Bangladesh: No accountability for killing of Mushtaq Ahmed 100 days on
🇧🇩#Bangladesh: Over 100 days since dissident writer, Mushtaq Ahmed, was killed in prison. The facts:— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) June 5, 2021
🟠Nobody brought to justice
🟠Mushtaq in prison for criticising govt's #COVID19 response
🟠Digital Security Act used to stifle dissent
📝Our statement https://t.co/Su7nkEhngp pic.twitter.com/jJSv5fIDyR
100 days on since the death in custody of writer and critic Mushtaq Ahmed, no one has been held accountable for his killing. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Bangladesh authorities to immediately establish an independent investigation into his death and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Bangladesh: Odhikar faces another blow as government upholds de-registration decision
The decision by the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh to uphold the de-registration of prominent human rights organisation Odhikar is appalling and demonstrates the government’s ongoing efforts to crush the organisation and stifle human rights work in the country, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance said today.
Bangladesh: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill
The President of Bangladesh, H.E. Md Abdul Hamid
The Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, H.E. Kazi Reazul Hoque
Subject: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill
We write to you as international civil society organisations engaged on human rights and sustainable development issues in Bangladesh. We are concerned that in the current political climate in Bangladesh, which is narrowing avenues for free debate and legitimate democratic dissent in the country, the Bangladesh Digital Security Bill 2018, likely to be introduced in the current session of Parliament, fails to protect the right of the media, civil society and members of the general public to freely express their opinions on policies and actions of decision makers.
Many of our organisations have closely followed debates about this bill over the years. In the past we have raised concerns about the existence of overbroad definitions and harsh punishments in the bill which, if enacted, would severely undermine freedom of expression as well as the freedom of the press. From available information, it appears that our concerns about the bill’s provisions as likely to impinge on constitutional rights and well as Bangladesh’s commitments under international law persist. Both Article 29 of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allow the imposition of restrictions on the right to freedom of expression only in very limited and clearly defined circumstances.
In the present situation we recommend that the bill’s provisions are carefully considered from a constitutional and international law standpoint. Mr. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, has done extensive work on the subject including on the exercise of the freedom of expression in the digital age. We believe that the government would greatly benefit from engagement with Mr. Kaye, who could advise on the permissible limits on the freedom of expression under international law.
Furthermore, we urge the government to seek assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on measures to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights in the country in line with constitutional and international standards. We are concerned to hear that an official visit to Bangladesh by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein has been postponed and request the facilitation of a such a visit at the earliest opportunity.
We believe that Bangladesh’s democracy and commitment to human rights and sustainable development will be strengthened through constructive engagement with UN human rights experts. We urge you to kindly consider the above requests in the interests of the people of Bangladesh.
List of signatories (in alphabetical order)
Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Asian Human Rights Commission
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Human Rights Watch
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
Bangladesh: Open Letter to Prime Minister about controversial digital security bill
Conditions for human rights defenders and journalists in Bangladesh are dire, and appear to be worsening according to the CIVICUS Monitor. A declining respect for democracy has precipitated the closure of civic space through a systematic clampdown on independent dissent. This intensifying crackdown on civil society has led to a de facto ban on public meetings, mass arrests of activists and reports of abductions and torture. Civil society actors documenting human rights violations perpetrated by the government are particularly vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest.
The authorities in Bangladesh continue to target civil society, most recently through draconian legislation designed to undermine the sector's independence. In October 2016, parliament passed an amendment to the widely-criticised Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill (FDRB). The law strengthens the government's power to revoke CSO licenses for a variety of offences, including defamation, involvement in subversive activities and terrorist financing. The Digital Security Bill placed in Parliament is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Bangladesh and impede independent journalism. See full details of the Security bill in a joint leter below to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh:
.@forum_asia, @humanrightsasia & @CIVICUSalliance issue joint open letter to #PrimeMinister of #Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, to express concern proposed #DigitalSecurity Bill will restrict #FreedomOfExpression & promote #selfcensorship https://t.co/dIJgA3IiZo pic.twitter.com/FVJbU4eVmG— FORUM-ASIA (@forum_asia) April 24, 2018
H.E. Sheikh Hasina Wazed
Prime Minister of Bangladesh
c/o Md. Nojibur Rahman
Principal Secretary to the HPM
Prime Minister’s Office
Dear Prime Minister,
Open Letter: Proposed Digital Security Bill will restrict free expression and promote self-censorship in Bangladesh
FORUM-ASIA, the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) are writing to you, as civil society organisations, to express our grave concern about the implications of the proposed Digital Security Bill 2018 on the right to freedom of expression of the citizens of Bangladesh.
We understand that the draft bill was presented before the parliament and was sent to a Standing Committee on 9 April 2018 and is expected to be reviewed over the next four weeks.
We believe the 2018 Digital Security Bill contains provisions that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and prescribe lengthy prison sentences for violators. The bill, if adopted, will exacerbate a range of legal restrictions that will impinge on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Constitution and the country’s obligations under international law, in particular the ICCPR, which was ratified by Bangladesh in 2000.
