In Bangladesh: Protests undermined, opposition persecuted and HRDs harrassed
As previously reported on the Monitor, environmental concerns are often the driving force behind protests in Bangladesh. The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports has been organising events and actions around the country in opposition to the construction of a new power plant near the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest.
On 26th January 2017, approximately 200 people protested in Dhaka against the new Rampal power plant. Local activists claim that the plant will cause irreversible damage to the Sundarbans mangrove forest and endanger the health of thousands of local residents. The protest quickly escalated when Bangladeshi security forces confronted activists, leading to clashes and the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. While at least two journalists were assaulted in the clashes, reports dispute the total number of people injured during the protest.
The authorities in Bangladesh have also reportedly taken actions to stop protests before they begin. On 25th February 2017, for example, Bangladeshi authorities prohibited a sit-in organised by activists in the port city of Chittagong. In response to the prohibition on the sit-in, protesters gathered in front of Chittagong Press Club and held a rally instead. The rally was also tightly controlled by the police, and according to the organisers, five protesters were injured after security forces charged at them with batons.
PRESS RELEASE: 70 Civil Society Organisations Call On UNESCO to Protect Sundarbans From Proposed Rampal Power Planthttps://t.co/QS1YGW8UPw— APWLD (@apwld) April 20, 2017
In a separate incident, on 28th February 2017 Bangladeshi security forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters rallying on the streets of Dhaka against increased prices for petrol. Police intervened after activists attempted to block roads. Reports note that twenty people were injured in the clashes and authorities detained around a dozen of the protest leaders.
The frequent use of excessive force by security forces in Bangladesh is a serious impediment to the exercise of peaceful assembly. On 1st March 2017, students from the North South University protested against the assault of a student by an employee of a private security firm. The dispute started after the student, Shahriar Hasnat Topu, was assaulted by a security guard during a dispute over his motorcycle's parking space. The confrontation rapidly escalated and Topu was beaten and taken to the hospital in critical condition. As word of the attack spread, students quickly mobilised to protest against the excessive force used against their fellow student. Bangladeshi security forces intervened with water cannons and tear gas to quell the protest.
Most recently, a statue outside Bangladesh's Supreme Court has sparked a series of protests by religious and secular groups. The statue, a Greek-inspired goddess, was modified to wear a sari, blouse and bangles to symbolise justice. Protests both for and against the removal of the statue have flared, with many viewing the statue as a proxy for Bangladesh's broader struggle to reconcile an increasingly religious and conservative movement with more liberal and secular values. A counter protest against the removal of the statue was met with violence by security forces who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. After months of campaigning, religious groups pressured authorities to remove the statue on 26th May 2017.
The authorities later relocated the statue on the 28th May 2017 to a different position that is inaccessible to the public.
On 3rd February 2017, Abdul Hakim Shimul, a journalist and human rights defender affiliated with the local civil society organisation - Odhikar, was shot while covering political unrest in the northern city of Shahjadpur. Shimul was reporting on a clash between rival factions of the governing Awami League party when the confrontation turned violent. Caught in the cross-fire, Shimul was shot in the eye and later died of the injury. Reporters without Borders decried the lack of action and the culture of impunity surrounding such attacks on journalists in Bangladesh, declaring:
“[T]he latest political reactions are unacceptable. Senior Awami League officials have not only failed to vigorously condemn violence by their supporters but are now also trying to cover up the case and to gag the journalist’s widow, who has brought a complaint against many Awami League members".
Mayor of Shahjadpur Halimul Haque Miru was arrested on 5th February 2017 on suspicion of murdering Shimul. Freedom of speech advocates claim that the authorities in Shahjadpur colluded to protect Miru from prosecution, despite evidence that only Miru's gun was fired during the confrontation.
Authorities in Bangladesh have continued to crack down on critics using spurious allegations to intimidate them into silence. For example, on 13th March 2017, human rights activist Binoy Krishna Mallick was arrested at his home in Jessore. Mallick's arrest came eight hours after he called attention to police corruption and misuse of power at a press conference. The authorities claim that Mallick, Executive Director of Rights Jessore - an organisation working with victims of human trafficking, was arrested for fraudulent activities. However, many believe his arrest is an attempt to suppress his activism. In a recent statement, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) commented on the case, stating:
“The arrest of journalist and rights activist Binoy Krishna Mallik hours after he made allegations against a police officer is an ill-intended move to harass him. The IFJ demands an investigation into the case and immediate dropping of charges against Mallik”.
Though he was later released on bail, Mallick's harassment is emblematic of a situation wherein any activists who dare to criticise the authorities potentially face harassment and persecution.
Bangladesh remains a highly dangerous country for journalists and bloggers. The unsolved murder of Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi exemplifies the level of repression of free expression in a country where perpetrators of violence against journalists are not brought to justice. Recently, several journalists' associations have called on the authorities again, demanding the case be reopened and thoroughly investigated.
Tensions between the political opposition and the ruling Bangladeshi Awami League has often led to further curtailment of civic freedoms, as authorities frequently use the security forces to disrupt the political opposition's activities. For example, on 5th January 2017 security forces assaulted leaders and activists from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 16 districts and obstructed their ‘Democracy Killing Day’ programmes across the country, which aim to express dissatisfaction with the 2014 elections that ended in violence. At least 200 people were injured, as activists from both political parties clashed with each other and security forces. The police also detained at least 50 activists affiliated with the BNP. Reports showed that at least five protesters were critically injured. The authorities' consistent harassment of legitimate political opposition groups is a severe threat to freedom of association in Bangladesh.