Bangladesh: Crackdown on the political opposition and activists continues ahead of elections
On 6th December 2023 the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Bangladesh's civic space to ‘closed’, its worst rating. The downgrade is the result of a massive government crackdown on opposition politicians and independent critics in the run-up to national elections scheduled for 7th January 2024. Over the year, the authorities targeted human rights defenders, protesters and other critics using intimidation, violence, arrest and torture. Authorities also targeted journalists exposing state abuses and shut down critical media outlets. A new Cyber Security Act, rather than freeing online expression, retained most of the repressive language of the previous draconian Digital Security Act used to criminalise thousands of online critics.
Prior to this, on 13th November 2023, Bangladesh’s human rights record was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. The government received 301 recommendations from 110 countries who took part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country.
There were at least 35 recommendations related to civic space including calls to revise all laws, regulations and practices concerning freedom of opinion and expression, both online and offline; ensure adequate training for police forces on the protection of human rights defenders; take effective measures to prevent arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment against civil society activists, lawyers and journalists; ensure that the Cyber Security Act is in line with international standards; and a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society.
On 14th November, three UN experts issued a statement raising concerns about the “sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests, and allegations of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure.”
Over the last two months, there have been mass arrests and prosecution of opposition leaders and activists as well as allegations of torture and killings. A panel discussion in Geneva by civil society was disrupted and activists vilified. Harassment and attacks on journalists have persisted while a proposed Data Protection Act threatens people’s right to privacy. The police have also cracked down violently on opposition protests, as well as demonstrations by garment workers and families of the disappeared.
Political opposition face mass arrests, torture and killings
The Bangladesh authorities have continued to target opposition leaders and supporters ahead of the general elections.
Human Rights Watch said on 26th November 2023 that almost 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested since the rally by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on 28th October 2023 and over 5,500 people have been injured. HRW said that at least 16 people have been killed during ongoing violence, including 2 police officers.
2,000 arrested in Bangladesh capital in 11 days https://t.co/puiQGsglNM— New Age (@NewAgeBDcom) November 1, 2023
There have been reports of police raids on the houses of the leaders and activists of the BNP. The police also reportedly harassed family members if they were unable to arrest their targets. Many were arrested for alleged arson attacks, vandalism and for committing violence during political programmes. Other charges used against the opposition include illegal gatherings on the streets; rioting; damaging properties; assaulting police and obstructing them from discharging their duties.
Besides the use of the penal code, the government has used the Special Powers Act and the Explosive Substances Act to criminalise the opposition. Some of the opposition members have also been charged for old cases filed by the police or supporters of the ruling Awami League between 2013 and 2018.
The conviction of BNP leaders and activists has escalated ahead of the national elections. This intensified after prime minister Sheikh Hasina, at a programme on 21st October 2023, asked lawyers to take prompt measures for quick disposal of cases linked to the opposition. Court proceedings are allegedly taking place at night to quicken the completion of the trials in these cases. According to a report by VOA on 8th December 2023, more than 800 leaders and activists had been convicted over the past three months.
The crackdown has also meant that the number of inmates in jails has increased by several thousand in recent weeks. According to the Department of Prisons, 84,948 inmates were staying in the country’s 68 prisons on 31st October 2023, nearly double the capacity of 42,866. The overflow of prisons has affected prisoners’ rights to food, accommodations, medical services and clothes, said Md Mizanur Rahman, Dhaka University’s law professor and former chair of the national human rights commission.
The BNP have claimed that police had used torture or ill-treatment against the party leaders and activists in their custody to force them into making false confessional statements before the court, admitting the involvement of the BNP in violence, arson attacks and sabotage. On 4th December 2023, it was reported that Akher Mia, the secretary of the Kasba Paschim union unit of Jatiyatabadi Juba Dal, BNP’s youth wing, has been languishing in a public hospital in Dhaka for over three weeks after his spinal cord was badly damaged by police during a protest in Kasba upazila in Brahmanbaria.
Whereabouts of Khilgaon Juba Dal leader not known for six days https://t.co/r8p6bYqUxK— New Age (@NewAgeBDcom) November 9, 2023
There have also been reports of disappearances. Masud Rana, a member and secretary of ward 7 of Juba Dal city south unit, went missing on 1st November 2023 after he was picked up by the police. They hurriedly pushed him into a microbus and also took his motorcycle. Family members said that Masud was produced eight days later before a Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court. Rajib Hasan, a Jatiyatabadi Juba Dal leader, went missing on 4th November 2023 when he was picked up from the capital’s Dakkhin Banasree area, reportedly by a group of people who introduced themselves as members of the Detective Branch of police. His sister said he was taken in a black microbus.
