The constitution provides for the rights to life and personal liberty. There were numerous reports, however, that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter-terrorist activity. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators, the suspect was killed during an exchange of gunfire when accomplices at the location shot at police.
The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings,” terms used to characterize exchanges of gunfire between the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) or other police units and criminal gangs. The media also sometimes used these terms to describe legitimate uses of police force.
Human rights organizations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings. In some cases human rights organizations claimed law enforcement units detained, interrogated, and tortured suspects, brought them back to the scene of the original arrest, executed them, and ascribed the death to lawful self-defense in response to violent attacks.
A domestic human rights organization, Human Rights Support Society (HRSS), reported security forces killed more than 400 individuals in crossfire incidents from January through September. Another domestic human rights organization, Odhikar, reported security forces killed 415 individuals in crossfire incidents from January through October.
The government initiated an antinarcotics drive in May aimed at addressing a perceived narcotics problem in the country. The drive resulted in an increase of reported extrajudicial killings relative to last year. Local media reported approximately 230 alleged drug dealers were killed and 17,000 arrests were made from May through June.
Human rights organizations and civil society expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings and arrests, claiming many of the victims were innocent and contended the antinarcotics drive was a government effort to exert increased political control over the populace in advance of the national election.
On May 26, RAB forces shot and killed Teknaf City Municipal Councilor Ekramul Haque in Cox’s Bazar District during a gunfight with drug dealers. Haque’s family members disputed RAB’s assertion Haque was involved in narcotics and claimed plainclothes government agents picked up Haque from his home hours before his death to discuss what the government agents alleged was a recent real estate purchase. Community members also disputed Haque’s involvement with illegal narcotics.
Odhikar reported 57 detainees died while under law enforcement custody in the first 10 months of the year.
On March 6, according to press reports, plainclothes law enforcement officers arrested Zakir Hossain Milon, a student leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on allegations of obstruction of justice. During his interrogation Milon complained of an “illness” and was transported to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), where staff physicians declared him dead on March 12. Family members alleged Milon died from torture by law enforcement while under interrogation, claiming when they retrieved the remains from DMCH, the victim’s fingernails were missing, and his lower extremities showed multiple severe bruises.
Competition among factions and members of the ruling party for local offices or dominance in their respective neighborhoods provoked violent intraparty clashes, resulting in killings and injuries between supporters of rival candidates. Human rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reported political violence resulted in approximately 30 deaths and 2,850 injuries from January through October.
Terrorists inspired two attacks this year. On March 3, Foyzur Rahman attacked Professor Muhammad Zafar Iqbal at a university in Sylhet. Rahman attacked Iqbal with a knife deeming him an “enemy of Islam.” Iqbal had been a staunch critic of Islamist politics and growing intolerance in local Bangladeshi society.
The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) found Rahman had links to Dawah Ilallah, an internet forum run by terrorist organization Ansarullah Bangla Team. Students attempted to restrain Rahman during his attack and turned him over to law enforcement. Iqbal survived the attack with injuries to his head and upper extremity.
Human rights groups and media reported disappearances and kidnappings continued, committed mostly by security services. The government made limited efforts to prevent or investigate such acts. Following alleged disappearances, security forces released some individuals without charge, arrested others, found some dead, and never found others. HRSS stated there were 58 enforced disappearances from January through September. Odhikar stated there were 83 enforced disappearances from January through November.
Authorities took into custody in 2016 the sons of three former opposition politicians convicted by Bangladesh’s International Criminal Tribunal. The detainees were never formally detained or charged with a crime. Authorities released Humam Quader Chowdhury seven months later, but Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem and Amaan Azmi remained missing at year’s end. The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.
High-ranking government officials repeatedly denied incidents of enforced disappearance and claimed victims were hiding of their own accord. A 2017 judicial inquiry concluded enforced disappearances occurred and ordered the Police Bureau of Investigation to take actions regarding disappeared persons. Local law enforcement maintains they continued investigating these disappearances throughout the year.
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, local and international human rights organizations and the media reported security forces, including the intelligence services and police, employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. Security forces reportedly used threats, beatings, kneecappings, and electric shock, and sometimes committed rapes and other sexual abuses. Odhikar reported five deaths from torture during the first 10 months of the year.
The law contains provisions allowing a magistrate to place a suspect in interrogative custody, known as remand, during which questioning of the suspect can take place without a lawyer present. Human rights organizations alleged that many instances of torture occurred during remand.
