The Indian government not only failed to stop Hindu vigilantism against religious minorities in 2017, but police frequently filed complaints against victims of such attacks, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday in releasing its annual report.
The U.S.-based global rights watchdog also took aim at the Philippines for President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that left thousands dead, and Bangladesh for failing to respond to allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Not all was negative for Bangladesh, as HRW offered praise for its handling of the Rohingya refugee influx.
HRW’s “World Report 2018” gauged the human rights climate last year in 90 countries.
In India, HRW blamed extremist Hindu groups who claim to be associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with committing assaults against Muslims and other minorities over rumors they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef. In 2017, 10 people were killed in at least 38 attacks, while, in some cases, police charged victims for violating laws banning the slaughter of cows.
“Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director. “There needs to be a serious effort to prevent future attacks and to prosecute all those responsible for the violence.”
In August 2017, the nation’s Supreme Court declared there was a fundamental right to privacy and free speech under the constitution, HRW noted. Despite that declaration, Indian authorities brought sedition and criminal defamation charges against academics, activists and journalists who expressed views critical of the government and its policies.
In addition to vigilante attacks, HRW reported 42 militant attacks in Jammu and Kashmir state that killed 184 people, including 44 security force personnel in the first 10 months of 2017.
“In May, the army gave a commendation to an officer who used a bystander unlawfully as a ‘human shield’ to evacuate security personnel and election staff from a mob in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam district,” the report stated.
HRW also blamed the government for failing to review and repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives soldiers who commit violations effective immunity from prosecution.
In the Philippines, HRW described the rights situation in the Southeast Asian nation as having deteriorated gravely under President Duterte.
“Duterte has plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s,” the watchdog stated in opening the Philippines section of its 643-page annual report.
While the government claimed that 3,906 suspected dealers and users were killed from July 1, 2016, when Duterte took office, until Sept. 26, 2017, HRW said that by adding in those killed by unidentified gunmen, the death toll was closer to 12,000.
“Police have planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets on victims’ bodies to implicate them in drug activities,” HRW reported. “Masked gunmen taking part in killings appeared to be working closely with police, casting doubt on government claims that most killings have been committed by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.”
HRW also blamed Duterte and other officials for reviling and humiliating rights activists. One of Duterte’s chief critics, Sen. Leila de Lima, has been jailed since February 2017 in apparent retaliation for leading a senate inquiry into his administration’s war on illegal drugs.
“Since Duterte will never undertake a serious investigation into the ‘war on drugs,’ it’s up to the United Nations to support an international investigation and bring the mass killings to a stop.” HRW deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said in a press release.
Speaking at a public event on Thursday, Duterte took a shot at his critics for claiming police had killed thousands of dealers and addicts.
“They always claim that, look Duterte killed these people,” the Philippine president said. “One said 10,000. If that is true, then funeral parlors are already rich. That’s too many.
“You did not know the extent of the drug problem in the country until I became president,” he said. “You would not know that police generals are involved if I had not become president. You did not know that Manila police were involved. But not all of them.”
On several occasions in 2017, Duterte blamed police generals, mayors and village officials for being involved in the drug trade.
HRW said Bangladesh had a long history of serious violations including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings – “a pattern that did not abate in 2017.” The report specifically targeted the police’s Detective Branch, Bangladesh Border Guard, the Directorate General Forces Inspectorate and the Rapid Action Battalion.
“Law enforcement authorities continued to arrest opposition activists and militant suspects, holding them in secret detention for long periods before producing some in court. Several others, according to security forces, were killed in ‘gunfights,’ leading to concerns over extrajudicial killings. At time of writing, scores remained victims of enforced disappearances,” HRW stated.
The annual report follows a July 2017 HRW report slamming Bangladesh for forced disappearances – it documented more than 300 since 2009.
At the time, HRW recommended inviting the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and other relevant organizations, to visit Bangladesh to “investigate and make appropriate recommendations to ensure justice and accountability.”
HRW, however, praised Bangladesh for its handling of 655,000 Rohingya who crossed the Myanmar border since August 2017, but the watchdog expressed concern over government plans to move the refugees to uninhabitable islands or to return them to Myanmar without citizenship rights and protections.
“Bangladesh deserves credit for not forcibly returning Rohingya refugees, and for doing what it can with strained resources to provide safety for them for the time being,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said in a news release.
At the same time HRW released its annual report, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, arrived in Bangladesh after the Myanmar government had refused to work with her.
“I am determined to carry on – to the best of my ability – this very important task of helping the victims of human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, as mandated to me by the United Nations system,” Lee said about her trip. She will be in Bangladesh until Jan. 24 and then travel to Thailand.
“By not giving me access to Myanmar and by refusing to cooperate with the mandate, my task is made that much more difficult, but I will continue to obtain first-hand accounts from victims and witnesses of human rights violations by all means possible, including by visiting neighboring countries where some have fled,” she said.
Lee will visit Dhaka and refugee camps and settlements near Cox’s Bazar district to meet with refugees and community leaders.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.