Bangladesh security forces routinely targeted opposition members through enforced disappearances in 2017, with reports suggesting that more than 80 people vanished in this way last year, global rights watchdog Amnesty International said Thursday in its annual report.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government also harassed and intimidated human rights defenders and used repressive laws to restrict free speech and freedom of peaceful assembly within the past year, the London-based group reported.
“Enforced disappearances were routinely carried out by security forces, mainly targeting supporters of the opposition,” Amnesty International (AI) said in a scathing assessment of the climate for human rights in Bangladesh. “Some of the disappeared were subsequently found dead.”
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal rejected the report, saying authorities had investigated many cases of enforced disappearances and found that many of the missing people “willingly went into hiding to embarrass the government.”
“These are all the same old comments. These are not true. We reject the report,” Khan told BenarNews. “We take every reported cases of so-called abduction seriously.”
On Thursday, Dhaka-based rights activists called for members of the security forces who had participated in enforced disappearances to be punished.
“We, the human rights activists, have been alerting the government about the enforced disappearances for years,” Nur Khan Liton, a former executive director of Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, a leading Bangladeshi rights organization, told BenarNews.
“But the government is not paying heed to us and the enforced disappearances have created a horrible situation in the society,” he said. “The time has come to think whether the horrible situation is being used to suppress others.”
The AI report came out a month after the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) took aim at Bangladesh over the government’s alleged failure to respond to allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
The “World Report 2018” from HRW, which gauged conditions for human rights last year in 90 countries, slammed Bangladesh for its long history of rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. It said it had documented more than 300 cases of forced disappearances involving security forces since 2009.
Amnesty released its report covering 159 countries at a news conference in Washington. It was the first time that the group had published its annual report in the United States since Amnesty was founded in 1961.
Among the more than 80 cases of enforced disappearances recorded in 2017 in Bangladesh, Amnesty cited an incident in March last year in which Hummam Quader Chowdhury, son of an executed leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was released after six months of detention.
Rights advocates had also expressed concerns over the safety of Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem and Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, sons of executed Bangladeshi opposition leaders who disappeared in August 2016 and remain missing, Amnesty said.
The rights group also cited a Swedish Radio interview in April 2017, in which a senior member of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) allegedly described how members of the elite anti-terror unit carried out enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
The report also mentioned the abduction of Mubashar Hasan, a political science professor at the privately-run North South University in Dhaka, who was reported missing for six weeks. Hasan returned home on Dec. 22 last year after his unidentified abductors left him blindfolded on a busy Dhaka highway.
On Oct. 10, 2017, Bangladeshi opposition leaders said police had arrested 33 leaders of the faith-based opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, in an apparent government-backed crackdown spread over two weeks. They charged that Hasina’s government launched the crackdown in preparation for the next general election, expected to take place in late 2018 or early 2019.
AI also noted a new trend in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries whereby governments invoke vague excuses, such as “to protect the national interest,” to criminalize free speech online.
“Criticism of the Bangladesh government or the family of the Prime Minister also triggered criminal cases,” Amnesty said, pointing to how the government had introduced the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018, which sets punishments for defamatory content online.
On Jan. 29, Hasina’s cabinet approved a draft of the security act for submission to parliament.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.