In May I wrote about the abduction of Bangladeshi journalist, and fellow blogger, Tasneem Khalil by the Bangladeshi military. Tasneem was picked up in the middle of the night for daring to criticize the military that had taken control of Bangladesh in a coup in January of this year. After a worldwide campaign by bloggers, human rights organizations, diplomats, and news organizations Tasneem was released a day later. According to Human Rights Watch, while in custody Tasneem was tortured and forced to "confess" to "anti-state" activities. Yet Tasneem is one of the lucky ones.
Since taking power in January the military regime in Bangladesh has suspended fundamental rights and has embarked on a systematic campaign of arrest, intimidation and torture under the guise of its so-called "anti-corruption" drive. The military has detained 200,000 citizens and tortured many of them as it tries to decimate the major political parties in what was the second largest democracy in the Muslim world.
Tasneem Khalil is now in Sweden after efforts by Human Rights Watch and western diplomats secured his safe passage out of Bangladesh. Today Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Bangladesh’s military regime protesting its record of human rights violations including its torture of Tasneem Khalil. The letter is a chilling indictment of the lawless regime that now rules Bangladesh with force of arms:
Since your administration took over, torture of persons in the custody of the security forces has continued to be routine. Many people have died in custody in unexplained circumstances. Your government has not put into place the most basic safeguards to ensure proper independent access to places of detention, requiring all persons to be held in official places of detention, and establishing a process whereby independent investigations are routinely undertaken when deaths in custody occur.
The joint forces, led by the army, have shown almost complete disregard for established legal norms conducting arrests and holding people in detention. Instead of being brought immediately before a magistrate, detainees are routinely taken to army barracks and other unofficial places of detention and tortured, both as punishment and to force them to sign confessions. Many people are being picked up in the middle of the night without warrant. Led by Bangladesh’s military intelligence unit, the DGFI, the security forces are often in plainclothes and offer no identification. When asked, they claim they can do anything they want because they are thus empowered under Bangladesh’s emergency laws.
We are particularly concerned because the rule of law appears to be breaking down under your administration. Under the emergency laws, the right to bail and the right to appeal are routinely denied. Court decisions are regularly ignored. Bangladesh’s many fine judges and lawyers are not being allowed to play their legitimate roles in the legal and judicial process. When some judges began ordering bail when habeas corpus petitions were filed, public prosecutors have secured contrary rulings from the Appellate Division, even in cases where there is clearly no threat to public security or risk of flight. This is all happening under an administration that claims to be committed to reform.
Illegal acts by the security forces are being enabled by the sweeping emergency rules your administration has put in place, which are being misused on a daily basis by the armed forces. Under emergency rules that ban protests and limit effective legal remedies, the security forces believe they can commit abuses with impunity.
We would particularly like to use this opportunity to remind you of the case of journalist Tasneem Khalil, who has worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch and as a stringer for CNN. On May 11, 2007, Mr. Khalil was taken into custody after midnight by men in plainclothes claiming to be Bangladesh’s “joint task force.” Mr. Khalil was taken from his home in front of his wife and child, blindfolded and driven to an interrogation center, where he was tortured and questioned about his work as a journalist, writings on his blog, as well as his employment with Human Rights Watch and CNN. Many of Mr. Khalil’s possessions, including computers, phones and passport, were confiscated when his home was ransacked. We immediately contacted your government for help, and Mr. Khalil was eventually released after more than 22 hours in custody.
We have since learned that Mr. Khalil had been held and tortured by the DGFI. The interrogation center Mr. Khalil was taken to is an extension of the DGFI headquarters in Dhaka cantonment that houses at least one torture chamber and a detention facility. This is a full-time illegal detention and torture facility. Mr. Khalil saw sophisticated torture equipment and could hear other detainees screaming in pain. At least five DGFI officers took part in the torture sessions that left Mr. Khalil with severe injuries. At one point he was photographed with a revolver and some bullets placed before him, suggesting that he was being set up for a faked “crossfire killing.” Before his release, Mr. Khalil was forced to make false confessions, and asked to sign documents and testify on video admitting to acts that could be considered treasonous. We have received other credible reports of the same type of activities by DGFI.
As you know, Bangladesh’s military forces have become notorious for taking people into custody, torturing them to death or executing them in faked “crossfire killings.” We were concerned that Mr. Khalil would meet a similar fate even after his release. He had to remain in hiding until, after long and unnecessary negotiations, his passport was eventually returned and he and his family were able to leave Bangladesh for safety abroad.
In a sense Mr. Khalil was fortunate. He had the advantage of foreign friends, colleagues, and diplomats who were in a position to appeal to your government for help. However, there are thousands now in custody, unable to secure bail and often subjected to torture, who are not so well connected. We do not know who is being tortured at this very minute by DGFI or others, but we do know that it is happening.
We appreciate your personal intervention and that of other government officials to ensure Mr. Khalil’s release and safe exit from the country. But as his case makes clear, arbitrary arrest and detention and torture are a significant problem in Bangladesh today.
Your government knows who was responsible for Mr. Khalil’s torture – and that of many other victims – where they work, and where the torture centers are located. Your government knows that these are not isolated cases – an untold number of people are being tortured every day. As a matter of basic human decency as well as your obligations under international law, you must act to close down such torture centers without delay. We look forward to public statements from you and members of your government on this subject, as well as action.
The Bush Administration has offered tacit support to the military regime in Bangladesh. Last week Mr. Bush praised the military regime in Bangladesh by saying "we support your efforts to fight corruption and collect taxes." Mr. Bush also praised the military for its "roadmap" to hold elections at the end of 2008 and return democracy to Bangladesh. The last time the Bangladesh military presented a similar election "roadmap" was in 1975 when they came to power in a bloody coup. In that instance the military ruled for 16 years until finally the people of Bangladesh rose up to force the military back into the barracks and restore democracy.
This military regime in Bangladesh will eventually be driven back to the barracks. In the mean time, it is determined to practice its own special brand of thuggery while it fights "corruption" and collects "taxes".