OHCHR and Special Procedures fail Bangladesh
I. Bangladesh: A case for international condemnation
As we upload this ACHR REVIEW, United States' Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ms Patricia Butenis called for a “timetable for restoration of democracy”. It follows the demand of H E Rt. Hon Don Mckinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General on 21 March 2007 to lift the state of emergency and end suppression of political activity “without unnecessary delay".
Since the Bangladesh army led Care-taker government took over power in Dhaka on 12 January 2007 following the failure of the political parties to reach agreement on the modalities for holding general elections, the Interim Care-taker Government rolled itself into the executive, legislative and judicial body of the country.
Ideally, the constitution of Bangladesh should have been the basis for functioning of the Care-taker government being led by none other than Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, Chief Adviser of the Care-taker Government, a former official of the World Bank and Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Advisor on Foreign Affairs, who among others served as the Vice Chairman of the Working Group on Review of the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action under the UN Commission on Human Rights. But, the Care-taker government instead issued Ordinances to effectively suspend the Constitution of Bangladesh.
After hurriedly hanging six leaders of Islamic fundamentalist group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh to death on 30 March 2007 to receive kudos from international community, on 2 April 2007 Bangladesh army chief Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the defacto head of the government, went to the extent of explaining the need for a particular brand of democracy for Bangladesh – an euphemistic term for legitimizing military rule across the world. General Moeen's statement fell short of directly recommending institutionalisation of the role of the army in Bangladesh but in the post September 11th period, even the die-hard opponents of death penalty maintained thunderous silence on the hanging of the JMB activists. Not that the JMB activists deserved any leniency but when one opposes death penalty, one cannot be selective. There is also silence on the violations of the principles of fair trial as if the Bangladeshi politicians are so corrupt that they are not entitled to due process of law or bail. It appears that with regard to Bangladesh, two wrongs make one right.
Even the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council – the last hopes of many oppressed people across the world so far failed to publicly censure the Care-taker government. On 22 March 2007, Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) urged UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judiciary to intervene with the government of Bangladesh to withdraw the “No Bail Ordinance” that denies an accused the right to appeal for bail and seek redress from any higher court until a case is determined by a trial court/tribunal.
Two weeks – adequate time to study any ordinance - have passed since 22 March 2007 but there is thunderous silence both from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the relevant Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. It is only a few Bangladeshi NGOs which have been exploring the limits of permissibility by providing various updates on human rights situations.
II. Judiciary: Already Down
In the absence of legislature, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh was the only hope. But, it has already succumbed.
On 3 April 2007, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court suspended for one month the High Court's verdicts that declared illegal the preventive detention of 53 high profile persons, including the leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League who were arrested on alleged corruption charges and other serious crimes under the emergency rules. The High Court ordered their release in a number of orders since 26 February 2007.
The Appellate Division allowed the government to file a regular appeal against the High Court's rulings. The Supreme Court will now further examine whether the High Court has the jurisdiction to pass any order regarding preventive detention. The government, among others, contended that under Sub-Section (3) of Section 491 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the High Court's power to pass orders on habeas corpus writs challenging detention will not be applicable to the detentions under the Special Powers Act.
With the latest Supreme Court's order nobody will be able to challenge any other detention orders under Section 491 of Criminal Procedure Code until the disposal of the Supreme Court order. In the current scheme of things, the Supreme Court is likely to legitimize the illegal Ordinance.
III. Torture and killings intensified
The Care-taker government has become the law unto its itself and provided the security forces all out impunity to arrest and kill people in the name of curbing crimes and punishing corrupt politicians. As stated in our previous ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW, 50 persons were killed by the security forces and 95,825 persons were arrested under the Emergency Power Rules of 2007 between 12 January and 12 March 2007.
On 18 March 2007, a prominent Garo indigenous leader, Mr Choles Ritchil was arrested and killed in the custody of the joint forces of Bangladesh at Khakraid under Modhupur Police Station in Tangail District. Mr Ritchil's dead body, which was handed over to the family members on 19 March 2007, bore torture marks like eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed, nails of 3 fingers of the right hand removed etc. On 20 March 2007, the deceased's wife, Sandha Rani Simsang filed a complaint with the Modhupur Police Station but the police so far failed to register the First Information Report. His only crime was to oppose the establishment of Eco-Park in their villages that will destroy their identity.
There are dozens of such cases of torture and killings in Bangladesh.
IV. Selective amnesia of the OHCHR?
The criteria used by the OHCHR to issue a public statement remain a mystery. Asian Centre for Human Rights examined the public statements issued by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Louise Arbour on a number of countries since the declaration of emergency in Bangladesh on 11 January 2007.
The High Commissioner issued the following public statements:
On 3 April 2007: Urging protection of civilians in Mogadishu, Somalia
On 22 March 2007: Expressing concerns about the killing of 25 persons in Nepal.
On 16 March 2007: Condemning the killing of Somali human rights defender Isse Abdi Isse, the Chairman of the Somali human rights non-governmental organization Kisima in Mogadishu on 14 March
On 13 March 2007: Welcoming the order of Zimbabwe's High Court that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) be provided immediately with all necessary medical treatment and today be brought before the Court or released.
On 6 March 2007: Expressing strong concern over the arrest by the security police of at least 31 women activists during a peaceful gathering in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran on 4 March.
On 13 February 2007: Condemning the “reported” (emphasis ours) killing of civilians in Guinea
8 February 2007: Filing of a legal brief with the Iraqi High Tribunal asserting that international law prohibits the imposition of the death penalty in the case of Taha Yassin Ramadan.
7 February 2007: Expressed her deep concern about the continued violence in the Terai region of Nepal which has taken at least 23 lives, caused countless injuries and the destruction of both public and private properties.
On 2 February 2007: Expressing concerns about the national stability plan passed by Afghanistan's lower house of Parliament, the "Wolesi Jirga" on 31 January 2007 which could lead to past serious human rights violations going unpunished.
Undoubtedly, each and every public statement issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is justified.
However, one wonders as to why the suspension of the right to habeas corpus, the arrest of about 100,000 persons and killing of dozens of innocent persons and suspects in Bangladesh does not deserve a public statement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. The only public statement issued was by the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions on 27 March 2007 pertaining to the killings prior to the taking over of power by the military.
It is possible that official demarches have been sent by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Special Procedures to the authorities in Dhaka. However, official demarches are akin to the 1503 Confidential Procedures – outdated, opaque, sneakily tendentious and generally useless. In individual cases, such official demarches by the OHCHR are understandable but when Ordinances destroy the whole system of administration of justice and violate the rights of the populace of the entire country as the case with Bangladesh, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Special Procedures must not remain mute witness as the case has so far been. The overall situation in Bangladesh demands equal public censuring, if not more, than the situations/issues on which UN High Commissioner made public statements in the last three months.
It would be unfortunate if the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Special Procedures are to be construed as “politically selective” and only responsive to certain issues or situations. The Headquarters of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva must intervene in all situations where the foundations of the rule of law and administration of justice and democracy are destroyed. Such issues can not be addressed by regional offices or country offices. Nor the lack of a country office can be an excuse not to issue such a public statement. The effectiveness of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been its public censuring, and therefore, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights remains the second most prominent face of the United Nations, next only to the United Nations Secretary General.
Preventive interventions must remain on the agenda as the ambulance chasing!