Surviving Torture in Bangladesh
My wife says I talk too much and invite trouble. On May 11, 2007, her observation was confirmed: I "invited" trouble by talking too much against the military-backed interim government in Bangladesh.
With a midnight ring of my doorbell, three or four plainclothes men - who identified themselves as the "joint forces" - entered my Dhaka apartment, detained me without charge, and seized my passport, cell phones, computers and documents. I was threatened at gun-point while my wife, holding my six-month-old son, watched. I was pushed into a car, blindfolded and handcuffed.
Four months earlier, in January, the Bangladesh military had installed a puppet technocrat government through a bloodless coup and declared a "state of emergency." The junta's emergency rules suspended parts of the Constitution, made any criticism of the government or the military a punishable offense, put a blanket ban on political activity, and sharply curtailed press freedom.
The military intervention brought an end to gruesome street-battles between two feuding political camps led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League, and at first many Bangladeshis welcomed the de facto coup.
But skyrocketing prices, a devastated economy and rampant human rights abuses have changed their minds. Over the past year, the military has set up torture and detention facilities across the country and targeted political parties with an "anti-corruption" witch hunt that saw the arrests of more than 400,000 people, including two former prime ministers who lead the two biggest political parties.
The military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, or DGFI, which remains the driving force behind the de facto military rule, led a campaign to establish control over civil and political affairs, carrying out overt and covert operations against opposition parties and members of the media.
After my arrest, I was taken to a torture facility set up by the directorate inside its Dhaka headquarters. Thus began my 22-hour ride on the torture train, as my captors - high- and mid-level DGFI officers - tortured me, interrogated me and forced me to sign false confessions. I was questioned at length about my work as an editor for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper, as a news representative for CNN in Bangladesh, and as a consultant researcher for Human Rights Watch.
In all these jobs, I obviously talked too much. As a journalist, I reported and commented on extra-judicial executions and torture by the Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary force; persecution of Ahmadiya Muslims (a heterodox sect of Islam) by extremist-Islamist groups with the active patronage of intelligence agencies; military repression in the region known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeaster Bangladesh; and, perhaps most dangerous, sponsorship and patronage of Jihadist outfits by the DGFI and the National Security Intelligence agency. As a consultant for Human Rights Watch, I documented Bangladesh military involvement in extra-judicial executions and torture, systematic curtailment of press freedom, and rampant human rights violations carried out by the security forces under the "state of emergency."
So I became a target for a junta that considered itself above criticism, even above the law. The military labeled me an "enemy of the state." In the torture chamber, five or six DGFI officers took part in nightmarish torture sessions, using batons, boots and fists to inflict serious injuries on me. I saw sophisticated torture equipment. When I was moved out of a soundproof torture chamber, I could hear other detainees, locked inside cells, screaming and moaning in pain. I was forced to record false confessional statements on paper and video, admitting to imaginary terrorist, treasonous acts, and implicating my friends, associates and colleagues. Only when I fell sick from the torture were my blindfold and handcuffs taken off - briefly. I was constantly humiliated, exposed to obscene verbal abuse and racial slurs. My captors kept threatening me with extra-judicial execution.
News of my arrest sparked an outcry. I was fortunate that CNN, The Daily Star and Human Rights Watch stood by me and worked to secure my freedom. A network of bloggers and activists engineered a global campaign demanding my release. Foreign governments lobbied the Bangladeshi authorities. Within 24 hours of my detention, in an unprecedented move, the DGFI set me free. I went into hiding with my family. Eventually, we were allowed to fly out of the country and found a refuge in Sweden, where the authorities offered us political asylum.
I was not the first or last person marched into a torture chamber in Bangladesh. But I have the opportunity to detail my survival, while hundreds, if not thousands of stories relating to inhuman torture and Kafkaesque detentions in Bangladesh remain untold.
I am tempted to remind foreign governments that the abuses happening in Bangladesh in the name of "reform" and "anti-corruption" are possible thanks to their complicity and complacence. The support of donors like the United States and Britain, eager to address political paralysis and corruption but naíve about our history with military governments, has been crucial in providing legitimacy to an illegal, unconstitutional arrangement. Supporting a monster to kill a demon might work for computer gamers, but in politics and diplomacy it is usually disastrous.
It is time for Bangladesh's friends in the United States, Britain, and European Union to support our struggle for democracy and pressure the military to end its "state of emergency" and declare an early date for free and fair elections. Military torture centers should be shut down and extra-judicial executions ended. And every perpetrator of human rights violations should be prosecuted and punished. No one else should experience what I went through.
Tasneem Khalil is a Bangladeshi journalist currently in exile in Sweden. A full account of his detention, "The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses its Power under the State of Emergency," was published in a report by Human Rights Watch.
Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune