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A restrictive legal framework is one of the major obstacles hindering the work of human rights defenders in Bangladesh. A number of sections under the Penal code punish, including in some cases with life imprisonment, those who commit acts that are “prejudicial to the states”. These sections are broadly interpreted and open to political manipulation and are used against critics and opponents. The Government’s NGO Bureau which regulates NGOs and from which all NGOs must seek approval before receiving foreign funds, has reportedly used bureaucratic procedures and tactics of harassment to obstruct the work of human rights defenders. There are also a number of laws and regulations restricting freedom of expression, which impede the work of journalists in particular. This includes legislation which allows police and “any other person empowered in his behalf by the Government” to seize unauthorised media such as newspapers as well as the printers believed to have produced them. A wide number of defenders and journalists have been arrested for publishing articles or publicly disseminating information on alleged human rights abuses. Emergency Power Rules (EPR) was issued following the declaration of state emergency on 11 January 2007. The EPR empowers all law enforcement personnel to arrest any person on suspicion without a warrant, and grants police and other authorities the power to arrest defenders on charges of extortion and disturbance of community’s harmony.
The political context continues to be extremely polarised and human rights defenders are invariably categorised along partisan lines. Bangladesh held its first national parliamentary elections in December 2008, but before the elections, restrictions on freedom of assembly and association were tightened. In many cases, defenders speaking publicly about human rights abuses are dismissed by the Government as being linked to the opposition and their criticism are subsequently disregarded.
While human rights defenders in general are subjected to threats, physical attacks, arbitrary detention, torture while in detention, harassment and killings, those most vulnerable to attacks are human rights defenders who: criticise the authorities and members of the ruling parties for human rights abuses; reveal links between politicians, police and criminal armed gangs; criticise human rights abuses by Islamic parties; reveal corruption in the ruling administration and law enforcement personnel; and those who work for the rights of minorities, in particular religious minorities. People who defend land rights of indigenous peoples constantly face arrest and torture while in detention. NGOs and individuals working on the empowerment of women face threats. Journalists also face numerous threats and are subject to arbitrary detention and torture – in particular journalist investigating human rights abuses committed by the security forces.
The perpetrators of attacks against defenders and journalists are reported to be members of the ruling party, members or supporters of Islamic groups as well as criminal armed gangs. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders expressed her concern that certain rights under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders have been curtailed under the emergency regulations, particularly freedom of assembly and association. Reports on allegations of torture and ill-treatment of defenders in custody also show an ongoing deterioration of the conditions of detention of defenders.
Bangladesh: Human rights defender, Mr FMA Razzak, in a critical condition in hospital following abduction and brutal attack
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