We are particularly concerned about the follow aspects of the bill:
- The bill proposes to empower low ranking police officers with wide discretionary powers to conduct investigations, searches and seizures without applying normative digital evidentiary standards and without judicial oversight.
- The bill lacks a precise definition of what is considered a cybercrime and criminalises the use of electronic devices to “cause deterioration to law and order”, harm "religious sentiments”, cause incitement "against another person or organization”, and carry out “acts of defamation” - all of which have been incorporated from section 57 of the ICT Act. The bill simply splits these offences into four separate sections (21, 25, 28 and 29) with punishment ranging from three to 10 years' jail term.
- There are concerns around the inclusion of the crime of “carrying out negative propaganda" against the Liberation War (1971 War of Independence) or the ‘Father of the Nation’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president) that carries a maximum sentence of up to 14 years' in jail or a fine of up to Tk 50 lakh (60,000 USD) or both. These provisions are in contravention of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
- Section 32 of the draft bill related to "espionage” could be used against journalists, online activists and lawyers who investigate and expose controversy or illegality within the government.
- The bill also stipulates some crimes are “non-bailable” and authorises security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the law has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes. Such provision often encourages abuse of power by law enforcement officers and promotes self-censorship.
We are concerned that, according to reports, although the draft bill is currently under consideration in parliament, cases filed under section 57 of the ICT Act will continue to be investigated and if necessary, prosecuted.
Section 57 of the ICT Act violates the right to freedom of expression by both criminalising legitimate forms of expression and through its vague wording that allows the authorities to arbitrarily and abusively apply the law. Scores of journalists have been arrested under section 57 of the Act for their reporting; around 700 cases have been filed under this Section since 2013. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises several forms of online expression including anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.
In 2017, the Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations raised concerns about the arrest of journalists, “secular bloggers” and human rights defenders under the ICT Act and called for the government to “repeal or revise the [ICT law] with a view to bringing it into conformity with the State party’s obligations under the Covenant, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) on the freedoms of opinion and expression”.
We are also highly concerned by the government's lack of meaningful consultation regarding the bill with key stakeholders including journalists, civil society and the human rights community. We urge the government of Bangladesh to prioritise a collective review of the proposed Digital Security Bill to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards and to repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act. The government must ensure that any future legislative proposals that have implications for the media or civil society are developed in full consultation with all stakeholders.
Freedom of expression is of critical importance to hold those in power accountable. There should be no limitations on the freedom of expression and personal opinion, particularly those that systematically violate democratic spaces and practices.
It is crucial that the government takes steps to develop an enabling environment for freedom of expression in line with international standards and end its willful misuse of restrictive legislation to subvert free speech.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa it is a membership alliance with more than 4,000 members in more than 175 countries.
FORUM-ASIA is a regional human rights group with 58 member organisations in 19 countries across Asia. FORUM-ASIA has offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expression, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratization.
For further details, contact:
Bangladesh: Opposition face arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force around protests
CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) are extremely concerned about reports of arbitrary arrests and excessive force against opposition activists around mass sit-in protests in Bangladesh. Our organisations call on the authorities to release all those arrested for exercising their peaceful right to protest and to undertake a prompt and independent investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed by security forces and ruling party activists.
On 28 July 2023, thousands of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters rallied in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka demanding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down and make way for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee a general election expected early next year.
The following day, police moved in to clear thousands of protesters fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse stone-throwing crowds blockading main roads in the capital. According to news reports, clashes between police and protesters took place in at least four locations in the city.
There were also reports of police as well as ruling party supporters - carrying sticks and rods in the presence of police - violently attacking protesters. According to the BNP, 600 supporters were injured by police rubber bullets and attacks by the ruling party people. In one incident recorded on video, Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, a member of the BNP’s National Executive Committee, who was leading a peaceful sit-in protest in Dhaka was severely beaten and arrested by individuals wearing police vests. In another incident, a video showed alleged ruling party activists attacking opposition supporters in front of Notre Dame college. Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told reporters that at least 700 people involved in the protests were arrested.
Media reports state that over 800 leaders and activists of the BNP were sent to jail in Dhaka two days prior to the protests. The police have charged at least 549 leaders of the BNP in 11 trumped-up cases registered on 30 July 2023 in addition to another 5000 others were charged on 19 July 2023.
“The arrests and violence against protesters in Bangladesh over the weekend once again highlight the lengths the government is willing to go to crush the opposition ahead of the 2024 elections. It also highlights the culture of impunity that exists with the country. Both the police and ruling party supporters must be held accountable for the serious violations against protesters,” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific Researcher for CIVICUS
The opposition have faced repeated attacks in 2023 while holding protests. In January 2023, several BNP supporters were injured in the central city of Faridpur when supporters of the governing Awami League attacked protesters while brandishing sticks and hurling Molotov cocktails. In April 2023, dozens of BNP activists were injured and many were arrested as police and ruling Awami League activists attacked the party's sit-in programmes in several places across the country .
