation in Bangladesh since at least early 2013, adding that the government needs to take a stance against those responsible for the abuses.

DW: How would you describe the current human rights situation in Bangladesh?

Abbas Faiz: We are really witnessing a catalogue of human rights violations in Bangladesh, but we feel that the three issues covered in our report - enforced disappearances, torture and freedom of expression - are the most urgent ones at the moment. Torture is a long-standing concern that has continued at an unacceptable level for decades. We have also seen a disturbing deterioration over the past years in terms of enforced disappearances and curbs on freedom of expression.

Abbas Faiz von Amnesty International
Faiz: 'We have also seen a disturbing deterioration over the past years in terms of enforced disappearances and curbs on freedom of expression'Image: AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

Why have Bangladeshi authorities failed to improve the human rights situation?

There are several reasons for this. When it comes to enforced disappearances, for example, the cases we have investigated have implicated the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special police force with close links to the army. Many of the RAB commanders are officers seconded from the army. However, given that the army is politically a very influential institution in Bangladesh, the government may not feel they are able to take it on and challenge it on the human rights violations committed by these officers.

As far as torture is concerned, there is simply an almost complete lack of political will. Over the years, Bangladesh has passed several laws, many quite progressive, criminalizing or otherwise banning torture. However, the laws have amounted to little more than paper promises. Torture is still widely used by security forces, and those responsible are rarely prosecuted.

What evidence do you have that security forces are responsible for a continuing pattern of disappearances?

We spoke to an array of family members, victims and other witnesses and focused on 20 cases in our report. In all these cases, the RAB was implicated - in some cases the evidence is overwhelming, while in others this is less so. That's why we only talk about "possible enforced disappearances" in some cases.

The RAB has always denied any involvement, blaming instead others who allegedly pose as members of the special police force. However, in May this year, the RAB was - for the first time since its formation in 2004 - forced to admit that some of its personnel had been implicated in an enforced disappearance. The evidence was just too overwhelming. As a result, three RAB personnel are currently under arrest, and their eventual trial will be a litmus test for the Bangladeshi legal system.

In your view, what are the reasons for the disappearances?

There are different reasons. In eight of the 20 cases we investigated, the motives appear to be political, with members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party or Jamaat-e-Islami being targeted. In at least nine cases, corruption seems to have been the factor, with RAB members paid to "disappear" or murder people to settle political or economic scores.

How come the country has managed to make progress on reducing poverty and other development indicators, but failed on human rights?

There are many factors behind Bangladesh's relative economic success over the past years - the growing clothing industry and an increase in remittances, for example. The success of the microfinance schemes enabling households to invest in small business projects could be another. However, as in many other countries, progress on human rights has not accompanied this growth. It seems the Bangladeshi government has not treated the issue as a priority and this has to change.

At what point did the situation begin to deteriorate to this level?

There has been a gradual deterioration since at least early 2013. Human rights have really suffered in the context of the run-up to and the aftermath of the disputed January 2014 parliamentary election, which were preceded by violent street protests.

Bangladesh has gone through a protracted political crisis over the past years. The opposition boycotted the past elections and the governing party won the majority of seats, more than half of them uncontested. While there was some hope that the human rights situation would stabilize after the vote, we've actually witnessed the opposite in some areas, with enforced disappearances on the rise, for instance.

Bangladesch Wahlen 2014 Unruhen
There has been a gradual deterioration of the human rights situation since at least early 2013, says FaizImage: DW

What do you urge Dhaka to do?

We want the government to put an end to enforced disappearances and to hold those responsible accountable, even if they are high-ranking members of the RAB or other security forces. It is also crucial that the crackdown on freedom of expression ends, and those draconian laws used to punish critics - such as the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act - are repealed.

As for the use of torture, the government must back up lofty words with action, and ensure that the practice is ended across the country. We are calling on the authorities to engage seriously with these recommendations.

Abbas Faiz is Amnesty International's Bangladesh Researcher.

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