| Home |
The Bangladesh Observer
On the other hand, several features of the Bangladesh situation make it particularly vulnerable to a devastating epidemic. Bangladesh is surrounded by parts of India with high HIV prevalence-West Bengal to the west and Northeastern India to the east-and is also neighbor to the epidemics of Southeast Asia. There is a good deal of migration across Bangladesh's borders. Furthermore, awareness of HIV/AIDS in the Bangladeshi population remains quite low. One recent survey found that "only 19 percent of ever-married women and 33 percent of currently married men had heard of AIDS." As of July 2003 there was virtually no sex education in Bangladeshi schools, though the government had announced a plan to begin offering sex education in public schools for the first time in 2004.
It is not surprising, then, that several studies have found that risky behavior is common. The Ministry of Health concluded in its report on the Third National HIV Surveillance, for example, that "[a]lmost everyone buying sex in Bangladesh is having unprotected sex some of the time, and a large majority don't use condoms most of the time." Of 500 injection drug users questioned in central Bangladesh during the surveillance, 93.4 percent said they had shared needles or injecting equipment in the past week. The Third National Surveillance also found a high prevalence of syphilis among sex workers. The same street-based sex workers in central Bangladesh who had a 0.5 percent prevalence of HIV, for example, had a 42.7 percent prevalence of syphilis. This high prevalence of syphilis suggests, firstly, "that unprotected sex with multiple partners is indeed a norm at least for some subsections of the Bangladeshi population." Secondly, these results highlight the high HIV risk among sex workers because infection with other sexually transmitted diseases increases the risk of HIV transmission. Bangladesh also has a high rate of poverty, systemic gender inequality, and an inadequate health care system, all of which have been seen in many settings to be contributing factors to the rapid spread of HIV.
Various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been working on HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention in Bangladesh for several years. There is growing acknowledgment within the government and among international agencies that Bangladesh must take immediate, concerted action to avoid a severe AIDS epidemic. The U.N. special HIV/AIDS envoy for Asia, Nafis Sadik, said in January 2003 that the "time for action is today" if Bangladesh is to avoid a sharp rise in HIV infections over the coming decade.
Bangladesh formed a national AIDS committee in 1985 and first established a national AIDS control and prevention program in 1996 with the help of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). That program is now called the National AIDS/Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Program and is a part of the Ministry of Health. Bangladesh adopted a "National Policy on HIV/AIDS and STD Related Issues" in 1997. The National AIDS/STD Program has, among other things, conducted prevalence and behavior surveys among persons at high risk, run a television and billboard advertising campaign to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, supported some NGOs in their work with persons at high risk, and provided HIV/AIDS training to some 55,000 health and family welfare workers.
In 2000, the Bangladesh government entered an agreement with the World Bank and the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) to expand the activities of Bangladesh's National AIDS/STD Program over the five-year period from 2001 to 2005. The total budget for the five-year project was set at U.S.$52.59 million, of which the World Bank was to provide U.S.$40 million in the form of a no-interest loan, DFID was to provide U.S.$10 million in the form of a grant, and the Bangladesh government was to contribute U.S.$2.6 million. According to a World Bank official in Dhaka, approximately 60 percent of the money was originally planned to be given as grants to implementing NGOs of which much would have gone toward work with groups representing persons at high-risk such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, injection drug users, migrant laborers, and street children. As of May 2003, the World Bank reported that implementation difficulties had prevented disbursement of all but about 5 percent of the funds and that the project would have to be scaled back from the originally slated levels. Nonetheless it was hoped that at least a few NGOs working with vulnerable persons would benefit from the package.
Sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users are all marginalized in Bangladeshi society, as they are in many societies. If Bangladesh's campaign against AIDS is to succeed, however, these vulnerable persons must be partners in the effort. These are the people most in need of HIV/AIDS information and services, and they are also often the people in the best position to deliver such information and services to their peers. Bangladesh's national AIDS policy recognizes the importance of respecting those vulnerable to HIV:
The protection of the human rights of those vulnerable to and infected by HIV has been shown to be an essential component to HIV/AIDS prevention and care worldwide. Strategies designed to bring about necessary behaviour changes needed to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS/STD are more likely to be effective if they occur in an enabling and supportive environment.