In May 2023, police fired tear gas and arrested members of the BNP who took to Dhaka’s streets to protest as their leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, went on trial on new charges of alleged corruption. In June 2023, dozens of people were reported injured as the BNP staged protests in several cities against electricity cuts amid a nationwide heat wave.
The CIVICUS Monitor has documented over the last year how the government has also gone after human rights defenders, journalists and critics to silence dissent. Many have been charged under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) against critics. Journalists have faced reprisals including arrest, prosecution, torture and intimidation of their families for undertaking their work. Human rights group Odhikar continues to face judicial harassment.
“The escalating repression imposed by the Sheikh Hasina regime against the opposition and civil society removes any possibility that the upcoming elections will be free and fair. The international community must step up its efforts to push back on this assault on democracy and human rights and support civil society. Failing to do this will further entrench a one-party state for many years to come” said Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, Head of Bangladesh Country Desk at the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Civic space n Bangladesh is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Bangladesh: Quash conviction and release rights defenders
Photo credit: Odhikar
Leaders of Prominent Rights Group Convicted on Trumped-Up Charges
Bangladesh authorities should immediately release human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan, quash their convictions, and end all reprisals against them for their legitimate human rights work, said 72 organizations today. Khan and Elan were sentenced by the Cyber Tribunal of Dhaka to two years’ of prison and a 10,000 Bangladeshi Taka fine each in retaliation for their work documenting human rights violations in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Government has persistently targeted and launched a smear campaign against Khan and Elan, the secretary and director, respectively, of prominent Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar. Following the 2013 publication of Odhikar’s fact-finding report documenting extrajudicial killings during a protest, both defenders were arbitrarily detained – Khan for 62 and Elan for 25 days. After being released on bail, they continued to face prosecution and judicial harassment on trumped-up allegations that their 2013 report was “fake, distorted, and defamatory.”
After years of stalling, Bangladeshi judicial authorities accelerated the hearings in their case following the designation of US sanctions against the country’s notoriously abusive paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its officials in December 2021, blaming human rights organizations like Odhikar for this outcome. Their case has been marred with due process violations, such as the failure to provide the defense with advance information on the prosecution witnesses or a copy of the Criminal Investigation Department’s further investigation report until the day before a hearing.
In addition to targeting Odhikar’s leaders, the Government interfered with the organization’s ability to conduct its human rights work by blocking their access to funds and leaving its registration renewal application pending since 2014. Following the US sanction designations, the Government increased surveillance and harassment against those affiliated with Odhikar and ordered the organization to provide sources and proof for its findings of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. On June 5, 2022, the Government’s NGO Affairs Bureau officially denied Odhikar’s application for renewal, stating that the organization’s publications have “seriously tarnished the image of the state to the world.”
The Government then continued to besmirch the organization publicly, even criticizing and questioning the credibility of the US Department of State’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Bangladesh for relying on Odhikar’s documentation. UN human rights experts have expressed their concernsover the Government’s actions, stating that “the defamation of Bangladeshi-based human rights organisations by high-profile public figures is a clear attempt to undermine their credibility, reputation and human rights work in the country.”
Human rights defenders should be allowed to conduct their necessary and important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals. Instead of prosecuting and punishing those who document and expose human rights violations, the Government should investigate and hold the perpetrators of these violations accountable.
We stand with Khan and Elan and urge the authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally, as they have been detained solely for their human rights work. The authorities should reverse their convictions, and ensure they are able to continue their human rights documenting and reporting without fear of reprisals.
- Advocacy Forum Nepal
- Amnesty International
- Anti-Death Penalty Asian Network (ADPAN)
- Asia Alliance Against Torture (A3T)
- Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
- Association of Family Members of the Disappeared, Sri Lanka
- Asociacion Pro Busqueda de Ninas y Ninos Desaparecidos, El Salvador
- BALAOD Mindanaw
- Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM)
- Belarusian Solidarity Foundation
- Bir Duino, Kyrgyzstan
- Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
- Capital Punishment Justice Project, Australia
- Centre for the Sustainable use of Natural and Social Resources (CSNR), Bhubaneswar, India
- Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Civil society and Human Rights Network (CSHRN)
- Collectifs des Familles de Disparus en Algérie
- Defence for Human Rights Pakistan (DHR)
- Desaparecidos - Philippines
- Eleos Justice, Monash University, Australia
- Euro-Mediterranean Federation Against Enforced Disappearances (FEMED), France
- Families of the Disappeared (FOD), Sri Lanka
- Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND)
- FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Forum ONG Timor-leste
- Free Jonas Burgos Movement
- HAK Association, Timor-leste
- Human Rights Alert, Manipur, India
- Human Rights First
- Human Rights Hub, Sri Lanka
- Human Rights Watch
- Indonesian Association of Families of the Disappeared Families (IKOHI)
- Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI - Indonesia)
- Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI)
- Indonesia's NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy (HRWG)
- INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
- Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) - Indonesia
- International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED)
- International Federation of ACATs (FIACAT)
- International Legal Initiative (ILI) - Kazakhstan
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- JAAWABODA KENDRAYA (J. K.), Sri Lanka
- Karapatan Alliance Philippines (KARAPATAN)
- Karnali Integrated Rural Development And research Centre ( KIRDARC ) Nepal
- Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM)
- Legal Literacy - Nepal
- Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental
- Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Linea Fundadora, Argentina
- Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
- Martin Ennals Foundation
- National Fisheries Solidarity Organization, Sri Lanka
- Negombo Citizens’ Committee (N.C.C.)
- Nonviolence International Canada
- Pakistan Development Alliance
- People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD)
- Programme against custodial torture & Impunity (PACTI)
- Public Association “Dignity”, Kazakhstan, Astana
- Pusat KOMAS, Malaysia
- Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
- Sindhi Foundation
- Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
- The Awakening, Pakistan
- The Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS)
- The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor (IMPARSIAL)
- Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, Washington DC
- We Remember-Belarus
- Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC)
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse
To the President of Bangladesh,
H.E. Md Abdul Hamid
Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse
Dear President Hamid,
We are writing to express our concerns about serious violations of civic freedoms perpetrated during recent protests in Bangladesh. We urge your government to take immediate steps to address these issues in accordance with your international human rights obligations.
Our organisations are concerned about reports that police used excessive force, including firing rubber bullets and tear gas on 4th August 2018 to disperse demonstrations in Dhaka which were triggered by the killing of two teenagers by a speeding bus on 29th July 2018. We are also concerned that the government may be covering up the actual death toll and have received information that at least three others students may have also been killed and one critically injured.
Some of the student protesters were also allegedly attacked by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and Jubo League, the student and youth wing of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party.
More than 20 journalists were attacked, some of whom were later detained briefly by the police. At least four journalists from The Daily Star newspaper were reportedly beaten while at least seven photojournalists were injured in attacks in Jhigatala and Science Lab areas of the city on 5 August 2018. While some attackers wore helmets, the journalists identified some of their attackers as BCL members.
We are also concerned about the arbitrary arrest of scores of individuals around the protest, in particularly Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam who was taken from his home, just hours after he made comments on Al-Jazeera about protests in the city. He was subsequently charged under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act a provision that has been frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices in Bangladesh. He has also alleged that he was tortured while in custody. A lawyer in Sirajganj, Sakhawat Hossain Shakil, was also arrested and remanded under Section 57 of the ICT Act on 7th August for allegedly sharing anti-government posts and expressing solidarity with safe road protesters on Facebook.
At least 22 protesters were remanded in police custody for two days and five are facing charges under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. Some were allegedly tortured or ill-treated in custody. They are now detained in prison as the courts have rejected the applications for bail.
In the last few months, our organisations have also documented attacks by the BCL against students protesting the civil service quota system, which reserves 30 percent of government jobs for children of freedom fighters from Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. Academics and journalists supporting them have also been targeted. Some student activists were subsequently detained and charged. At least six are languishing in jail and according to their lawyers were allegedly tortured in police custody.
The arrest and charging of peaceful protesters and allegations of torture and ill-treatment, clearly contravene Bangladesh obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Our organisations also believe that the violent actions of the police at these protests are inconsistent with international human rights standards on the use of force such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement, and that the failure to take appropriate measures to prevent and punish harm caused by private actors, such as the BCL, also contravenes Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations.
Many of the issues above were also raised at the Human Rights Council during Bangladesh’s recent Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, and received support from your government. Protecting civic freedoms is also part of Bangladesh’s commitments under Agenda 2030 and these violations highlight that the country is failing abysmally to meet targets set under Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, and particularly target 16:10 to “protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”.
Therefore, we urge your government to take the following steps as a matter of priority:
- Immediately and unconditionally release all protesters who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their human rights, in particular photographer Shahidul Alam, and drop all charges against them;
- Carry out prompt, impartial, independent and efficient investigations into all complaints and reports of excessive use of force by the police, as well as attacks by non-state actors, against protesters and journalists, bring those responsible to justice and provide reparations to the victims;
- Review and amend all laws that restrict freedom of expression, such as section 57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act;
- Send a clear message to members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and other non-state actors that violence by them will not be tolerated;
- Create a safe and enabling environment for activists, civil society and citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution.
We express our sincere hope that you will consider and implement these recommendations.
David E. Kode , Advocacy and Campaigns Lead , CIVICUS
Ichal Supriadi , Secretary General, Asia Democracy Network (ADN)
Basil Fernando, Director, Policy and Programme, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Henri Tiphagne , Executive Director, People’s Watch
Mathew Jacob , National Coordinator, Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA)
John Samuel, Executive Director, Forum Asia (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development)
Bangladesh: Stifling expression using Digital Security Act must not be the norm to address COVID-19 pandemic
A Joint Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS
The Bangladesh government has resorted once again to its notorious Digital Security Act-2018 to muzzle freedom of expression, arresting 11 individuals following criticism of the governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four people have been detained since 5 May 2020 under the draconian digital law, including cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, IT specialist Md. Didarul Islam Bhuyan, and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaz Mannan Emon. A further seven people have been charged.
