Students protesters attacked as ruling party cracks down on dissent

Peaceful assembly

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in early April 2018 the police, along with the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) - the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), attacked students protesting in Dhaka against the quota system in the civil service. 

At present, 56 percent of posts in the annual civil service examination are reserved under various quotas, including for women and ethnic minorities. Among those, the largest chunk—30 percent—is reserved for children of freedom fighters from Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. The protesters oppose the system, asserting that it creates an unequal playing field in exams. In 2010, the government stated that if capable candidates were not found under the freedom fighters’ quota, those posts would remain vacant.

On 8th April 2018, students from the University of Dhaka organised protests against the quota system. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the protesters. The BCL allegedly joined the police in attacking the protesters, injuring dozens of students. The police also arbitrarily detained around a hundred students. Many were released on condition that they would not participate in similar protests in the future

Several students informed AHRC that the BCL activists were also tracking protesters living in the University of Dhaka dormitories that night and allegedly confined the protesters to their rooms and also assaulted them..

In response to the crackdown, AHRC stated that:

“[The] crackdown on the protestors by the Bangladesh government must stop immediately. They must also stop attacking student-demonstrators who are peacefully demanding reforms of the existing quota systems in public employment. Rights to freedom of assembly and association cannot be consistently denied by the government of Bangladesh”.

On 12th April, given the nationwide protests by thousands of students, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the abolishment of the quota system for recruiting civil servants.


Digital Security Act now before parliament

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, civil society organization 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 9th April, the Telecom and ICT Minister, Mustafa Jabbar, presented the Digital Security Act to parliament. The bill has been sent to the parliamentary standing committee, which will review and submit a report to parliament within four weeks.

Earlier in March, diplomats from ten countries and the EU also raised concerns over the bill in a meeting with the Law Minister Anisul Huq at his secretariat office in Dhaka.

Dhaka University suspends professor for critical column

On 3rd Apiril, Dhaka University announced it had suspended a professor for writing a column critical of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's father. University vice-chancellor said that Morshed Hasan Khan was "suspended until further notice" after the student wing of the Awami League staged angry rallies on campus.

University head Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman said Khan had defamed Bangladesh's first post-independence president and Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in the controversial article published in a Bengali daily. The professor of marketing was also accused of "distorting the history" of Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971, the legacy of which remains contentious today.

The professor has since expressed regret and posted an apology on his Facebook page.

Attack on prominent academic and writer 

A prominent professor and writer Dr. Zafar Iqbal was attacked with a knife and a metal object while judging a ceremony on 3rd March 2018. Iqbal, a professor of computer science and engineering at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet suffered wounds to his head, back and hand

The assailant named as Faizur Rahman Faizul was apprehended and beaten by students before being handed over to the police. He allegedly told them that he wanted to kill the professor as he was an “enemy of Islam”. Iqbal had previously received threats from Islamist militant groups and had been under police protection since October 2016.

Since 2013, religious extremists have killed more than a dozen secular, atheist or non-Muslim writers, bloggers, and activists; in most cases, the government has been slow to respond to or even condemn the attacks. In addition, the draconian ICT Act has served to legitimise these assaults by criminalising the very speech for which these writers face persecution from extremists.

Civil society decries mass arrests

On 30th January 2018, the authorities began arresting supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), ahead of the verdict in the alleged corruption case against BNP leader Khaleda Begum Zia, which was delivered on 8th February. Almost 5,000 opposition supporters, including ordinary people who were suspected of being opposition sympathisers, were arrested throughout almost all of the country’s districts.

In response, the Solidarity Group for Bangladesh, which includes CIVICUS, declared:

“This large-scale crackdown on opposition parties, government critics, and activists is one of the most severe attacks on fundamental freedoms in Bangladesh over the past few years. While authorities claim the arrests were carried out to prevent violence from erupting in connection with the verdict, it is apparent that these actions were politically motivated. In addition, there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment of those detained”.

In the most serious incident on 12th March 2018, Zakir Hossain Milon, Vice-President of the Dhaka North Unit of the BNP’s student wing Jatiotabadi Chhatra Dal, died while in police custody. He had been arrested on 6th March upon returning from a BNP event at the Jatiya Press Club in Dhaka. Zakir’s family members claim that he died as a result of torture.

Khaleda Zia was handed a five-year prison sentence. The verdict could bar Zia from contesting in the national polls scheduled for the end of the year.

Women human rights defender assaulted

Chakma Rani Yan Yan, a women’s rights defender was physically assaulted with her companion by 14 to 18 security personnel on 15th February 2018. She was protecting two indigenous Marma sisters, aged 19 and 14, who were allegedly raped and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by the members of the security forces at their home in Bilaichari in Rangamati district, Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Rani Yan Yan is a woman indigenous leader who works for the empowerment of indigenous women, protesting violence against them and advocating on their behalf, including at meetings with the UN.

APWLD, together women human rights defenders in Bangladesh are urging the government of Bangladesh to:

“Investigate the attacks against Women Human Rights Defenders including Rani Yan Yan and her companion and hold perpetrators accountable…[and]…recognise the important role of WHRDs in the society of Bangladesh and fulfill the commitments made in the UN General Assembly’s resolution on human rights defenders, including protection of WHRD and maintaining and safe and enabling environment for the defence of human rights.”

The violations against the Marma sisters is not an isolated incident of violence against indigenous women. The CHT, home of 11 Indigenous communities, is the most militarised zone in Bangladesh where threats and violations against indigenous peoples committed by both state and non-state actors are commonplace.


Funding restrictions for NGOs

A report by Amnesty International in February 2018 noted that activities of NGOs were restricted in 2017 through the Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act.

Enacted in October 2016, the Act requires NGOs accepting foreign donations to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau and to obtain approval for projects using foreign donations. The Act criminalises foreign-funded NGOs that engage in "anti state activities" or make harmful or "derogatory" comments about the Constitution and constitutional institutions of Bangladesh. Violations as such can result in deregistration.