This commitment to protecting and supporting persons vulnerable to HIV/AIDS is consonant with U.N. guidelines and international consensus statements. For example, the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights published by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS posit that states "should enact or strengthen anti-discrimination and other protective laws that protect vulnerable groups" and that states, "in collaboration with and through the community, should promote a supportive and enabling environment for women, children, and other vulnerable groups." This report demonstrates that rather than being given "an enabling and supportive environment," sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users are regularly abused by police and by powerful criminals.
Though the focus of this report is on persons vulnerable to HIV, reports also suggest that Bangladesh has violated the liberty of some persons who may be or are already living with HIV. Among the "Fundamental Principles" in Bangladesh's AIDS policy is that "there is no justification to restrict the rights or freedom of persons solely on the grounds that they are, or may be, infected with HIV." The policy's discussion of HIV testing states that "there is no place in [the] national AIDS prevention and control programme for . . . testing without informed consent." The same two principles-that an HIV-positive person has a right to freedom of movement and a right not to be tested without consent-are echoed in the U.N. International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights. The guidelines state that these two principles are implicit in existing international human rights protections.
Reports suggest that Bangladesh has violated both its commitment not to test persons forcibly for HIV and its commitment to respect the liberty of persons living with HIV/AIDS. In 1999, police violently evicted the residents of two major brothels near Dhaka, and many sex workers were arrested during the evictions. Staff members of CARE, an international NGO working on HIV/AIDS in the country, told Human Rights Watch that some of the arrested sex workers were forcibly tested for HIV, and that of those forcibly tested, two sex workers from one of the brothels tested positive. One managed to escape; the other, a sixteen-year-old girl, was detained in a government hospital in Dhaka. A CARE staff member who visited the detained girl said that her room was guarded twenty-fours a day by police, and that the girl, who was in good health, was allowed to leave only to eat and to use the bathroom. CARE lobbied with the Bangladesh Home and Health Ministries for seven months, after which the girl was released on the condition that CARE would "take full responsibility" for her. On release, the girl began working with CARE as a peer educator.
CARE also reported that the Bangladesh government
followed a practice of forcibly testing Burmese fishermen who were
arrested by the Bangladesh navy for coming into Bangladeshi waters. Staff
members at CARE said that three fishermen who tested positive for HIV in
1996 were detained in the same Dhaka hospital as the sex worker mentioned
above. A CARE staff member who visited these men said that they were not
even allowed onto the balcony of the building in which they were held.
Their only exposure to the outside was a single window in their room.
Bangladesh reportedly contacted the Burma government, but the Burma
government denied that these men were citizens. Bangladesh refused to
release them, and all three men died in captivity, one in May 2001 and two
in April 2002.
Abuses against sex workers, men who have sex with men, and drug users are extreme but not unique to these persons. Because of their social and legal vulnerability, these persons experience an especially brutal-and, in the case of two groups, sexual-manifestation of a broader trend in Bangladesh: violence and exploitation by police and mastans. Transparency International, an international NGO with an office in Dhaka, conducted a survey in 2002 that ranked the police as the most corrupt public institution in Bangladesh. The study reported, for example, that "84 percent of respondents who interacted with the police department reported corruption. In 96 percent of the cases [of arrest], bribes were paid for a release after arrest under a false pretext." Another study, based on focus groups with a cross-section of middle- and working-class Bangladeshis, summed up people's perceptions of the police this way: "They collect money, torture people, do not record complaints as per rules and procedure, have linkage with criminals/mastans and enjoy largess from smuggling and drug trafficking." According to Amnesty International, at least eight people reportedly died in 2002 after being tortured in police custody.
Senior police officials have acknowledged that their officers are often involved in crime. After eight policemen were arrested on kidnapping and extortion charges in February 2003, the Daily Star, a Bangladeshi English language daily, interviewed several police officials on the state of the police force. The Star reported that "[s]enior police officials have linked increasing involvement of law enforcers in crimes to lack of supervision and [lack of] disciplinary actions against the wrongdoers." The article quotes the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time, Mohammad Abdul Qayyum, as promising actions against errant officers but as maintaining, according to the Star's paraphrase, that "only disciplinary action against a few can neither check police involvement in crime nor improve the department's performance." Qayyum suggested, in addition, placing senior officers in charge of problem police stations and creating "better incentive and motivation" for quality police performance.
