Bangladesh is increasingly becoming a dangerous place for minorities: Shahanur Islam
 Source : News Bharati English  Date : 10-Dec-2013

 (Special Interview- International Human Rights day)


An exclusive Interview of Shahanur Islam, an Advocate and Human Rights Activist from Bangladesh

India’s neighbor Bangladesh has seen severe violations of Human Rights in 2012. Bangladesh is becoming a breeding ground of cross border crimes such as drug trafficking, fake currency, human trafficking, and illegal migration and so on. Minority communities in Bangladesh are more prone to such crimes.

On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, well-known advocate and Human Rights activist from Bangladesh Shahanur Islam highlights the present condition of human rights in Bangladesh.

By Priyanka Pugaokar

NB: Minorities are more prone to increasing religious intolerance and radicalism in Bangladesh. What is a current condition of minority rights in the country?

$img_titleShahanur Islam: Bangladesh is increasingly becoming a dangerous place for minority communities. Citizens belonging to the Hindu community are under constant threat of political violence and were attacked by radical criminals. Conspirators are out to create a situation so that the Hindus can be attacked. It is a threatening situation for minorities, with the country’s Islamists repeatedly using the Quran and the name of the Prophet Mohammad as tools to incite the massive and combustible Muslim community. Human rights, therefore, for these marginalized religious communities have remained extremely challenging for the most part, and attempts at addressing this problem are yet to go beyond political bickering.

NB: Extrajudicial killings, disappearances of people, atrocities by security forces are the biggest challenges for preservation of fundamental rights of citizens. Human rights groups reported more than 20 disappearances in 2012. What do you think regarding this and are you taking actions regarding this issue?

Shahanur Islam: Despite of guarantee by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh article 32 where stated “no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty, save in accordance with law” torture and extrajudicial killing are common phenomenon in Bangladesh and it is continuing despite repeated assurance to stop this and the declaration of ‘zero’ tolerance on torture and extrajudicial killings by the government during the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. Up to November 2013, around 281 people were killed without judicial procedure and 34 people torture in the hand of law enforcement agencies which is more alarming. Recently, the government passes law criminalizing torture, but so far I know, yet no survivor of torture got remedy from this law.

In recent years, involuntary disappearances are rise as new trend in Bangladesh. People are abducted and disappearing from various places in broad day light by the men claiming to be members of law enforcement agencies. Some are recovered as dead after they were abducted. In many cases, families of the disappeared claim that law enforcing agencies picked up the victims. Up to November 2013, 25 people were enforced disappearance by the law and security personnel. But most of the time the law enforcing agencies denied any knowledge about the disappeared.

NB:  What are the major loopholes in the judiciary in Bangladesh? What efforts should be taken to provide speedy justice to victims?

Shahanur Islam: Though the judicial system in Bangladesh is independent in written, still the judiciary especially the lawyer court is not absolutely independent in practice. Inadequate number of judges and qualified court staff, lack of lawyers’ cooperation in utilizing full hours of court, insufficient court rooms resulting in returning witnesses who, normally, do not appear at the later day, failure of witnesses to appear, frivolous appeal and revision, false/vexatious case, overuse of trials, lack of budget are major challenges in the judiciary in Bangladesh. The following efforts should be taken to provide speedy justice to the victim:

i) fill vacancies and promote judges and plan their leave coordinately, increase training to court staff, provide judge and magistrate with trained stenographer; ii) enforce the ethical code of conduct governing the bar, provide support to trial judges who attempt to sanction lawyers for unethical behavior, educate clients about their rights to the service of their lawyers and in appropriate cases to free legal services, clearly set out the costs of filing a case and all supplementary costs in the precincts of the court; iii) provide every judge or magistrate with a courtroom, even if it is just a temporary facility; iv) require trial judges to keep records on the number of witnesses they set to examine a month and how many were examined, issue warrants for witnesses who repeatedly fail to appear, compel their appearance only when their testimony is necessary, require that witnesses check in with the clerk so that the judges are aware of who is present for examination; v) order un‐prepared or non‐attending lawyers or lawyers seeking adjournment on “unmeritorious grounds to pay witnesses compensation, and that the money be paid in open court; vi) reimburse travel costs of witnesses; vii) encourage appellate courts to deny requests for appeal in petty matters; viii) lawyers and litigants who file frivolous applications for revisions and appeals should be sanctioned; ix) increase the power of the court to order compensation for such cases, Judges and magistrates should have the ability to directly sanction an individual for lying under oath or filing a false case;  x) Public prosecutors should review the FIR at the first opportunity and dismiss those cases where there is a prima facie abuse of process; and xi) promote ADR at court, establish a panel of trained and respected mediators in each district and/or a mediation center, require all civil cases to attempt mediation before proceeding with the case and allow the judge to take notice of a party that refuses to actively engage in the process, reconsider the restriction on the types of cases that can be compromised and consider allowing parties to work with a mediator trained in human rights and the law.