All four detainees were forcibly disappeared for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka on 5 May 2020. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police on 6 May at around 7:45 PM, and a case under the Digital Security Act was filed against them by Abu Bakar Siddique, the Deputy Assistant Director of RAB. They remain in detention.
The seven other individuals accused in the same case are Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, which the government has blocked in Bangladesh since it was launched last year from Sweden; Saer Zulkarnain; Shahed Alam; Ashik Imran; Shapan Wahed; Philip Schuhmacher; and Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger of Bangladeshi origin living in Germany.
All 11 have been charged under various provisions of the Digital Security Act including ‘propaganda or campaign against liberation war’ and ‘publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information’. Authorities have confirmed that the charges relate to allegedly ‘spreading rumours’ over the coronavirus pandemic on social media. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail.
The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, included harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. And, it has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Despite repeated calls to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s international commitments to protect freedom of expression, the government has refused to revise the law.
In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on access to information both off and online. Silencing journalists and activists and blocking websites, is not an effective public health strategy. We urge the authorities to end its use of restrictive laws to silence critics and amid the pandemic ensure the right to seek, receive, and share information relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak.
We further call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately release the detained critics and drop the charges brought against them and seven other individuals under repressive legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse to use state forces to stifle freedom of expression.
The pandemic has exposed failings by the government in addressing a public health emergency. Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 were denied access to public and private hospitals and died without treatment. The country’s healthcare system failed to provide adequate protective equipment and necessary infrastructures in hospitals to treat the pandemic. Within weeks, hundreds of doctors and nurses were infected with COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association.
Persistent suppression of freedom of expression and censorship under the government of Sheikh Hasina has continued amid the pandemic. The authorities have blocked international news outlet Al-Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. A monitoring body established by the Ministry of Information to monitor if private television channels were “running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus outbreak” was scrapped after public outcry.
Due to the muzzling of the press by the authorities, social media has become the preferred platform for those critical of the regime. In response, the police and the RAB have started picking up people for their Facebook posts. On 10th of April 2020, it was reported that at least 50 people were arrested in the country for allegedly spreading rumors. The government has also blocked dozens of websites and Facebook profiles as of late March after the government officially acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak. Healthcare workers, who spoke out about the problems they have been facing, have been barred from talking to media.
Bangladesh: Stop targeting Odhikar and its leadership
Respect the Fundamental Rights to Freedom of Association and Expression
Bangladeshi authorities must end reprisals against Odhikar and its leadership and respect the fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression. Those working to document and expose human rights violations should be able to conduct their important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals.
Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters
Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.
‘Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.
In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.
Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.
An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”
Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.
One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”
Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.
One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.
“The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.
“The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.
The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.
Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests.
A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).
“The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.
The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.
“The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.
The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.
Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.
South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.
Countries that require the attention of the UN Human Rights Council
39th Session of the Human Rights Council
Members of the CIVICUS Alliance in Zimbabwe have expressed grave concern for the authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests in Harare one day after presidential elections were held. Military personnel deployed in response to the protests shot live bullets at protesters, killing at least 6 and injuring many others. We call on the government of Zimbabwe to conduct a prompt, credible and impartial investigation in the excessive and lethal use of force during the course of these demonstrations.
In Bahrain, SALAM for Democracy & Human Rights, a member of the CIVICUS Alliance, has documented cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders. All major opposition parties have now been dissolved and stripped of their assets. We are equally concerned that security personnel continue to wilfully arrest, physically assault and even kill demonstrators for exercising their legitimate right to public dissent. We urge the Council going to hold the government of Bahrain fully accountable for any violations of its international obligations.
Finally, Mr. President, in Bangladesh, over the past year, authorities have used a rage of repressive laws to target and harass journalists and human rights defenders, restrict freedom of assembly and carry out enforced disappearances of opposition supporters ahead of national elections scheduled for late 2018. We call on the government of Bangladesh to drop all unwarranted charges and end the persecution of individuals and groups for exercising their fundamental rights.
Country recommendations on civic space for the UN´s Universal Periodic Review
CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on 9 countries in advance of the 30th UPR session (May 2018). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations. Countries examined include: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Djibouti, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan:
Bangladesh (Individual/Joint): In this UPR, CIVICUS draws attention to a range of legislative restrictions which have been strengthened and imposed to curtail the operation of independent civic groups in Bangladesh. Of particular concern, are new restrictions on groups seeking funds from abroad, as well the repeated use of the penal code to arrest HRDs and place blanket bans on meetings and assemblies. We further examine the spate of extrajudicial killings against secular bloggers and LGBTI activists which is illustrative of Bangladesh’s downward spiral with respect to civic freedoms and systemic failure to protect civil society.
Burkina Faso (EN/FR): CIVICUS, the Burkinabé Coalition of Human Rights Defenders and the West African Human Right Defenders Network examine unwarranted limitations on freedom of expression and assembly. Despite several positive developments since the popular uprising of 2014, such as the decriminalisation of defamation and the adoption of a law on the protection of human right defenders, restrictions on the freedom of expression including suspensions of media outlets by the national media regulator and attacks and threats against journalists continue.
