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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lord Voldemort of Bangladesh




I went to Brussels and the European Parliament last week to take part in an informal hearing about the human rights situation in Bangladesh. The situation is alarming - more the 25.000 people were arbitrary arrested over the past two weeks.

Approximately half a million people have been arrested in Bangladesh since the proclamation of state of emergency 16 months ago. Most of them are political opponents; many will be tortured into accordance by the military regime.
Those who were able have gone into hiding; or maybe they ‘disappeared,’ or mysteriously died from ‘heart problems’ after days of torture. Others are simply shot in the back, with the official explanation that they ‘attempted to escape’.

As expected, the present representative of the Bangladeshi Embassy denied any governmental involvement in human rights abuse. The ambassador was ‘surprised to hear that the human rights situation is bad in Bangladesh’ he claimed the Bangladeshi human rights record have ‘always been good’, and; ‘no-one is being arrested without reason in Bangladesh’.

In reality, state security forces can arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals without warrant or evidence[1]; in fact, they can 'produce' evidence through the use of force. Soldiers and police responsible for torture and killings enjoy impunity.

Journalists and human rights activists that are brave enough to report about the abuse become targets themselves. Ahmed Swapan, a torture victim and exiled Bangladeshi journalist said; ‘I am afraid to speak here today. I am one of those whose right hand still is dysfunctional because of my reporting in Bangladesh.’ The torture of Tasneem Khalil, who reported to, amongst others, CNN and Human Rights Watch, made it to the international press last year. If they beat a journalist who is working for a distinguished media and human rights organisation unconscious with batons – what will they do to others who have less chance of getting their story out?
“In Bangladesh, they have their own Lord Voldemort – the DGFI. They
are so feared that people don’t even dare mentioning its name,”

William Sloan (International Association of Democratic Lawyers), during his last visit to Bangladesh, was held up and interrogated at the airport, cautioned by the DGFI[2], barred from the courtroom where Sheikh Hasina was on trial, interdicted from holding a press conference, confined in his hotel room for ten hours, and escorted to the airport by police and detained until boarding time. “In Bangladesh, they have their own Lord Voldemort – the DGFI. They are so feared that people don’t even dare mentioning its name,” he said, making a reference to the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter books.

Indeed, over the year we have seen a mobilisation of dark forces in Bangladesh. Terror, torture and intimidation are the main tools used by the military government to maintain power. However, whereas Lord Voldemort made no secret of his intention of dictatorial rule, the Bangladeshi government is still attempting to hide behind a democratic fa├žade and maintain its international reputation.

Perhaps it is time to stop allowing the military regime in Bangladesh to hide behind the term ‘caretaker government,’ and instead start calling it what it is: a military regime. Because, as the Harry Potter fans will know; fear of a name only creates fear of the phenomenon itself.

[1] Emergency Powers Rules, Section 16 & 20, EPR 2007
[2] Directorate General of Forces Intelligence; one of the main Bangladeshi intelligence services