NB: Women in Bangladesh most affected part of the society and are venerable to crimes like sexual assault, rapes and domestic violence. What is a current situation of women in Bangladesh?

Shahanur Islam: Women in Bangladesh still face high levels of violence; and women belonging to the poorer and more deprived sections of society are more prone to various kinds of violence. Major types of violence against women in Bangladesh include dowry-related violence, rape, acid attacks, domestic violence and various forms of sexual harassment. Between January 01 and November 30, 2013, 142 women have been killed, 262 women were physically abused and 18 women have committed suicide due to dowry related violence. During this time, 51 women were victimized by acid violence and 789 women and children were raped. Beside this, 343 girls have been victims of sexual harassment in same period. However, the actual statistics of violence may be higher, as many incidents – especially in the case of rape and sexual harassment – go unreported. In many cases, the accused are not being punished because of improper implementation of law, a weak criminal justice system, corruption in police and administration and the influence of political persons. As a result, violence against women continues to rise.

NB:  Workers in Bangladesh faced poor working conditions, low wages, and excessive hours. How you are taking up this issue with the government?

Shahanur Islam: About 35 hundred thousand workers work in readymade garment factories, of them 80% are women. This industry is probably the largest contributor to the country’s economy. However, workers in this sector are exploited and deprived of their rights including worst working conditions, low wages and excessive hours, termination of workers without any proper reason, closure of factories without notice and wages not paid on time. Furthermore, fires and buildings collapses caused by various flaws in factories have caused permanent injuries and death. Compensation for industrial and workplace accidents are almost non-existent. We are continuously advocating with both of the garment owner and government to raise the issues and also maintaining liaison with workers trade union make them sensitize about their rights. Finally, on November 13, 2013, owners of garment factory agreed to Taka 5,300 as the minimum wage according to proposal given by of the Minimum Wage Board member after the meeting the Prime Minister on November 4, 2013 and it has been enacted by gazette notification.

NB: Despite a called by US war crimes ambassador, Stephen Rapp and several international groups for amendment of International Crimes Tribunal Act (ICT Act), trials against 1971 war crimes accused is still continue in Bangladesh. Why Sheikh Hasina government is reluctant for fair trials of war crimes?

Shahanur Islam: The people of Bangladesh are highly demanded justice for the war victim as well as solely support to present ICT Tribunal. In respect of peoples demand the present government formed the tribunal a little bit amending ICT act and begun tribunal procedure. The present government is very much sincere in completing the ICT cases within time under the purview of International standard. For this reason, it amended its procedural rule a lot of time recommendation made by US war crimes ambassador, Stephen Rapp and several international groups to comply with international standard although this is a domestic tribunal. The accused are getting all kind of facility as they deserved. This is an open tribunal where all type of people has accessibility to observe the tribunal procedure. Even, there is option for appeal to the Supreme Court if any party is being arrived for any judgment of this tribunal. So we cannot say that present government is reluctant for fail trails of war crime. Then, the accused party’s are trying to make questionable the trial procedure to international level deploying lobbyist to disseminate their propaganda to the European, Arabian and American countries policy level. Sheikh Hasina government’s role for fair trial is also not beyond criticism as they are new to handling this kind of cases as well as lack of expert judges and lawyers in both prosecution and defense.

NB: In August 2012, the Bangladesh government announced plans to establish a new commission charged solely with regulating NGO activities, in addition to the NGO Affairs Bureau that already exists in the prime minister’s office. Do you think the government attempting to restrain NGOs in the country?

Shahanur Islam: For restraining religious fundamentalist activism, the government announced plans to establish a commission as there were allegation that some of the NGOs using foreign money for patronizing fundamentalist terrorism instead of human rights and humanitarian activities. Moreover, there are some NGO’s operating in local level without proper manner as well as receiving and using foreign donation without consent and knowledge of authority applying the loopholes of existing law. But we are in afraid that government can impose restrictions on NGOs activities with their ill political will which will be jeopardized the human rights movement and humanitarian assistance to the victims as well.

