(Updates with law minister's remarks, paragraphs 1 and 4)
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Human rights in Bangladesh worsened in 2013 as the government cracked down on members of civil society, the media and the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said in its annual World Report, but a government minister said this was not true and the report was biased.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government often took violent and illegal action against protesters, and failed to initiate any investigations into credible allegations of unlawful deaths at the hands of its security forces, said the report, released on Tuesday.
“This year (2013) has been tragic for Bangladesh, with political unrest leading to unnecessary deaths of protesters, security personnel, and bystanders,” said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia Director.
“The government has failed to stem the cycle of violence by ordering investigations into violations by security forces, and instead has become increasingly intolerant of dissent, going to extreme extents to suppress opposition and criticism.”
"This is not true and the report is biased," Law Minister Anisul Haq told Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday, without going into detail. The government will give a formal reaction to the report next week, he added.
DEADLY PROTESTS, NO ACCOUNTABILITY
More than 200 people were killed in violent street protests in Bangladesh which broke out in February and continued throughout 2013.
The protests began after the Awami League government decided to charge people with war crimes and other abuses during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 and put them on trial. Many of the defendants belong to the hardline Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, part of the main opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The execution in December of Abdul Qader Mollah, a senior member of Jamaat-e-Islami, for war crimes committed in 1971, led to further protests and violence.
Disagreement between the government and opposition led the BNP to boycott elections on Jan. 5, 2014, on the ground that they would not be free and fair.
“Bangladeshi security forces frequently used excessive force in responding to street protests, killing at least 150 protesters and injuring at least 2,000 between February and October 2013,” the HRW report said.
“While large numbers of protesters were arrested, Bangladeshi authorities made no meaningful efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable.”
The report said the authorities had also cracked down on other opponents of the government. In August, prominent human rights activist Adilur Rahman Khan was detained on politically motivated charges, HRW said, adding that 'atheist' bloggers and a newspaper editor had also been arrested.
Also in August, Bangladeshi prosecutors charged HRW with contempt of court after the New York-based rights group criticised the conviction of a top Islamist politician on war crimes charges.
PREVENTABLE FACTORY DEATHS
Among other issues, HRW pointed to the recent string of factory accidents – including one in a garment factory in April which led to the deaths of more than 1,100 people – and said that measures to protect labour rights fell far short of international standards.
The accidents in garment factories in Bangladesh has put the government, industrialists and the global brands that use the factories under pressure to reform an industry that employs four million people and generates 80 percent of export earnings.
The Bangladeshi parliament enacted changes to the Labour Act in July, and amendments lifted some restrictions on employees joining a trade union, but failed to protect the right to freedom of association effectively, HRW said.
Regular inspections of factories, to check that health and safety standards were being met, were due to start in September, but have remained stalled by administrative delays, HRW added.
“This government came to power promising democracy and a return to the rule of law, but instead has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant,” Adams said.
“The crackdown throughout this year (2013) on any form of dissent has been shocking, and has exacerbated the country’s human rights crisis.”
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka)