Student wing of ruling party attacking activists, academics and journalists with impunity

Bangladesh’s human rights situation has alarmingly deteriorated over the last few months ahead of national elections scheduled for late 2018. The Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) - the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) have been attacking quota reform student activists, academics and journalists with impunity. Further, over a hundred people have been shot dead by security services for drug-related offences while 13,000 people have also been reportedly arrested. According to a report released by human rights organisation, Odhikar in June 2018, there have been at least 16 cases of enforced disappearances and 40 attacks against journalists in 2018.

During Bangladesh’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in May 2018, it responded with silence and denial to questions and recommendations by several countries, including concerns about extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and attacks on human rights defenders.

Peaceful assembly

Activists assaulted, charged and disappeared 

Freedom of peaceful assembly is being restricted and dealt with violently in Bangladesh. As documented previously, students have been protesting since February 2018, in Dhaka, against the quota system in the civil service. Many of the protesters have been brutally beaten in dormitories and on the streets by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) - the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL). Others have been detained by the police and charged.

On 30th June 2018, a group of 200 BCL members brutally attacked Nurul Haque Nur, the convenor of the quota reformists student group, and he is now fighting for his life. The attack took place when the quota reform leaders were preparing preparation to hold a press conference on the Dhaka University campus. Seven people, including Nurul Haque Nur, activists Saddam Hossain, Ataullah and Hasan Al Mamun suffered injuries and were taken to hospital after. Two days after, on 2nd July, BCL members beat up activist Tarikul on the premises of Dhaka University Central Library and handed him over to police.

On 1st July 2018, police detained quota reform activist, Muhammad Rashed Khan under the Information Communication Technology (ICT) Act for allegedly making “derogatory remarks” about the prime minister on Facebook Live. He spent 15 days under remand. Three other student activists - Jashim Uddin Akash, Moshiur Rahman and Faruk Hasan – were also remanded in July 2018. Faruk had disappeared on 2nd July and was missing for a day before police admitted detaining him.

Tarek Rahman, one of the leaders of the movement went missing on 14th July 2018. Parents of Tarek Rahman said their son told them he was being followed by plainclothes policemen before he disappeared. On 31st July 2018, the body of a quota reformist student from Jagannath University (JnU), Ariful Islam, was recovered from Buriganga river in Dhaka. The circumstances behind his death is still unknown but activists believe it was related to his activism.

Students and teachers protest against attacks

On 18th July 2018, students and teachers of the International Relations department at Dhaka University protested against the assault on academics of the university by BCL members. They formed a human chain on the campus carrying placards inscribed with different messages such as "Why are teachers assaulted" and "We want justice", demand accountability for the attack.

Two days before, BCL members had pushed and verbally abused mass communication and journalism department professor Fahmidul Haq, associate professor Abdur Razzaque Khan, international relations associate professor Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, economics assistant professor Rushad Faridi when they were going to take part in protests organised by quota reform protestors at the Central Shaheed Minar national monument, demanding the release of arrested students.

Expression

Reprisals against government critics

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), reprisals are going on against a group of university teachers of different universities, parents, and civil society activists who have been critical of the violence perpetrated by the state and BCL. Pro-government university administrators and the government have accused the teachers and parents of causing ‘chaos’ and ‘damaging the academic environment’. Veteran leftist opinion-maker Dr. Akmal Hossain, a retired professor of the International Relations Department of the University of Dhaka, who spoke up about the attacks under the banner of ‘Teachers against Repression’ on 19th July 2018 has been a prime target. BCL members have demanded legal action against him.

Attack on news editor

On 22nd July 2018, Mahmudur Rahman, former acting editor of the national daily Amar Desh, which has been shut down by the government in 2013, was attacked by BCL members outside the court in Kushtia district. The mob hit his face and head with pieces of concrete and sticks and also vandalised his car. Mahmudur Rahman was appearing before Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Kushtia district to seek bail in a criminal defamation action, brought against him in connection with alleged “derogatory remarks” he had made against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her niece, British Member of Parliament Tulip Siddiq. He allegedly made this remarks at a seminar on the restoration of democracy and the role of media on 1st December 2017.

The police arrived only after most of the attackers left and Mahmudur Rahman was subsequently taken on a flight out of Kushtia and then brought by ambulance to a hospital in Dhak. Doctors reported injuries to his face, back of the head and right shoulder, including a laceration on the right lower eyelid and a 2-3 cm long deep laceration behind the right ear.

Daniel Bastard, head of Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters without Borders, said in a statement:

"The lynching that targeted a prominent journalist like Mahmudur Rahman is likely to create a devastating chilling effect among those who dare to question the government and the ruling party"

According to RSF the current pre-election climate is hampering the work of media outlets covering stories that reflect badly on the government. In June 2018, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission briefly blocked two Bangladeshi news websites, bdnews24.com and the Daily Star newspaper’s site. The commission's director said he had been acting on the orders of senior government officials. Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

Digital Security Act finalised

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, civil society organisation and journalists in Bangladesh have raised serious concerns over the proposed Digital Security Act which would replace certain sections of the existing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The ICT Act has restricted freedom of expression in Bangladesh since 2013, and Section 57 of the ICT Act has been the provision most frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices.

On 27th July 2018, it was reported that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology has finalised the Digital Security Act and it is likely to be passed in the next parliamentary session. It is unclear what amendments have been made to an earlier draft which contains provisions that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and prescribe lengthy prison sentences for those who violate the law.