NB:  What is the condition of Minority Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh?

Shahanur Islam: Violence to the religious, ethnic, sexual and social minorities are taking place at regular basis. The Hindus and the Buddhists, being majority among the minority, suffer much and bear heavy loss of property and belongings. The destruction often becomes more severe like murder, rape of females, causing fire to houses and belongings, looting wealth in broad daylight etc. So far, more than 108 Hindu temples, 244 idol and more than 1,500 Hindu homes were destroyed all around the country in 2013 alone. During every unfortunate event, the ruling party or the government of the country failed to provide adequate protection to the minorities which is neither desirable nor consolable.

Ethnic minority people are also facing discrimination in Bangladesh. Still they are not recognized as indigenous in constitution. Although, there are some reserved seat for every public place for the ethnic minority people, but unfortunately, most of the time quotas are not applied properly. Since it passed 16 years of Chittagong Hill Track Peace accord, ironically eighty percent of the accord conditions are still not implemented. Ruling parties are always using the accord for their political agenda.

Though the present ruling government is recognized transgender as third gender recently, still Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community people are facing discrimination from his family to public sphere. Yet the same sex activities are prohibited and punishable offence.

Moreover, still the dalit community people have been exploited oppressed and excluded through generations and experienced multiple forms of discrimination. Social exclusion is manifested in the physical structure of both rural and urban areas throughout the country. Dalits are not allowed to rent or build houses outside these designated localities. They are regularly denied entry to the temples and religious activities of non-Dalits, to tea shops and restaurants, and to houses of non-Dalits.

NB: Is it true that religious places of non-Muslims are often attacked and vandalized by radical forces. Do you think the Bangladesh government is failed to protect minorities?

Shahanur Islam: Not only the radical forces but also many intolerant Muslims are responsible for desecration of religious places, including temple and Hindu deities. Even on false allegations of face book posting many people demolished houses /Temples  belonging  to minority communities such as in Hathazari, Kotwali, Chittaong, Satkhira, Dinajpur, Cox’s Bazar, Ukhiya, Teknaf, Sathiya, Patgram of Lalmonirhat are the best examples for such violence against religious places and religion of other non-Muslims. We saw in most of these attacks were caused by the Jihadi groups were funded by the Hefajat-e-Islam, Jamaat-e-Islam and BNP. Some time the religious minorities has become victim of attacked and vandalized by political influence of local level ruling party. Ironically, AL, the current ruling party, has not done enough to halt these crimes.

After every incident, police usually protects attackers belonging to the ruling party and arrests innocent people as scapegoats. Abusing their authorities, the political leaders prevent law enforcers from arresting their party workers. In addition, even though apprehended, culprits slipped out of the legal process by bribing law enforcers and legal officers. As a result government of Bangladesh totally failed to protect rights of the minority as well as their rehabilitation.

NB:  Tell us about your project JusticeMakers.  Highlight your experience while working on human rights violation cases.

Shahanur Islam: JusticeMakers Bangladesh is a new born human rights organization established by some young, promising lawyer and social worker aiming to ensure human rights, legal reform and social justice for all without discrimination of race, religious gender or age. Since its inception, we are trying to reach those corner violence’s where most of our main streaming organization usually does not pay their attention.

We are continuing our continuous lobbying and advocacy for establishing rights of lesbian, gay, bi sexual and transgender community repealing the section 377 of the penal code where make same sex activities prohibited and punishable up to life imprisonment. We are also conducting lobbying to government for constitutional recognition of ethnic minority as indigenous people as well as enact a new law for indigenous people rights. For ensuring rights of socially excluded Dalit community people, we initiated campaign for enact a law against untouchabilty practices recognizing it as a criminal offence for protection of the rights of Dalit and uphold their dignity in the society.

Most of the time, we are cordially received by the community people during conducting our activities. But ironically some time we faced difficulty from local elite as well law and security personnel. As the chief of the organization, I had received threats, death threats, and intimidation as well as psychologically physically harassed, assaulted and arrested by the local elite and law and security personnel due to my activities of upholding human rights. But they cannot impede my actives for well being of survivor of violence as well as my effort to establish rule of law, good governance, criminal and social justice.