Bangla HR record worsens with emergency, poll delay: State Dept

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Dhaka, Mar 12 (UNI) Bangladesh's military-backed caretaker government's human rights record worsened due to the state of emergency and postponement of elections, US State Department said in its country report on Human Rights Practices-2007.

In the country paper on Bangladesh released in Washington yesterday, the report said the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007 (EPR), imposed by the government in January and effective through year's end, suspended many fundamental rights, including freedom of press, freedom of association, and the right to bail.

It said the anti-corruption drive initiated by the government, while greeted with popular support, gave a rise to concerns about due its process.

''For most of the year, the government banned political activities, although this policy was enforced unevenly,'' the report said.

The report said while the law prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, law enforcers frequently employed severe treatment as well as psychological abuse during arrests and interrogations.

Quoting human rights organisations, it said, ''The use of such techniques increased after the interim government declared the state of emergency on January 11. Abuse consisted of threats, beatings, and the use of electric shock. Security forces, according to human rights organizations, tortured 30 people to death.'' It said the government rarely charged, convicted, or punished those responsible, and a climate of impunity allowed such abuses by the RAB, police, and military to continue.

''Preventative and arbitrary detentions increased after the declaration of the state of emergency, particularly after the caretaker government launched its anti-corruption programme,'' added the report.

The government reported arresting more than 300,000 persons between January and August, an arrest rate approximately 15 per cent higher than in 2006, it said, adding the majority of those arrested were released within a day or two.

The report said human rights organizations estimated that approximately 200 former politicians, government officials, and business leaders were held on suspicion of corruption, extortion, or other abuses of power after the caretaker government began its anti-corruption drive in January.

Quoting Human Rights Watch (HRW), the report said the joint forces held suspects illegally and were interrogated, often abused, and in some cases forced suspects to sign confessions before releasing or presenting them to a magistrate. In some cases, the authorities released detainees after they agreed to file cases against other high-profile suspects.

The report said several high-profile figures, including some members of the leadership of BNP and AL, however, were held for months without any charges filed against them.

It said international and domestic human rights organisations accused the government of selective prosecution. For example, it said several high-profile figures believed to be corrupt were omitted from the lists of corruption suspects, allegedly because they agreed to ally themselves with the caretaker government.

''The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court frequently overturned politically charged decisions by the High Court Division of the Supreme Court if those rulings went against the government.'' the report said.

For example, the report said, ''The Appellate Division overturned several decisions granting bail to high-level corruption suspects, including former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.'' On several occasions, the report said, when the Appellate Division upheld the High Court ruling to release a high-profile detainee, such as in the case of senior AL adviser Kazi Zafarullah, the person was re-arrested immediately upon release on a new set of charges.

The report further said, ''The government imposed unofficial house arrests on former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and made repeated efforts in the first six months of the year to force them into exile.'' Eventually, the report said, the government arrested even women on corruption charges, and at year's end they were awaiting trial.

It said by year's end the Anti-Corruption Commission and the public prosecutor had prosecuted several dozen cases against ranking political officials, ranging from extortion and money laundering to murder.

''While the government said that these were legitimate charges, some cases, such as the filing of charges against former Law Minister Moudud Ahmed and former Communications Minister Anwar Hossain Manju, were seen to be politically motivated,'' informed the report said.

It said the authorities charged Ahmed and Manju with alcohol possession, normally a minor offense for which bail is granted during trial.

The report said the EPR suspended indoor and outdoor political gatherings, allowed the government to take legal action against critical editors and journalists, and allowed authorities to compel the broadcast or publication of stories supporting the government.

After banning radio and television talk shows in August, it said the government rescinded the ban after developing strict rules to govern the format.

It said according to journalists, editors, and other media personnel, intimidation and pressure on the media intensified considerably after the declaration of a state of emergency.

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