The deteriorating state of human rights in the South Asian nation has drawn widespread attention across the world over the past couple of years. Many international rights groups have long been expressing concern and demanding the government in Dhaka to take steps to improve the situation.
The administration of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, has long accused non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International of pursuing political agendas and has reportedly tried to obstruct their activities in the South Asian nation.
In a DW interview, HRW's Asia director Brad Adams says that despite the negative environment for the human rights groups operating in the country, his organization will continue to be active and not remain quiet.
DW: What is your view on the current human rights situation in Bangladesh?
Brad Adams: The human rights situation in the country has deteriorated in many ways. The elite security force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the police are involved in a large number of extra judicial killings, which are carried out in the name of self-defense.
But the security forces actually arrest innocent people and kill them in cold blood, pretending it was a shoot out. This is called 'crossfire' in Bangladesh.
There are also serious labor problems. For instance, workers are being attacked for trying to form associations to protect their rights. These attacks are perpetrated by garment manufacturers and are supported by government officials. Many members of the government own factories and there is a lot of political pressure on the people who are trying to organize trade unions.
Furthermore, the safety problems in garment factories have not been solved, although there have been some serious attempts by manufacturers and retailers to fix them. There are just parts of a long list of human rights violations in Bangladesh.
What are the main reasons behind the deteriorating situation?
First and foremost, there is a lack of rule of law. The police and courts are highly corrupt. Judiciary is highly politicized and judges are appointed based on their political affiliations. Human rights are not a priority to the Bangladeshi government.
Can you mention any case where human rights defenders have been harassed politically as well as judicially?
The most well known case is that of an non-governmental organization called Odhikar. Its leader Adilur Rahman has faced arrest, threat, prosecution and public attack due to the reporting on human rights violations. The government has blocked a lot of funding that Odhikar was receiving, particularly from the European Union.
The administration has always accused Rahman's and other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of being politically motivated. Dhaka is creating a very negative environment for the human rights groups that are active in the country. The ruling government now has a new draft law that will restrict funds to NGOs, thereby hindering their activities.
HRW is criticized by Bangladeshi government prosecutors for taking a critical stance on the war crimes tribunal, which was set up to try those accused of atrocities during the country's independence war from Pakistan. What is your position regarding the tribunal?
We have always wanted the tribunal be set up and to succeed. I met with the prime minister, law minister, judges and prosecutors of the court and explained them how to ensure a fair trial. We have said from the beginning that we want those responsible for the crimes to be convicted but we want them to get a fair trial.
They have ignored our advices and set up a tribunal that has serious flaws. It lacks fairness and quality between prosecutors and defense lawyers. The law denies basic rights of the accused in these trials.
We have seen politics play a role in the activities of the tribunal. It was proved by the publication of leaked emails and tapes by The Economist showing that prosecutors and judges were working together. It denied the accused a fair trial. Instead of fixing the problems associated with the tribunal, Dhaka has been attacking the messenger accusing Human Rights Watch of having a political agenda, which is absolutely not the case.
HRW was accused of contempt of court by the tribunal for the NGOs statement on the war crimes trials in Bangladesh. What is your take on this?
It is not appropriate for a court to charge the people who are commenting on the proceedings that do not appear to meet legal standards. We expect the case to be dismissed because of the lack of merit. This is all I want to say for now.
How has the case affected your work in Bangladesh?
It has not affected it at all. We continue to work. We keep publishing materials on our website. We are trying to uphold the standard of human rights all over the world, whether it is in China or in Bangladesh.
What kind of impact will such a court order have on the Bangladesh-based human rights groups?
When the government attacks peaceful people who are simply researching or documenting, it is mainly intended to scare other people. We can see that all over the world. But that will not apply to us; we will continue to be active and certainly not be quiet because of a particular court's charge of contempt.
Brad Adams is the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division