UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet raised the issues of enforced disappearances, media censorship and shrinking space for the civil society in Bangladesh during talks with three top ministers yesterday.
The ministers, however, claimed that no incident of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing has taken place in the country, and that the media and the civil society are vibrant here.
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Bachelet arrived in Dhaka at 10:20am on her first official visit at Bangladesh government’s invitation. She is scheduled to call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, members of the civil society, foreign envoys, UN officials, and also visit the Rohingya camps and attend a seminar on climate change.
Yesterday, she held separate meetings with Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and Law Minister Anisul Huq at the State Guesthouse Padma, and then called on Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan at the home ministry.
Her four-day visit is considered significant following the US sanctions on Rab and seven of its current and former top officials on December 10 last year.
According to the US Treasury Department, NGOs have alleged that Rab and other Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies are responsible for more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture.
Some reports suggest these are targeted at opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists, it said in a statement on December 10 last year.
Yesterday, the three ministers spoke separately to the media.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen claimed, “There is nothing called enforced disappearance in Bangladesh. Some, however, say 76 people fell victim to enforced disappearance in the last 10 years.”
Of them, 10 were found while the families of the rest have not provided necessary information. The government will inform the UN about it, he said.
Momen further said there might have been extrajudicial killings between 2003 and 2005, but not since 2008.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman said disappearance takes place for three reasons — people flee to other countries via Myanmar and India after committing crimes, becoming bankrupt or because of family conflicts.
About the missing ones, he said law enforcers are looking for 32 people who are wanted in different criminal cases. There is no truth in the claim that law enforcers are responsible for all the disappearances.
If anyone disappears voluntarily, it will take time to find him or her, said the home minister.
Asked if the UN rights chief talked about extrajudicial killings, Momen said she did not raise the issue but he told her that no such killings take place in Bangladesh.
Anisul said Bachelet inquired him about the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in prison. He then read out the post-mortem report and Bachelet didn’t ask any further question.
According to media reports, Mushtaq died in jail on February 25 last year following his arrest under the Digital Security Act (DSA). The post-mortem report didn’t specify the cause of his death but his family alleged that he was tortured in police custody and died for a lack of treatment.
Anisul said that during the talks with Bachelet, they both agreed upon the need for training for members of the law enforcement agencies on human rights. He requested Bachelet to send a proposal to the government in this regard.
The law minister said they also spoke about the latest development regarding possible changes in the DSA. The government formed a committee, chaired by the secretary of the Legal and Parliamentary Division, which includes officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, home, the ICT Division, and the Law and Justice Division.
The committee submitted a report to the law ministry, said the minister.
Momen said the UN Human Rights Office thinks the media in Bangladesh has no freedom and no one can speak freely due to government censorship.
“… I told her that I’m unaware of any government censorship and that the media here is very strong,” he told journalists.
He also informed Bachelet that there are 2,800 newspapers in Bangladesh.
Momen said he told the UN rights chief that the civil society is very vibrant and active in Bangladesh and several thousand NGOs are carrying out activities here.
Bachelet thanked Bangladesh for sheltering the Rohingyas and acknowledged its great difficulty in dealing with the refugee crisis. She assured that the UN would carry on its efforts to ensure their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar.
Asaduzzaman said that as Bachelet raised the issue of attacks on religious minorities, he told her that such incidents happen because of comments on social media as the people in Bangladesh are very sensitive about religion. The authorities act immediately in such cases.
“They [the UN] appreciated all the steps and praised us,” he added.
When Bachelet wanted to know about the situation in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), The home minister elaborated on the government’s efforts to fully implement the CHT Peace Accord.
Bachelet appreciated Bangladesh’s regular reporting to human rights treaty bodies, and suggested a mechanism for further streamlining this.
She also talked about the possible visits of several special rapporteurs of the UN to Bangladesh, as well as the country’s efforts to implement the Universal Periodic Review recommendations.
The UN rights chief also met Education Minister Dipu Moni.