Several provisions of Bangladesh law may facilitate police abuse. Most of the arrests documented by Human Rights Watch in this report took place under section 54 of the Bangladesh Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows for arrest and detention without a warrant or an order from a magistrate. The section delineates nine instances in which such an arrest is permissible, the broadest of which pertains to "any person who has been concerned in any cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable complaint has been made or credible information has been received, or a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been so concerned." In many legal systems, arrest without warrant is only allowed when a crime is in progress (flagrante delicto) or when a crime is about to occur. Because section 54 gives such broad latitude for arrest without warrant, the law opens the way for abuse of the power to arrest. Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, investigated section 54 arrests in four police stations in three districts over a period of nine months. It found in 2001 that "the large majority of persons arrested under section 54 . . . are from very poor economic backgrounds," and that many of the arrests occurred for illegitimate reasons, such as to extract a bribe, to fulfill an informal arrest quota, or to settle a political score. Odhikar also found that "women and children are picked off the streets at random, charged under section 54 and sent to the various shelter homes and jails in the country, as being under 'safe custody.'" It concluded:
From the above research, it is easy to see how section 54 . . . can be twisted to inflict human rights abuses. Not only does the detainee suffer the loss of liberty, he also has to face humiliation and police torture. The phrase 'with reasonable suspicion' [which appears as a requirement in several of the nine permissible instances delineated in the section] gives the green light to unscrupulous police to misuse and abuse this section and contravene all Constitutional guarantees of the rights to life, liberty and equality before the law.
Bangladesh Attorney General A.F. Hassan Ariff acknowledged the widespread abuse of section 54 at a conference organized by Odhikar in February 2002. Ariff stated: "In most cases, the arrests [under section 54] are frivolous and there are no specific charges against the arrested persons."
On April 7, 2003, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled in a case brought by three Bangladeshi human rights organizations after the death of a man in police custody in July 1998. The ruling required the government to amend within six months several provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure that govern detention and interrogation, including section 54, in order to provide safeguards against their abuse. The ruling also set forth fifteen procedural requirements to be applied to the same provisions until the time that the provisions are amended. These requirements include that arrestees must be informed of the reason for arrest within three hours of being arrested and that magistrates should take punitive actions against police officers that make baseless arrests or commit torture.
Another law that may facilitate police abuse in Bangladesh is the Special Powers Act of 1974, which provides for preventive detention and has often been used by sitting governments to detain political opponents. Several governments, including the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led government in power as of this writing, have promised to repeal the Special Powers Act but instead used it to jail opponents. The BNP-led government did, however, repeal the 2000 Public Security Act, which had been used for similar purposes.
Alongside the authority exercised by the police is an extralegal locus of power held by thugs throughout Bangladesh. These thugs are commonly termed mastans. Their present ascendance can be traced in part to the nature of party politics in the country since 1990. Bangladesh was largely under military rule from 1975, when the independence leader Sheikh Mujib was assassinated, until 1990. Two leaders ruled for the majority of this period: Major General Ziaur Rahman from 1976 to 1981 and General Hussain Mohammad Ershad-who was the army's chief of staff under Major General Zia-from 1982 to 1990. General Ershad was forced to resign in the wake of a broad opposition movement that brought together civil society groups, students, and both of what are now the major national political parties, the BNP and the Awami League.
