Human Rights and Decay of Ethical Values of Society and the State

farhad mazhar

By Farhad Mazhar

I intend to share with you my concerns about the human rights violation in Bangladesh. I assume that most of you are aware of the reports coming out of the human rights organizations of international repute and credibility as well as from Bangladeshi organizations about the alarming deterioration of human rights in Bangladesh. Needless to mention, statistics related to extrajudicial killings, torture and death in police custody, enforced disappearance, police brutalities, and other crimes are absolutely horrendous and unacceptable to people who have a minimum sense of human dignity. Those who are in power has been systematically repressing the opposition political parties denying their right for peaceful assembly; In addition to the police brutalities deployed to deny the rights of the people to express their dissent and grievances, judiciary is frequently used to accept false litigation, many are often ridiculous, against political leaders. The most important opposition news paper Amardesh is closed illegally and the editor Mahmudur Rahman is in jail. The opposition television channels Diganta and Islamic TV have also been shut down by the Government without any valid legal ground. There is hardly any space for critical and dissent voice.

This is not the claim that previous regimes did not violate human rights. I have three observations to make on this. When the first time came to power the Awami League Government committed to bringing “an end to all extra-judicial activities by law enforcement agencies” and “any official found responsible for such actions to justice’. This commitment was made in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR, a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council and involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. Under the auspices of the Human Rights Council UPR provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. After a long time remaining outside the power Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister with such commitment to human rights. This is the commitment not only to the international community, but to the peoples of Bangladesh as well. Compared to previous regime, this is the difference and performance of the regime in the light of the commitment is simply a glaring failure.

Secondly, what is strikingly different in this regime is the apex of the culture of impunity and lack of judicial space where citizens can seek remedy. The grave concern is the moral fabric of the society is being systematically shattered. This is not surprising. People are losing faith in administration and judiciary. This can be easily discerned if we also keep eye on the incidents of public lynching. If a petty thief or criminal is caught red handed by the masses, they are publicly beaten severely to death. If power constantly violates the dignity and value of human life with impunity, ethical and moral foundation of the state crumbles. What ascends is the rule of terror.

By moral fabric I also mean the general public sentiment to the due process of law, the ethical imperative to deliver justice to an accused. In Bangladesh we have seen young and bright youths of the city coming out in rallies and huge gathering demanding capital punishment for the persons accused of crime against humanity during the 1971 war. The sentiment is understandable and to do justice to the victims of such crimes a nation must deal with it in a manner that strengthens its ethical and moral imperative, and not displace or destroy it. Bangladesh must be over with the legacies of the past to embrace the future. But nowhere in the world one could have such a spectacle with media rushing to cover and glorify rallies of youths who are assembled to demand not justice, but hanging persons to death. If accused are indeed responsible for crimes committed during the liberation war, is irrelevant. Irrespective of nature of the crime or substantial evidence to prove that the accused has indeed were involved the cry for hanging a person was the most precarious moment for the people of Bangladesh who fought for justice. Let us dwell on this issue with an example, so that how human rights also embodies the moral and ethical realm of a society could be appreciated.

To deal with the crimes committed in 1971 Bangladesh government constituted a domestic Court known as International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The transparency and ‘standard’ of the court is being debated internationally, which is a separate issue than what is being discussed here. The second judgment of International Crime Tribunal on February 5 was against Abdul Qader Mollah. The judgement was he was guilty of five out of six charges, including murder as a crime against humanity, but ICT had acquitted him on one charge, and sentenced him to life in prison.

Abdul Kader Mollah not being sentenced to death by ICT and hanged immediately sparked large protests by the urban educated youths whom you expected to be enlightened, respectful to the due process of law and against capital punishment. Life term imprisonment is not enough punishment and they started demanding that no matter what the Court’s verdict is Mollah must be hanged to death. One may reasonably express dissatisfaction to any judgment for right or wrong reason. But such blatant denial of the Court’s judgment and forcing the government to change the ICT rules was unprecedented indeed. The demand that the judgment is reviewed and Mollah is hanged is accepted by the Government and Government acted accordingly. This incident that must be read as the index of the moral and ethical norms of the most powerful and the elite section of the society. Such protest against the Court verdict is clearly contempt of court. However, the government rather changed the ICT rules to allow the prosecution to appeal against the sentence on the murder charge. Such a measure with retroactive effect violates the norms of international law, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prevents a person being tried or punished again for an offence for which they have already been acquitted or finally convicted in accordance with the law.

To fathom public sentiment to hang the accused, and explicitly demanding that judiciary should opt for no other punishment but only hanging the accused till death is a bizarre and pathological manifestation of the ethical and moral demise of a society. My contention is that such demand could have been impossible to make in such pompous street rallies unless it is perceived by elite that power should indeed be practiced in a way by which an accused could be placed beyond or outside the law in a peculiar way by changing the rules after the verdict by the government only to retain the façade of a judicial legality. This is the reason why Zafrullah Choudhury, a doctor and a freedom fighter termes such act as ‘judicial murder’. The intention of the powerful section of the masses to hang an accused prevailed. Such façade of the trial does not strengthen the ethical and moral foundation of the state, but only destroys it. This is where our concern sould be concentrated.

Third, we should notice shifting nature of the atrocities committed by the government with regard to right to life. As you know, the present regime was severely criticized for the extra judicial killing. While extra-judicial killings is still continues under the garb of ‘cross fire’, ‘encounters’ etc, there is alarming shift in the rise of enforced disappearance, who are mostly members of opposition political party. Clearly, the trend is to terrorize and silence the dissent and political opposition. People disappear and the family-members allege that the person had been picked up by the law enforced agencies, while the law enforce agencies deny the allegation. The precarious context of the situation may be glimpsed from the table below from the well known human rights organization of Bangladesh. This following statistics does not include all the people disappeared. If included number could be much higher. In all cases the law enforced agencies denied that they have any role in it despite claims of the family members or the people who saw the abduction.

Year (s) No. of the
Allegedly disappeared by
RAB Police RAB-Police DB Police RAB-DB
2014 (Until August) 31 21 2 0 5 1 0 2
2013 43 20 1 0 15 0 0 7
2012 24 10 0 0 6 2 1 5
2011 31 14 2 0 11 4
2010 18 14 2 0 2
2009 3 3
Total 150 82 7 0 39 3 1 18

(source: Odhikar)

One could see the rise of enforced disappearance since 2009, a clear index of the nature of violation of human rights by the present regime. According to another human rights organization Ain O Shalish Kendra, the number of disappearance is much higher. According to theme 76 disappearances have allegedly been committed by the law enforcing agencies between January-July 2014. Among the victims, corpses of 23 have been found. Furthermore, according to the information collected by ASK, 55 and 53 people have been the victims of ‘enforced disappearance’ in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Law-enforcement agencies are reduced to a mere instrument to oppress and suppress dissent opposition and arresting opposition activists, detaining them in utterly false and fabricated cases; it is rapidly increasing the potential for violent conflict. The word ‘arrest’ has lost all juridical significance in a functional criminal justice system but simply the power of the state agents, who are not answerable to any one, to pick up any one without explaining the ground for arrest. Questioning state agents, challenging their legality of their authority to arrest, or demanding an arrest warrant issued by a Court, is invariably met with retaliation and further human rights abuse.

The sign of decay is obvious in law enforcing agencies. Recently Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has been implicated in a case of ‘contract killings’. It relates to the April 27 gruesome kidnap and murder of seven persons including Narayanganj City Corporation panel mayor Nazrul Islam. Islam’s father-in-law alleged that some Rab men killed him in exchange for Tk 6 crore from Awami League leader Nur Hossain and a few others. While the authorities fired three Rab officers including commanding officer of Rab-11 Lt Col Tareque Sayeed Mohammad, the family of a businessman claimed that the elite force abducted her husband in Dhaka last month. In response to such sign of decay Human Rights Watch in a lettter to Sheikh Hasina has recently said, that the Bangladesh government should disband the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), since it has turned into a ’death squad’. RAB is a peculiar institution where members from the army joins police to form an elite force under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Evidence that RAB officers were responsible for the contract killings of seven men in April 2014, allegedly on behalf of a ruling party member, have provoked outrage in Bangladesh as well as to the human rights defenders around the world. The unit was established in 2004 by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Only recently Khaleda Zia has openly took stand against RAB, a shift from her previous position where she took pride in forming such elite force to counter ‘terrorism’. Over the last decade, successive governments led by the BNP, the subsequent military-backed caretaker regime, and since 2009, the Awami League, have allowed the force to operate with impunity, leading to serious and systematic abuses. RAB has been responsible for numerous acts of torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and not less than 800 killings over the last 10 years.

