Thursday, August 2, 2007

An Open Letter from HRW Asia Director on Tasneem Khalil’s detention

August 1, 2007

Mr. Fakhruddin AhmedChief AdvisorGovernment of BangladeshDhaka

Re: Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh

Dear Chief Advisor:

When your caretaker government was established in Bangladesh on January 11, 2007, many Bangladeshis and international actors were reassured by the appointment of apparently non-partisan and competent officials. The initiative largely had the support of Bangladesh’s influential civil society as well as the international community. Many had despaired at the state of near political anarchy, widespread corruption, and severe human rights abuses that had emerged in the country in recent years. The promise of free and fair elections in the light of attempts to rig elections was also welcomed.

Your government has taken some strong initiatives to clean up corruption and hold political and business leaders accountable for their actions. Measures to reform the civil service and bureaucracy have been welcomed by many Bangladeshis, though we caution that due process for civil servants must be observed. And, unlike the previous government, you have made it clear that you will not tolerate or condone the actions of violent militants.

However, we are deeply concerned that the laudable goals of fighting corruption and reforming the political system are not being matched by efforts to protect human rights. Serious and systemic human rights abuses are taking place on your watch. Many of these, such as torture and feigned “crossfire killings,” were serious problems before you took office and continue today. Others, such as emergency rules that do not respect basic due process rights, or the large number of arbitrary arrests and detention without proper judicial oversight or public accountability, are a direct result of your government’s policies.

The joint forces, led by the army, have shown almost complete disregard for established legal norms conducting arrests and holding people in detention. Instead of being brought immediately before a magistrate, detainees are routinely taken to army barracks and other unofficial places of detention and tortured, both as punishment and to force them to sign confessions. Many people are being picked up in the middle of the night without warrant. Led by Bangladesh’s military intelligence unit, the DGFI, the security forces are often in plainclothes and offer no identification. When asked, they claim they can do anything they want because they are thus empowered under Bangladesh’s emergency laws. (continues…)

… We would particularly like to use this opportunity to remind you of the case of journalist Tasneem Khalil, who has worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch and as a stringer for CNN. On May 11, 2007, Mr. Khalil was taken into custody after midnight by men in plainclothes claiming to be Bangladesh’s “joint task force.” Mr. Khalil was taken from his home in front of his wife and child, blindfolded and driven to an interrogation center, where he was tortured and questioned about his work as a journalist, writings on his blog, as well as his employment with Human Rights Watch and CNN. Many of Mr. Khalil’s possessions, including computers, phones and passport, were confiscated when his home was ransacked. We immediately contacted your government for help, and Mr. Khalil was eventually released after more than 22 hours in custody.

We have since learned that Mr. Khalil had been held and tortured by the DGFI. The interrogation center Mr. Khalil was taken to is an extension of the DGFI headquarters in Dhaka cantonment that houses at least one torture chamber and a detention facility. This is a full-time illegal detention and torture facility. Mr. Khalil saw sophisticated torture equipment and could hear other detainees screaming in pain. At least five DGFI officers took part in the torture sessions that left Mr. Khalil with severe injuries. At one point he was photographed with a revolver and some bullets placed before him, suggesting that he was being set up for a faked “crossfire killing.” Before his release, Mr. Khalil was forced to make false confessions, and asked to sign documents and testify on video admitting to acts that could be considered treasonous. We have received other credible reports of the same type of activities by DGFI.

As you know, Bangladesh’s military forces have become notorious for taking people into custody, torturing them to death or executing them in faked “crossfire killings.” We were concerned that Mr. Khalil would meet a similar fate even after his release. He had to remain in hiding until, after long and unnecessary negotiations, his passport was eventually returned and he and his family were able to leave Bangladesh for safety abroad.

In a sense Mr. Khalil was fortunate. He had the advantage of foreign friends, colleagues, and diplomats who were in a position to appeal to your government for help. However, there are thousands now in custody, unable to secure bail and often subjected to torture, who are not so well connected. We do not know who is being tortured at this very minute by DGFI or others, but we do know that it is happening.

We appreciate your personal intervention and that of other government officials to ensure Mr. Khalil’s release and safe exit from the country. But as his case makes clear, arbitrary arrest and detention and torture are a significant problem in Bangladesh today.

Your government knows who was responsible for Mr. Khalil’s torture – and that of many other victims – where they work, and where the torture centers are located. Your government knows that these are not isolated cases – an untold number of people are being tortured every day. As a matter of basic human decency as well as your obligations under international law, you must act to close down such torture centers without delay. We look forward to public statements from you and members of your government on this subject, as well as action. (continues…)
From Brad Adams, Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.

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