Since 1990, the BNP and the Awami League have alternated holding power in what is ostensibly a parliamentary system with elections every five years: the BNP ruled from 1991 to 1996, the Awami League ruled from 1996 to 2001, and the BNP regained power in coalition with two smaller parties in 2001. However, since the 1991 election, which was considered by many observers to be free and fair, the two subsequent elections have been marred by violence and alleged rigging, and neither was accepted by the party that was deemed to have lost. The Awami League began to boycott parliament in 1994 in protest of what it claimed were rigged municipal elections and parliamentary by-elections; this eventually led to the dissolution of parliament and the administration of a new election by a caretaker government. The BNP often boycotted parliament and called prolonged strikes during the Awami League's rule from 1996 to 2001, and the Awami League in turn boycotted parliament for the first nine months after the 2001 elections. According to political scientist Rounaq Jahan, the political parties have "failed to demonstrate their willingness to abide by the rules of democratic competition." Over the course of their clashes, both parties have employed mastans for several purposes: to carry out their misdeeds, to hector people into supporting them, and to enforce mass strikes.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey
described the rise of mastans this way:
Their connections to political parties, in turn, make it possible for the mastans to engage in crime and extortion with impunity. According to political scientist M. Rashiduzzaman, "The fear of being caught and punished does not deter [the mastans] as long as they have connections in higher places. A classical patron-client bond dominates the nexus. In return of their support, the politicians protect the friendly mastans and their followers who make a living by unlawful activities."
As the power of mastans has grown in Bangladeshi society, the term "mastan" has come to be used somewhat loosely. There can be several layers of mastans lower in clout from those who have direct political connections, and other people are called mastans who may have no connection to political figures. Rashiduzzaman wrote: "The term mastan nowadays has no firm meaning except connoting a thuggish character." Some of the abuses reported here as being committed by mastans were committed by men who would fit under a narrow definition of politically affiliated thugs; in other instances, witnesses used the word to refer more broadly to fearsome criminals.
Law and order was one of the central issues in the 2001 national elections, and the BNP-led government promised to crack down on mastans and restore peace. Citing the ineffectiveness of the police, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia mobilized the army in October 2002 to fight domestic crime. Because Bangladesh has experienced numerous military coups and has been under military rule for fifteen of the thirty-two years since independence, the domestic mobilization of the military worried human rights activists and others concerned with the preservation of democracy. On the other hand, many Bangladeshis welcomed any relief from the day-to-day exploitation of mastans. The army campaign, which the government called Operation Clean Heart, did in fact result in many serious human rights abuses. At least forty people died in army custody before being charged, often within twenty-four hours of arrest, and without explanation.47 Also, the government did not exclusively target mastans during the campaign; several opposition leaders and journalists were among the thousands arrested. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, the political secretary of the opposition Awami League, and journalist Shahriar Kabir, for example, were arrested along with several others in December 2002 after a series of bomb blasts in movie theaters in Mymenshingh. Both men were "preventatively detained" under the Special Powers Act. Kabir was released on January 7, 2003 and Chowdhury was released on January 12.
Operation Clean Heart was declared over and troops were withdrawn on January 9, 2003. Parliament approved an ordinance in February that immunizes soldiers, police officers, and government officials from prosecution in the public courts for abuses that occurred during the campaign. Soldiers were sent back into the streets on February 18, 2003, though it was announced that the army would simply assist the police in anticrime efforts and not take suspects into its own custody.
These three loci of power form the backdrop of order and disorder in Bangladesh: the police, who are widely corrupt and brutal; the mastans, whose criminal activity is traditionally protected by force and by political connections; and the army, which was mobilized to crack down on mastans when the police proved incapable of doing so. The research for this report was conducted in December 2002, during Operation Clean Heart. A few witnesses reported to Human Rights Watch that abuses by mastans were less frequent since the army's mobilization, but the research overall demonstrates that violence and exploitation by both the police and mastans continued to be rampant. Police and mastans are the primary perpetrators of the abuses documented here, but the report does document some abuses committed by the army against sex workers.
Even when rape is reported, perpetrators are systematically underpunished. According to a UNDP report, "Human Security in Bangladesh:" "Of 1,363 reported cases of rape in 1996, 692 were charge-sheeted [i.e., a suspect was charged with the crime]; the accused were acquitted in 28 cases, and only 9 cases ended in conviction. Most of the remaining cases are pending in the courts. This rate of convictions for violence against women is much lower when compared to the average rate of convictions (70 percent of all cases in the country)." The report attributes the lack of convictions to improper and ineffective investigations by the police. Other reasons for the failure to punish rape are lack of awareness of the law and lack of resources to make use of the legal system. Saira Rahman, reporting on the research of the Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar, asserted that "[u]sually money and muscle are the reasons why the crime [of rape] goes unpunished. In most of the investigations conducted by Odhikar, the victim's family was too poor and ignorant of the law to seek legal recourse."