On May 4, the Detective Branch (DB) of the Bangladesh Police detained Ashraf Ali on suspicion of kidnapping. After 35 hours of detention, Ali was taken to DMCH where he died three hours later. An autopsy conducted at DMCH concluded Ali suffered severe bruising on his lower body and sustained intestinal torsion. According to hospital authorities, DB asked the staff physicians at the hospital to issue a death certificate stating Ali died of natural causes. The physicians refused, reportedly due to Ali’s physical condition upon arrival. Ali’s family stated Ali was a hernia patient but was in otherwise good health.
On August 5, photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments” when reporting on student protests for road safety (see section 2. a.). When Alam was brought to court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible injuries.
During his testimony in front of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Alam alleged on the first night of detention, he was blindfolded, a weight was placed on his head, and he was hit on the face. Subsequent medical reports released to the court on August 9, a day after a legally required medical examination at a public hospital, stated Alam had been deemed “physically and mentally sound.” On August 22, Alam’s wife, Rahnuma Ahmed, issued a press release requesting his transfer to a hospital. Ahmed reported during a visit to the jail, her husband claimed he was suffering from breathing difficulties, pain in his gums, and vision problems. Ahmed reported these health issues did not predate his detention. Alam was released on bail on November 20.
Sexual Abuse By Bangladeshi Peacekeepers
According to the United Nations, three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against Bangladeshi peacekeepers reported from 2015-17 remained pending. The cases alleged both sexual exploitation (exploitative relationship, transactional sex) and abuse (sexual assault against minors) involving peacekeepers deployed in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two allegations have been substantiated according to UN investigations. The peacekeepers in question were repatriated by the United Nations. The investigations by Bangladesh authorities were pending at the end of the year.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions remained harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper sanitation. There are currently no private detention facilities. ASK claimed these conditions contributed to custodial deaths, which it claimed totaled 74 from January through December.
Physical Conditions: According to the Department of Prisons, in November more than 95,000 prisoners occupied a system designed to hold approximately 37,000 inmates. Authorities often incarcerated pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as of October, Bangladesh prisons held more than 90,000 prisoners compared to an official capacity of roughly 36,000; prisoners slept in shifts and did not have adequate toilet facilities. In 2016 human rights organizations and the media stated some prisoners did not receive medical care or water, although prison authorities maintained each prisoner had access to water. Water available in prisons was comparable with water available in the rest of the country, which was frequently not potable.
Conditions in prisons, and often within the same prison complex, varied widely. Authorities lodged some prisoners in areas subject to high temperatures, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. The law allows individuals whom prison officials designated as “VIPs” to access “Division A” prison facilities with improved living and food, more frequent family visitation rights, and the provision of another prisoner without VIP status to serve as an aide in the cell.
While the law requires holding juveniles separately from adults, authorities incarcerated many juveniles with adults. Children were sometimes imprisoned (occasionally with their mothers) despite laws and court decisions prohibiting the imprisonment of minors.
Authorities routinely held female prisoners separately from men. Although the law prohibits women in “safe custody” (usually victims of rape, trafficking, and domestic violence) from being housed with criminals, officials did not always provide separate facilities. Authorities must issue permission for these women to leave this “safe custody.”
Although Dhaka’s central jail had facilities for those with mental disabilities, not all detention facilities had such facilities, nor are they required to by law. Judges may reduce punishments for persons with disabilities on humanitarian grounds. Jailors also may make special arrangements, for example, by transferring inmates with disabilities to a prison hospital.
Prisons had no ombudsmen to whom prisoners could submit complaints. Prison authorities indicated they were constrained by significant staff shortages. The scope for retraining and rehabilitation programs was extremely limited.
The government permitted visits from governmental inspectors and nongovernmental observers who were aligned with the incumbent party. No reports on these inspections were released.
Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 permits authorities to arrest and detain an individual without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual may constitute a threat to security and public order. The act was widely cited by law enforcement in justifying their arrests. The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not generally observe these requirements.
Media, civil society, and human rights organizations accused the government of conducting enforced disappearances not only against suspected militants but also against civil society and opposition party members. Authorities sometimes held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.
Roles of DGFI, NSI, DB and RAB
The Bangladesh Police, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has a mandate to maintain internal security and law and order. Numerous units of the Bangladesh Police operate under competing mandates. The most significant among such units are the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU), the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)–a mostly counterterrorism-focused Special Mission Unit–and the Detective Branch (DB).
The military, which reports directly to the prime minister (who also holds the title of minister of defense), is responsible for external security. The military may also be “activated” as a backup force with a variety of domestic security responsibilities when required to aid civilian authorities. This includes responding to instances of terrorism.
The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) are the two primary intelligence agencies with overlapping responsibilities and capabilities. Both are responsible for domestic as well as foreign affairs and report directly to the prime minister in her capacity as minister of defense. Media reports asserted that the DGFI and, to a lesser degree, the NSI engaged in politically motivated violations of human rights. This included violations against suspected terrorists, members of opposition parties, civil society, and others.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the military and other security forces. While the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption within the security forces, these mechanisms were not regularly employed. The government continued to take steps to improve police professionalism, discipline, training, and responsiveness–and to reduce corruption. Police basic training continued to incorporate instruction on the appropriate use of force as part of efforts to implement community-based policing.
According to police policy, all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, triggered an automatic internal investigation, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police.
The government neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence of the professional standards units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received only administrative punishment.
Security forces continued to commit abuses with impunity. Plaintiffs were reluctant to accuse police in criminal cases due to lengthy trial procedures and fear of retribution. Reluctance to bring charges against police also perpetuated a climate of impunity. Officers with political ties to the ruling party occupied many of the key positions in the law enforcement agencies.
The government continued support of the Internal Enquiry Cell that investigates cases of human rights abuses within the RAB, which did not widely publish its findings and did not otherwise announce significant actions against officers accused of human rights abuses.
Security forces failed to prevent societal violence.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution requires arrests and detentions be authorized by a warrant or occur as a result of observation of a crime in progress, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 grants broad exceptions to these protections.
Under the constitution detainees must be brought before a judicial officer to face charges within 24 hours, but this provision was not regularly enforced. The government or a district magistrate may order a person detained for 30 days to prevent the commission of an act that could threaten national security; however, authorities sometimes held detainees for longer periods with impunity.
There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite a 2016 directive from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting rearrest of persons when they are released on bail in new cases without producing them in court.
Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest. Detainees are legally entitled to counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but the country lacked sufficient funds to provide for this entitlement.
Arbitrary arrests occurred, often in conjunction with political demonstrations or as part of security force responses to terrorist activity, and the government held persons in detention without specific charges, sometimes in an attempt to collect information about other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification to arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement that arrests be based on crimes that have previously occurred.
This year experienced a significant increase in arrests of opposition party activists. According to figures provided to the Dhaka Tribune by the BNP, 434,975 criminal charges in 4,429 cases were lodged against BNP members from September 1 through November 14. Law enforcement also arrested at least 100 students, most of whom participated peacefully in the quota reform and road safety protest movements.
On September 5, DB officers in Dhaka arrested numerous students from their student residences late at night, allegedly for their roles in the road safety protests in July and August. While authorities later released some of the students, 12 of the students were kept in custody for days before being brought before a judge. Human rights activists criticized the DB for its initial denial of the arrests and failure to produce them before the court within 24 hours of arrest, as mandated by the law. Some of the students released by DB alleged physical abuse during their informal detention.
In a September 11 article, the Daily Star newspaper published a listed of allegedly false criminal charges by police against opposition party BNP activists. The list included charges against an 82-year bedridden man in a hospital, a person who was abroad on the day of the alleged incident, and an individual who died approximately two years before the alleged crime. On November 7, the BNP submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office what it claimed to be a partial list of 1,046 “fictitious cases” filed against its leaders and activists.
Police routinely detained opposition activists in their homes, in public places, or when commuting to and from their respective parties’ events. On September 10, multiple newspapers reported police in Dhaka apprehended dozens of BNP supporters as they were returning home after participating in a peaceful human chain in front of the National Press Club to demand the release of incarcerated party chair Khaleda Zia.
Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, lax enforcement of pretrial rules, and corruption. In some cases the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime.
In July, Hasnat Karim, a UK citizen detained without charges and denied bail for more than two years as part of the investigation into the 2016 Holey Bakery Attack that killed more than 20 persons, was released. Law enforcement authorities decided not to charge Karim, due to a lack of evidence against him.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court
Pursuant to the Special Powers Act, a magistrate must inform a detainee of grounds for detention within 15 days. Regulations require an advisory board, appointed by the government, to examine each case of detention that lasts longer than four months. Detainees have the right to appeal.
Judicial vacancies hampered legal challenges to cases of detention. In 2017 The Daily Star reported delays in the recruitment of judges were hampering judicial proceedings and leading to a substantial case backlog. The article noted approximately 400 lower court judgeships, including 50 district judgeships, remained vacant. On January 16, the Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister reported to parliament that 3,309,789 cases were pending with the court system on the last day of 2017.
On May 31, the president appointed 18 additional judges to the High Court division of the Supreme Court, raising the number of High Court Judges to 98. As of September the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had appointed four judges on an 11-member bench.
Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and political interference compromised its independence. In 2014 parliament passed the 16th amendment, authorizing parliament to remove judges. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled the amendment unconstitutional. The resulting public dispute with parliament and the prime minister resulted in the resignation and departure from the country of Chief Justice S. K. Sinha. In an interview with BBC Bangla broadcast on September 19, Sinha claimed he was placed under house arrest following judgment and forced by the intelligence service to leave the country. In his autobiography, released in August, Sinha claimed the prime minister, the president, and law minister pressured him to rule in favor of the government.