Cameroon: CIVICUS, Réseau des Défenseurs Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) highlight Cameroon’s fulfilment of the right to association, assembly and expression and unwarranted persecution of human rights defenders since its previous UPR examination. We assess the ongoing judicial persecution and detention of human rights defenders on trumped up charges, the use of anti-terrorism legislation to target journalists and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.
Colombia(EN/SP): CIVICUS highlights the hostile environment for human rights defenders, social leaders and unions workers who are routinely subject to physical attacks, targeted assassinations, harassment and intimidation by state and non-state actors. CIVICUS examines the increased number of attacks against journalists as well as the government’s lack of effective implementation of protection mechanisms to safeguard the work of journalists and human rights defenders.
Cuba (EN/SP): CIVICUS and the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) highlight the constitutional, legal and de facto obstacles to the exercise of the basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. The submission discusses the situation of CSOs, HRDs, journalists and bloggers, who face harassment, criminalisation, arbitrary arrests, searches of their homes and offices and reprisals for interacting with UN and OAS human rights institutions. The submission further examines the multiple ways in which dissent is stifled both in the streets and in the media, offline and online.
Djibouti (EN/FR): CIVICUS, Defend Defenders and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) submission describes how the government of Djibouti has patently ignored the 14 recommendations made during the second UPR cycle related to the protection of the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Instead, in the intervening period, authorities in Djibouti have continued their campaign against dissent, regularly detaining human rights defenders, journalists and trade union activists because of their criticism of the government or human rights activists.
Russia: CIVICUS and Citizens’ Watch address concerns regarding the adoption and application of several draconian laws that have resulted in the expulsion and closure of numerous CSOs and restrictions on the activities of countless others. The submission also lays out the increasing criminalisation and persecution of dissenting views by means of growing restrictions, in both law and practice, on the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
Turkmenistan: CIVICUS highlights restrictions to freedom of association in Turkmenistan including recent amendments to the 2014 Law on Public Associations which further limit CSOs’ ability to register, operate independently and receive funding from international sources. Additionally, we assess the use of the arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders as well as unwarranted limitations to online and offline freedom of expression.
Uzbekistan: CIVICUS, The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and the International Partnership for Human Rights assess the conditions of freedom of association, assembly and expression in Uzbekistan. We highlight the lack of progress made in implementing recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle. It particular, we note that although there have been some notable improvements to the environment for civic space, the situation for human rights activists and journalists remains deeply constrained.
Leave no person with disabilities behind
By Leave No One Behind Partneship and ADD International
Pushpa Rani had pneumonia when she was eight years old, which left her extremely weak. Eventually, she lost all movement in her legs. Pushpa joined a women's self-help group, and later a disabled person's organisation, supported by Action on Disability and Development (ADD) International.
New digital security law a further blow to media freedom and free expression in Bangladesh
- The Digital Security Act was passed despite protests from civil society and journalists
- DSA incorporates other legislation that has been systematically used to silence dissent
- New law comes amid a growing, brutal crackdown on peaceful protests and dissent
New Head of UN Human Rights needs to visit Bangladesh
Joint letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, on the deterorating human rights situation in Bangladesh
Congratulations on your new role as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As you take up your new mandate, the undersigned organizations urge you to make Bangladesh a focus of your efforts in the coming months and to undertake an official visit to Bangladesh as soon as possible. It is our understanding that your predecessor, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, was in advanced talks with the Government of Bangladesh regarding a visit to the country. We strongly urge you to resume that discussion and schedule a visit without delay.
In your opening remarks to the 39th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on September 10, 2018, you rightly commended Bangladesh for its role hosting Rohingya refugees and for making significant development advancements. But you were also right to make it clear that Bangladesh’s human rights record in recent years has been deeply concerning. In addition to the crackdown on peaceful student protests and the violent anti-drug campaign that you referenced in your remarks—both of which warrant close attention—the Government of Bangladesh has also engaged in attacks against independent media and journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition figures. These abuses are further enabled by the recent passage of the Digital Security Act,  which criminalizes the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of association. Enforced disappearances continue to occur at an alarming rate (34 people were reportedly disappeared in September alone),  and reports of torture in custody continue to surface despite passage of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013. 
In addition, the government is cracking down on political dissidents and opposition activists. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) reports that, over the past two months, police have registered 3,736 cases, resulting in charges against 313,130 party leaders and activists. The BNP insists that all of these cases and charges are politically motivated; the Awami League Government disputes this characterization. The spree of criminal cases against opposition figures is being conducted in such a fashion that the police have filed several cases against opposition leaders who have died or have been living abroad for years.  In trials widely condemned as politically motivated, top opposition leaders have been sentenced to death or lengthy prison sentences prior to the upcoming general election, which is expected to take place in December 2018. 
The UN Human Rights Committee noted concerns in its 2017 Concluding Observations regarding:
- The “reported high rate of extrajudicial killings by police officers, soldiers and Rapid Action Battalion force members and at reports of enforced disappearances, as well as the excessive use of force by State actors”;
- The absence of “ongoing investigations into cases of torture in the State party…[despite] information that torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement or military personnel is widespread in the State party during interrogations to extract confessions”; and
- The “limitations on the rights of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society organizations in the State party to exercise their right to freedom of opinion, expression and association”.