Perhaps connected to the broad impunity for rape is the phenomenon, found in Bangladesh as well as many other countries, of blaming the victim. University of Pennsylvania Professor Dina Siddiqui has discussed this attitude in relation to sexual harassment in Bangladesh, arguing that "the efficacy of laws will be constantly undermined if social attitudes, especially widespread cultural tendencies of blaming the victim in cases of sexual harassment, are not transformed." The same attitude is illustrated by the story of Khalifa L., who was one of a number of sex workers who told Human Rights Watch of having been raped before they became sex workers. Khalifa F. said she was first raped at age fourteen. She was restrained and raped for three days by the sons of the household in which she was working as a domestic servant. She returned home after the incident, but her parents beat her when they found out she had been raped. Boys in her village, meanwhile, expected her to have sex with them because she had been raped; when she refused, they caught her in a field and raped her. It was after all of this, at the age of fifteen, that Khalifa F. was convinced by a friend to take up sex work. Her friend told her she was "already spoiled" and asked her what other possibilities there were.
Article 33 of the Bangladesh Constitution requires that any person who is arrested must be informed as to the grounds for arrest, allowed access to a lawyer, and brought before a magistrate within twenty-four hours of the arrest. Clause 3 of article 33 stipulates that the article 33 requirements do not apply to a person detained under a law providing for preventive detention, such as the Special Powers Act. However, none of the arrests documented in this report involved a charge under the Special Powers Act. More generally, article 32 of the Constitution provides: "No person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law."
The same abuses are also in violation of Bangladesh's commitments under international law. Article 9.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh acceded in 2000, provides that: "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person." Article 7 of the ICCPR states that no one "shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." All of the abductions, rapes, beatings, extortion, and arbitrary arrests documented here violate the right to physical integrity. Many of them can be characterized as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and some of those incidents committed by the police constitute torture. Rape and other forms of sexual violence, for example, have been recognized as forms of torture when they are intentionally inflicted on a victim by an official or with official instigation, consent, or tolerance for purposes such as intimidation, coercion, punishment, or eliciting information or confessions or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind. This includes, of course, torture on the basis of gender discrimination.
The ICCPR also lays out several specific, affirmative requirements for the conduct of arrests and criminal prosecution. Article 9.4 provides that "[a]nyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful." Article 9.5 requires "an enforceable right to compensation" for anyone "who has been victim of unlawful arrest or detention." Article 14 requires, among other things, that every arrestee be "informed promptly and in detail . . . of the nature and cause of the charge against him."
The abuses committed by mastans that are reported here are not direct actions of the state, although the failure of the government to punish mastans for their abuses may be due in part to mastans' political affiliations. Nonetheless, article 2 of the ICCPR requires all state parties to the agreement to "ensure to all individuals within its territory . . . the rights recognized in the present Covenant." This obligates any state party to the agreement to protect its citizens from violations of their rights by non-state actors like mastans. Article 2 also requires that any persons whose rights under the agreement are violated be granted an "effective remedy."
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Bangladesh acceded in 1984, requires state parties to ensure "without delay" that any "act or practice of discrimination against women" be stopped. In a 1993 resolution, the U.N. General Assembly declared that prohibiting gender discrimination includes eliminating gender-based violence and that states "should pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women." The CEDAW Committee has enumerated a wide range of obligations of states related to combating sexual violence, including ensuring appropriate treatment for victims in the justice system, counseling and support services, and medical and psychological assistance to victims.
Two nonbinding General Assembly resolutions, the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention and Imprisonment, indicate international norms regarding police behavior. Article 2 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states: "In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons." Principle 1 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention and Imprisonment sets forth the same idea in relation to detention and imprisonment: "All persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person." Violence by the police, including the abductions, rapes, and beatings documented in this report, is never acceptable. Under specific circumstances, however, police may use force to defend self or others from harm. Article 3 of the Code of Conduct sets limits on the use of force: "Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." And article 7 proscribes corruption: "Law enforcement officials shall not commit any act of corruption. They shall also rigorously oppose and combat all such acts."
© Copyright and
Fair Use . SDNP Bangladesh holds the ©
copyright to its publications and web pages but