Eight rapporteurs to the United Nations have written to the government of Bangladesh, expressing concern over what they say is the "harassment and intimidation" of two well-known human rights groups in the country as well as the “use of excessive and lethal force” by police against opposition political activists.
The rights groups are Odhikar and Maayer Daak. Odhikar is known for its documentation of human rights violations, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. Maayer Daak is a platform for families of the victims of enforced disappearance in the country.
The rapporteurs sent two letters to the government in December but the letters only became public earlier this month.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen later told local media many of the allegations were not factually correct.
“In every country the police have the right to respond to incidents in which people create disturbances and destroy public property,” the foreign minister told local media. The law enforcement agencies are just doing their job,” Momen said in response to the allegations of police excesses.
In one letter dated December 22, Aua Baldé, the U.N. chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, or WGEID, and two other rapporteurs said an “alleged smear campaign” had been launched against Odhikar and its secretary, Adilur Rahman Khan, who is also facing “intimidation and harassment” by different government agencies.
“These outlets have reported inaccurate and misleading information on the WGEID’s activities, including its humanitarian procedure. …The allegations received also refer to acts of harassment and intimidation against members of the NGO Maayer Daak,” the letter said, referring to the agencies.
The three rapporteurs asked for details of steps taken to investigate the cases of intimidation and harassment of the rights groups, including against Khan, the Odhikar secretary.
In the second letter, five other rapporteurs expressed concerns over reported “attacks and the use of excessive and lethal force” against protesters from the country’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP. That letter was dated December 27.
“We are troubled by the allegations of arrests, detentions and legal cases that have been filed against individuals for participating in protests and for being members of the opposition political parties or critical civil society groups, despite reports that the protests were peaceful,” the second letter said.
Rights groups allege harassment
Odhikar, one of Bangladesh’s top human rights organizations, is globally known for its human rights-related work in the country and works closely with the U.N., Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups.
Last June, the Bangladeshi government accused Odhikar of spreading “propaganda against the state by publishing misleading information” on its website and that Odhikar “seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world.” The government canceled the group’s registration, triggering outrage across the international human rights community.
Angelita Baeyens, vice president of international advocacy and litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said, “The persecution and criminalization of Odhikar executives, one of the most prestigious human rights organizations in the country, shows an intentional effort by the government to silence those that expose the grave abuses instead of addressing the underlying causes.”
Sanjida Islam Tulee, a coordinator at Maayer Daak, said that members of her organization faced harassment by the government and law enforcement agencies.
“The level of harassment and intimidation of the members of our organization has increased in the past months since Michelle Bachelet visited Bangladesh in August and called for the government to establish ‘an impartial, independent and transparent investigation’ into allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing and torture,” Tulee told VOA.
Bachelet served one term as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She visited Bangladesh prior to stepping down from the post.
Protesting the rise in the cost of essential commodities and demanding the installation of a neutral caretaker government, the BNP has been conducting rallies across the country for several months.
According to the BNP, law enforcement agencies have arrested more than 10,000 of its leaders and workers in the past six months and at least eight BNP activists have been shot dead by police during that period.
Last month, Human Rights Watch voiced concerns about "violence and repression" ahead of Bangladesh's general elections, as attacks against opposition political leaders and workers continued to rise.
Alleged police brutality
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP secretary general, said, “The police brutality has risen to an unprecedented level” against the political activists.
“Lethal arms are being used in violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters. No political activity or campaigning by the opposition can take place when we are facing such atrocities on a daily basis. There is absolutely no space for political opponents and dissenters in Bangladesh,” Alamgir told VOA.
“Awami League captured power through rigged elections in 2014 and 2018. They will do the same again in 2023. Free and fair elections are impossible under the current regime. BNP will simply not validate these sham elections by pointless participation.” Awami League is the ruling party.
No date for the elections has been announced.
Last week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told visiting State Department Counselor Derek Chollet that she never wanted to come to power through rigged elections.
“The next elections will be free and fair. I have fought for democracy throughout my life,” she told Chollet, who led a delegation that met with her.
Baeyens from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights noted that Bangladesh is an “inflection point.” She said that as the elections draw closer, “serious human rights violations continue to happen there with minimum accountability.”
“The attacks and persecution of Maayer Daak and Odhikar are examples of the broader crackdown against civil society and the media and the targeting of critical voices, including opposition members,” Baeyens said.
“In these conditions, one can hardly expect the elections to be genuinely free and fair.”