A petition filed by the government seeking to review the decision remained pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. The government continued to pursue corruption charges against Sinha at year’s end. Media observers and political commentators alleged the charges were politically motivated.
On January 3, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court accepted a government draft of disciplinary rules for lower court judges, putting an end to protracted negotiations between the judiciary and government. While the Supreme Court claimed the rules did not undermine its supremacy and it did not lose its oversight over the lower courts, some senior jurists interpreted the rules as making the lower courts subordinate to the executive branch.
On February 2, the president appointed Appellate Division judge Syed Mahmud Hossain as the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, superseding Justice Abdul Wahab Miah, who had been officiating as the Chief Justice since October 2017. Miah immediately resigned as a Supreme Court justice, citing “personal reasons.”
On September 4, the Law Ministry transferred criminal proceedings against former BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia from a public courtroom to a closed facility at a prison. The Law Ministry cited security reasons for the transfer. Subsequent proceedings took place in the prison on September 5 without Zia’s lawyers present. An appeal was filed September 5 challenging the lack of a public tribunal for the accused. The appeal was rejected by the High Court.
On June 6, a High Court panel reproved a Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate court for “abusing the process of the court” to prolong disposal of a bail petition filed by Zia.
Human rights observers maintained magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or they ruled based on influence by or loyalty to political patronage networks. Observers claimed judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.
Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always protect this right due to corruption, partisanship, and weak human resources.
Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to appeal, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. The accused are entitled to be present at their public trial. Indigent defendants have the right to a public defender. Trials are conducted in the Bengali language. The government does not provide free interpretation for defendants who cannot understand or speak Bengali. Defendants also have the right to adequate time to prepare a defense.
Accused persons have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. They also have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt although defendants who do not confess their guilt are often kept in custody. The government frequently did not respect these rights.
Mobile courts headed by executive branch magistrates rendered immediate verdicts that often included prison terms to defendants who were not afforded the opportunity for legal representation. Deputy commissioners from various districts requested the government expedite the passage of an amendment to the Mobile Court Act of 2009 giving executive magistrates increased judicial powers. Parliament had not introduced such legislation by year’s end.
In 2017 the High Court ruled that empowering executive magistrates with judicial powers was “a frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary and violates the theory of separation of powers.” The government appealed the verdict through the Appellate Panel of the Supreme Court, which stayed the verdict, allowing the mobile courts to function pending the Appellate Panel’s next decision.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. The opposition BNP maintained thousands of its members were arrested arbitrarily throughout the year.
On February 8, former prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years imprisonment on corruption and embezzlement charges, on charges first filed in 2008 under a nonpartisan caretaker government. International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction, suggesting a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process. The courts were generally slow in considering petitions for bail on her behalf. A person convicted under similar circumstances would normally receive an immediate bail hearing. In Zia’s case the bail hearing was postponed nearly a month. When the High Court granted bail on March 12, the order was immediately stayed for two months by the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. Upon confirming the bail order, approximately three months after the conviction, the government obtained arrest warrants in other cases against her.
ASK claimed 1,786 BNP party members were arrested in the eight days preceding Zia’s sentencing. A BNP spokesperson told Human Rights Watch thousands had been detained including members of the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, and others not linked to any party. It was not possible to verify these numbers independently.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Individuals and organizations may seek judicial remedies for human rights violations; however, lack of public faith in the court system deterred many from filing complaints. While the law has a provision for an ombudsman, one had not been established.
The government did not implement the 2001 Vested Property (Return) Act to accelerate the process of return of land to primarily Hindu individuals (see section 2.d.). The act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. It was often used to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups when they fled the country, particularly after the 1971 independence war.
Minority communities continued to report land ownership disputes that disproportionately displaced minorities, especially in areas near new roads or industrial development zones where land prices had increased. They also claimed local police, civil authorities, and political leaders were sometimes involved in evictions or shielded politically influential land grabbers from prosecution (see section 6).
In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act which may allow for land restitution for indigenous persons living in the CHT. The amendment has not yet provided resolution to any of the disputes (see section 2.d.).
Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law does not prohibit arbitrary interference with private correspondence. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies may monitor private communications with the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but police rarely obtained such permission from the courts to monitor private correspondence.
Human rights organizations alleged the Bangladesh Police, the NSI, and the DGFI employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.
The government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in an effort to intimidate the public. The government formed a monitoring cell to “detect rumors” on social media. State Minister for Posts, Telecommunications, and Information Technology Tarana Halim said content that threatens communal harmony, disrupts state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
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