These concerns were exhaustively raised by members of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year during Bangladesh’s 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review. Bangladesh failed to accept a number of key recommendations, including to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; to issue a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures; to amend or repeal laws that do not comply with international standards by restricting legitimate expression or association; and to fight against impunity by committing to investigate alleged human rights abuses by security forces.
Although serious concerns have been raised by non-governmental organizations, as well as by UN bodies and UN Member States, there have been only four visits by UN Special Procedures mandate-holders in the last ten years. These were the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (2016); the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (2013); and a joint visit by the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty and the UN Independent Expert on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation (2010). These are welcomed visits, and important mandates and issues for Bangladesh. But at this critical juncture, the Government of Bangladesh must grant broader access to UN Special Procedures.
In addition to undertaking an official visit to Bangladesh yourself, we urge you to press the Government of Bangladesh to accept visit requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association; the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture; the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions; the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. These are the mandates that can most directly address many of the core issues raised by UN Member States during the UPR, the UN Human Rights Committee, and by you in your opening remarks to the UN Human Rights Council.
Your office has a critical role to play. Bangladesh remains a close partner of the UN and particularly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Bangladesh is also one of the largest contributors of military personnel to UN Peacekeeping missions. But it must also be a closer partner of the UN human rights mechanisms. In previous election cycles there has been a marked increase in violence and repression. Attention from your office and other UN human rights bodies can help reverse this trend. We are committed to working with you and your office, as well as with the Government of Bangladesh, to ensure that a visit can take place soon.
- Asian Human Rights Commission
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)V
- Association For Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
- Сenter for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), India
- Freedom Now
- Human Rights Concern, Eritrea
- Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- Karapatan, The Philippines
- Lokataru Foundation, Indonesia
- Odhikar, Bangladesh
- Phenix Center for Economic Studies, Jordan
- Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
- Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), Sudan
- The Article 20 Network
- Transparency International
- World Organisation against Torture (OMCT)
- MARUAH, Singapore
- Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA)
- Citizen Congress Watch (CCW), Taiwan
- Uganda National NGO Forum
1 See, Dhaka Tribune, “Bangladesh signs Digital Security Bill into Law,” October 8, 2018, available at, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/10/08/president-signs-digital-security-bill-into-law;seealsoForum Asia, Digital Security Act English translation (2016), available at, https://www.forum- asia.org/uploads/wp/2016/08/Digital-Security-Act-English-09.03.2016.pdf.
2 See,Odhikar “Human Rights Monitoring Report of September 2018”; see also, New Age, “Enforced Disappearances Double: Odhikar Report,” October 3, 2018, available athttp://www.newagebd.net/article/52199/enforced-disappearance-doubles-odhikar-report.
3 According to data gathered by Odhikar, at least 125 persons were tortured to death by law enforcement agencies from January 2009 to May 2018.
4 See e.g., Prothom Alo, "Police sue another dead man for sabotage," October 9, 2018, available at, https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/news/184686/Police-sue-another-dead-man-for-sabotage.
5 See e.g., NewAge Bangladesh, “Babar, Pintu, 17 others to die, Tarique, Harris, 17 others jailed for life,” October 10, 2018, available at, http://www.newagebd.net/article/52831/aug-21-grenade-attack-19-get- death-penalty-tariqe-among-17-life-term.
Perpetrators of violence against protesters and journalists in Bangladesh must be held accountable
A global human rights group has called for police and ruling party supporters to be held accountable for their violent responses to peaceful student protests in Bangladesh. Thousands of students protesting poor road safety have been targeted with excessive force by police and brutal attacks reportedly from the student wing of the ruling party.
Photos: Lives rent asunder by climate change in Bangladesh
In 2018, two global agreements - one focused on the protection of refugees and the other on migration - are in the final stages of negotiation between governments, under the auspices of the United Nations. Each offers a rare opportunity to protect migrants from one of the biggest sources of displacement today - climate change. Through these images GMB Akash presents stories of loss from among the around 18 million Bangladeshis who risk displacement as the sea moves inward, expected to submerge as much as 17% of the country’s land by 2050.
See on: Hindustan Times
Response to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights update
38th Session of the Human Rights Council
Update of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
CIVICUS welcomes the High Commissioner’s final update and thanks him for his continued support for human rights defenders and for speaking the truth to power in this August room for the last four years. You have been the voice of the silenced and helped to ensure that the grievances of victims of human rights violations are echoed in this chamber. For that we thank you.
CIVICUS shares the High Commissioner’s concerns about civic space restrictions in Bangladesh, in particular threats and attacks against journalists from government-affiliated groups, security forces and religious extremists and the failure to bring perpetrators to justice.
The government has used the Information and Communications Technology Act to punish critics and a proposed Digital Security Bill could be used to criminalize online expression and promote self-censorship. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly continues to be restricted including of activists protesting the recent extrajudicial killings.