Reports of deaths of BNP activists in custody have also been documented. On 30th October 2023, the handcuffed body of Zakir Hossain, the president of the Mokam Union unit of Swechchhasebak Dal, was recovered near his house in Burichang upazila of Cumilla hours after police raided his house. On 7th November 2023, Zaker Hossain, a local BNP leader from Jaliapalang Ward-1, was shot dead during a night-time operation conducted by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Ukhia of Cox’s Bazar. The RAB team conducted the raid reportedly in search of leaders and activists of BNP. On 8th December 2023, Abul Kalam Azad, also known as Sohel Rana, the joint-secretary of Hatiandaha union BNP at Singra in Natore, died in the hospital. He was arrested on 21st November 2023 on allegations of ‘sabotage’ and transferred to the hospital after he suffered a stroke while in custody.
Panel discussion in Geneva disrupted and activists vilified
A panel discussion held in Geneva ahead of the UPR of Bangladesh on 13th November 2023 was disrupted by individuals linked to the Bangladesh government.
The side event was co-organised by CIVICUS and several other human rights groups to discuss the persecution of human rights defenders, shrinking civic space and impunity in Bangladesh. The speakers included human rights defender Adilur Rahman Khan from Odhikar who was convicted in September 2023 for a 2013 publication documenting extrajudicial killings during a protest.
According to Amnesty International, the panel discussion was disrupted, and verbal attacks were made by those who are reported to be affiliated with the ruling party, Awami League. They suggested that Adilur Rahman Khan was a ‘propaganda machine’ spreading falsehoods. Throughout the meeting they conducted multiple acts of intimidation.
This was followed by articles in online news outlets that also asserted that Adilur Rahman Khan presented false and fabricated information at the side event and that he tarnished the image of Bangladesh. For instance, one of these articles is titled “Odhikar’s Adilur Rahman attacked at UN office in Geneva” and appeared in an online Bangla newspaper, where one of the ruling party affiliates who participated in causing the disruption is listed as the editor.
Social media posts also appeared on the event, stating that Adilur Rahman Khan was spreading propaganda and that he must be stopped. A representative of the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh who was present at the event asserted that the speakers, which included Adilur Rahman Khan, were committing nothing but an “attempt to malign the government and conducting a smear campaign against the government.”
Harassment and attacks on journalists
Over the year, journalists faced restrictions, harassment attacks and even arrests for their reporting. This has persisted in recent months.
UK-based exiled Bangladeshi journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the Bangladeshi tabloid Weekly Blitz has since late September 2023 published a series of articles falsely accusing him of acting as an operative for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and engaging in criminal activities. Several European outlets republished the allegations, citing the pro-government Weekly Blitz.
Saer Khan, an independent investigative journalist, told CPJ that he denied all allegations, which also extended to accusations of involvement in drug trafficking and fraud. He said he has been targeted in a campaign that seeks to discredit his work. Saer Khan said he believed he was being targeted in retaliation for his upcoming report on alleged high-level government corruption in Bangladesh to be published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
#journalist Rafiq Bhuiyan, who was injured in #police teargas lobbing during violence on a street in #Dhaka Saturday afternoon died at night.#JournalismIsNotACrime #JournalismUnderAttack @pressfreedom @freepressunltd https://t.co/nr8thKpzY6— RASHAD Ahamad (@RashadAhamad_BD) October 29, 2023
Senior journalist Rafiq Bhuiyan, former executive member of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and member of the National Press Club, died on 28th October 2023. He was critically injured while on his way to the National Press Club by rickshaw when a tear shell, lobbed by the police during a protest by opposition activists, hit the rickshaw that was in the Segunbagicha area in the city. Bhuiyan suffered a severe head injury and was rushed to hospital. He was pronounced dead that night.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 27 Bangladeshi journalists were attacked or harassed while covering political rallies in the capital of Dhaka on 28th October 2023. CPJ said the journalists were attacked by supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the ruling Awami League party, as well as police.