Corruption in the police is well known, added to it is the culture of impunity. It has encouraged police regularly engaged in doing dirty work on behalf of the regime. The elite of the society also use the police to grab assets of others. Police is ready to do the service, even ‘crime’, in exchange for the reward. As an institution it has hardly any contribution in maintaining or improving law and order situation.

While we can discuss human rights violations under various issues and headlines, it is important that we take note of the recent 15th amendment in the Bangladesh constitution. I end with some observation on 15thAmendment.

New Articles have been inseted into Bangladesh constitution through 15th Amendment. According to Article 7B says: “Notwithstanding anything contained in Article 142 of the constitution, the preamble, all articles of Part l, ll, lll and the provisions of articles relating to the basic structures of the constitution including article 150 of part xl shall not be amendable by way of insertion, modification, substitution, repeal or by any other means. This preamble is to reduce the constitution into a partisan document. Literary speaking it imposes the Awami League’s ideology as the ideology of the state and citizens have no right to change the constitutive basis of the state. The regime claims that people will have to accept Bengali nationalism, secularism and socialism, and democracy as the foundational ideology of the constitution. Ethnic supremacy and blatant racism of Bengalis, denying the rights of other non-bengali communities prevails. Democracy as a state-form is already secular. When the present regime adds secularism over and above democracy, the intention is not to uphold the enlightened principles of secular age, but just the opposites. It is deployed as an instrument against religious, spiritual and secular values of Islam. Islam has been particularly targeted here dictated by the deep hatred towards Islam and creating constitutional grounding to practice islamophobic ideology of ultra Bengali nationalist.

It is to be mentioned that Proclamation of Independence of Bangladesh, which is a constitutional document carries no trace of the four principle of Awami League. People of Bangladesh fought for equality, dignity and social justice. Declaration of Independence says:

“We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice…” (10th April 1971).

This is the document that united the people and constituted them as a political community. Peoples of Bangladesh fought for equality, dignity and justice. It is time that that we oppose all anti-liberation ideology and unite the people to form a state that can ensure equality, human dignity and social justice for all.

Article 7A.(1) of the new mendments says, “If any person reacts his confidence and trust in this constitution or takes attempt of doing so or conspire against it, his or her activities will be treated as acts of sedition, and the person concerned will be guilty of sedition”.

About punishment, Article 7A.(3) says, “The person convicted under the provision of this article will be awarded the highest punishment prescribed for other offences by the existing laws.

These are clear violation of the freedom of speech and conscience. Criticizing constitution will amount to sedition and punishable by capital punishment. I doubt if there is any country in the world in this era of plural values, tolerance and democracy could enact such amendment and still could be considered to be a part of international community.

The fact is international order does not assess such a regime simply by the measure of adherence to democratic values and principles of human rights, but valued by the function they play in the war against terrorism. Reconfiguration of the Bangladesh constitution and the state is intended to fight against the people of Bangladesh.

I doubt whether people of Bangladesh will accpt the injustice committed against them for long. It is time to wake up and try our best to convince all the democratic people around the world what we fought for in 1971 and what is the spirit that we still carry with us.

It is clear that Bangladesh can not solve her problem so easily as we often imagine. An overhauling of our foundation principles is necessary. Human rights can not be viewed simply as privilege of the individual, but the must be the foundation of the state. A reconstitution of the Bangladesh as a political community is necessary on the basis of the values of liberation war enshrined in the proclamation of independence. That is, again: equality. Human dignity and social justice.

I invite all to work for the people of Bangladesh to realize the unfinished goal of our great liberation war.