We are equally worried about the recent violent attacks on civil society and HRDs in Nicaragua.On 30 April, 323 national, regional and international organisations and networks, in a joint statement condemned the violent repression of the demonstrations held in Nicaragua against the social security reforms and demanded respect for the right to peaceful protest.
Since then the repression and use of excessive and indiscriminate force have continued and resulted in a at least 170 deaths. The government should immediately put an end to all violent acts, engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society and accept requests to conduct an impartial investigation into the killings.
We urge all states underscored in the High Commissioner’s report to take immediate measures to address persistent and widespread violations of the rights essential to civic space, including by allowing access to relevant UN Special Procedure mandate holders.
Right to protest and civic freedoms
By Josef Benedict, civic space researcher at CIVICUS
The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental freedom and key pillar for civic space. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate, and communicate without hindrance. They will also be able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects the right to protest.
However, for many Bangladeshis going out on to the street to protest can be a terrifying experience. You could end being arbitrarily arrested, beaten up, face rubber bullets and tear gas. You could also be ill-treated by police and even prosecuted for organising or participating in a peaceful protest. Even after the protests end, you could face intimidation and surveillance.
Read on New Age
ROHINGYA REFUGEES: ‘We want to go back home in peace’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and youth activism with Maung Sawyeddollah, founder and executive director of the Rohingya Students Network, a global network of Rohingya students and young people based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
What is the Rohingya Students Network and what does it do?
The Rohingya Students Network is a global interconnected network of Rohingya students and young people. I founded it in December 2019 and it now has members in all 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar. We operate through WhatsApp and we arrange weekly meetings with all members to work towards our objective, which is to ensure the life, liberty and security of the Rohingya people.
We do two kinds of work. We work on community development by organising activities such as skills training and youth workshops. And we advocate for our people by talking to international media and working alongside the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As bringing justice to our people is very important for us, we help by collecting materials such as victims’ testimonies. We also oversee the overall situation of our people and collect data to share with our members.
We are bringing a case against Facebook because we believe Facebook used the genocide in Myanmar for business. We would normally send a letter to Facebook and ask them for help to fund Rohingya education camps. But they refuse to compensate for what they did, and so we had to take the legal way. Facebook is responsible for many human rights violations in Myanmar, so now we are legally pursuing the matter. We are getting help from Victim Advocates International, an organisation of lawyers.
What is the education situation in refugee camps?
The situation is bad. There are several schools in the camps but they all have a very dated system. One of them is the Rohingya Learning Centre. But all they do is give Rohingya students biscuits! Kids tell us, ‘We go to the Learning Centre to get biscuits, not to get education’.
There’s a lack of learning centres and qualified teachers inside the camps, even though we’ve been living here for five years. Teachers just teach basic things such as A is for apple, B is for ball. Our kids aren´t getting the quality education they deserve.
Have there been any changes in the situation of Rohingya people?
I would say there hasn’t been any change to our situation since 2017. It’s true there have been meetings about the Rohingya and many organisations and groups have issued statements regarding our situation. However, all these meetings and statements have brought no positive outcome. The solutions offered to end the conflict still equal zero.
There have been some minor improvements though. For instance, the USA has declared the Rohingya situation as genocide. The case has made some progress in the ICJ and the International Criminal Court. But still, solutions haven’t gone past an initial stage. Our crisis is a complicated one.
The long-term scenario is complex. We left our country, Myanmar, in 2017 and are still facing systematic violence there. We were a minority and had to leave because of the violence towards us. We are now living in Bangladesh but continue to fight in various arenas to get the justice our people deserve.
There are many factors we need to consider to get our rights back. We can say there’s a civil war happening in Myanmar. There are two parallel governments competing to rule the country: the military government and the National Unity Government.
In Rakhine State – where Rohingya people are from – there are powerful groups such as the Arkan Army, which are also a challenge because they prevent people from getting back to their homes. These are challenges we need to address. And who knows, maybe someday we can get back home.
What challenges do you face when doing your work?
The threats and dangers are constant. For every single activity we want to do, there is some kind of opposition. A big part of society is opposed to the kind of work we do. We are respected by the government of Bangladesh and allowed to do our work freely, although I think they are now changing their minds. I think our Going Home Campaign, which we launched a few weeks ago, will make our relationship a bit harder.
There is also the fact that we continue to demand our rights, and many people speak up online and advocate for our rights, but the audience that we really need to listen to us, those responsible for the persecution we suffer, and those we need to sort out our situation, are sitting in government chairs in Myanmar and won’t address our demands because they simply don’t want us.
What international help do Rohingya people need?
We need as much international help as we can get. We need the international community to pressure the government of Myanmar so that they accept all of our demands for basic needs and rights. We need them to accept Rohingya people in Myanmar.
What we expect from the world is to help us create the right conditions to put pressure on Myanmar’s power holders, the main stakeholders to solve this crisis. There are many ways they can help us. For instance, as the USA helped us by declaring our situation as genocide; other big powers should do the same. We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!