Correspondent Rakib Uddin who works at the Chittagong bureau of Independent Television was attacked on 30th November 2023 after he questioned Awami League politician Mostafizur Rahman about alleged electoral misconduct when he was submitting his nomination papers. The journalist was also attacked by other party activists who were accompanying the politician. Mostafizur and others reportedly not only threatened the journalist but also damaged the microphone and tripod of a private television channel.
Student journalists Abdul Alim and Abu Sayed Rony were attacked on 9th December 2023 by around 20 men, allegedly members of the ruling Awami League party’s student wing, Chhatra League. According to CPJ, they beat Alim, a reporter for the online news portal Rajshahi Post, and Rony, a correspondent for the online newspaper Bangladesh Journal, on the Rajshahi College campus in western Bangladesh.
Student released on bail after 14 months
Amnesty International called for immediate release of Khadijatul Kubra, a 17-year-old meritorious student at Jagannath University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who was arrested in a Digital Security Act case.https://t.co/jhUsY4JSEt— Zia Chowdhury (@Zia_Reporter) September 27, 2023
Jagannath University student Khadijatul Kubra was released from Kashimpur jail on 20th November 2023 after being detained for 14 months in two separate cases filed under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). The Supreme Court upheld a High Court verdict granting permanent bail to Khadijatul.
As previously documented, Khadijatul Kubra was a 17-year-old student of political science at Jagannath University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She had hosted a webinar on campus politics for the social media page called “Humanity for Bangladesh” in November 2020. Almost two years later, on 27th August 2022, Khadijatul Kubra was arrested under the DSA and the next day was sent to Kashimpur Jail in Dhaka. Police officers had seen a recording of the webinar on YouTube uploaded by one of the guest speakers – formerly a Bangladeshi army official now based in Canada who had made comments perceived to be critical of the Bangladeshi authorities.
The Digital Security Act has been systematically used to arrest and detain online critics since it was enacted. A new Cyber Security Act (CSA) that replaced the law in September 2023, retains many of the repressive clauses in the act.
Proposed Data Protection Act threatens people’s right to privacy
On 28th November 2023, the cabinet approved in principle the draft Data Protection Act, which retains provisions for law enforcers to have unfettered access to citizens' data.
In October 2023, Access Now and Tech Global Institute sent a range of recommendations to the law and ICT ministries pointing out that "discretion to access data without procedural safeguards risks violating the rights of the data subject".
Among the concerns raised was that according to section 10(2)(d) of the Act, “any data may be collected from a data subject if it is deemed necessary for national security or prevention or detection of an offence”. The law neither specifies well-defined conditions nor any third party or judicial oversight in the event that data needs to be collected for an investigation. They recommended that the necessity for the collection and access to data must be clearly defined and the collection has to be proportionate with legitimate purposes and under independent judicial oversight.
There are also concerns that a Data Protection Board will oversee the enforcement of the law rather than an independent body. The groups stated that “control over the Data Protection Board and the appellate authority is vested with the government, with the government having the absolute mandate to appoint its members, determine the terms and conditions of their service, and lay down policies that must be complied with while carrying out their functions”. They added: “An independent regulatory or oversight authority is essential for ensuring the protection of individual rights, particularly because the government and its agencies and instrumentalities are likely to be large data fiduciaries under the law”.
Abu Sayed Md Kamruzzaman, director general at the National Cyber Security Agency, said the draft would be sent to the law ministry for vetting. Then it would go to parliament to be passed.
Violent crackdown on opposition protest
🇧🇩Bangladesh: @CIVICUSalliance and other rights groups condemn the disproportionate use of force by police around the opposition rally in Dhaka.— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) November 1, 2023
We call on the authorities to end the crackdown on protests & ensure perpetrators are held accountable https://t.co/1FZfgcdJzR pic.twitter.com/ouhNHBdVZ6
Since the end of October 2023 there has been a violent crackdown on mass protests by the opposition.
On 28th October 2023, a huge demonstration was held in Dhaka led by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Tens of thousands of BNP members and supporters participated in the rally, demanding a neutral caretaker government to oversee the scheduled January 2024 national elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Ahead of the 28th October rally, the police initiated arbitrary arrests and conducted raids targeting BNP supporters, leading to a reported detention of hundreds. Journalists also faced attacks during the protests, with reports also indicating that the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission issued a directive to telecom operators to either shut down or reduce internet services in the vicinity of the protests.
According to reports, the protest became violent as the police used disproportionate force, including stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Many protesters were also assaulted by the police. At least one BNP member was killed and nearly a hundred individuals were injured in the clashes between BNP members and the police. One police officer was also reportedly killed, numerous others were injured, vehicles were torched, and the police claim that BNP members were involved in acts of vandalism. However, news reports also mentioned that two individuals wearing a police vest set fire to a bus.
The UN issued a statement on 31st October 2023 stating that they were “deeply concerned by a series of violent incidents during ongoing protests in Bangladesh” and urged the police to “ensure that force is only used when strictly necessary and, if so, in full compliance with the principles of legality, precaution and proportionality.” They also urged the government to “observe the greatest restraint to curb political tensions at this critical time, and to take steps to ensure that human rights are fully upheld, for all Bangladeshis, before, during and after the elections.”
Excessive force used to disperse workers’ protest
Bangladesh: Union leaders say cases have been filed against 23,000 garment workers in connection with recent minimum wage protestshttps://t.co/ODfAeQXW41— IndustriALL (@IndustriALL_GU) November 23, 2023
Workers took to the streets to demand a decent minimum wage in early November 2023 after a government-appointed panel raised wages on 7th November 2023 for the garment sector at Tk 12,500 (approximately USD 113) up from Tk 8,000 set in 2018. Different trade unions and workers’ platforms proposed a minimum wage of between Tk 18,000 and 25,000.
Up to 25,000 garment workers protested, forcing the closure of at least 100 factories in the industrial towns of Gazipur and Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the workers and used batons to drive them into alleys. The notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was also mobilised.
At least two workers were killed and scores of others were injured. On 11th November 2023, police said that at least 24 cases had been filed against more than 18,000 garment workers with different police stations in Dhaka and its outskirts, including Ashulia and Gazipur, over demonstrations for a minimum wage hike. At least 70 workers, including five trade union leaders, had been arrested.
Amnesty International condemned the “deplorable use of force on protesters” and called upon the authorities to “end its violent repression of workers’ right to protest, and conduct an immediate investigation into these deaths, and hold those responsible fully and swiftly accountable’”. The group also urged the government “to ensure that garment workers be allowed their right to freedom of association without repression”.
Police disrupt demonstration for voting rights
On 24th November 2023, police barred writers, teachers, artistes and journalists in front of the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh in Ramna from marching towards Nur Hossain Chattar in Gulistan to press their demands for the right to vote and for freedom of expression.
The march titled ‘Gaaner Michhil’ began at Shahbagh in the capital and was supposed to proceed from Shahbagh via the Department of Fisheries to Nur Hossain Chattar. The police blocked the road at the IEB building and cordoned off the area, which forced the protesters to end the demonstration there.
The protesters said that they were marching peacefully singing songs but the police stopped them from completing the march. Among others, writer Rahnuma Ahmed, singer Farzana Wahid Shayan, writer-journalist Mahbub Morshed and singer Bithi Ghosh were present at the march.
Police disperse rally by families of the disappeared
On 9th December 2023, police dispersed a rally of Mayer Dak, a platform for family members of the victims of enforced disappearance. The platform was holding the rally in front of the Jatiya Press Club on the eve of Human Rights Day. According to reports, the programme was interrupted by the police, who also snatched the microphone from Anisa Islam Insha, daughter of a victim of enforced disappearance, while she was speaking at the rally. Despite the interruption, the members of the platform regrouped in front of the press club and continued their programme.
Opposition gatherings for Human Rights Day disrupted
Scores of people were injured as police and ruling party supporters carried out attacks on activities called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party on 10th December 2023 to mark International Human Rights Day. BNP held what they called a ‘human chain programme’ countrywide, bringing together the families of the opposition’s disappeared, killed and arrested leaders and activists (see picture above).
Though activities in Dhaka by the BNP and other opposition parties were held peacefully, police and ruling party activists allegedly foiled the BNP’s human chain in many districts. At least 50 people, including two journalists, were injured in a clash between police and BNP people during the party’s human chain programme in the Sayestanagar area of Habiganj. At least five people were injured in Habiganj after they were hit by rubber bullets.
In Barishal, police disrupted BNP’s human chain programme in front of Ashwini Kumar Hall. BNP said that police attacked the party’s leaders and activists when they reached the spot, leaving four people injured. In Faridpur, the police allegedly disrupted the human chain of BNP. According to witnesses, the police appeared at the scene following the speeches of BNP leaders Ali Ashraf and Golam Rabbani. They stopped the programme and asked the BNP supporters to leave the spot immediately.