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The Bangladeshi government should take urgent action to make good on its campaign promise to end impunity for human rights abuses and to establish the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Successive governments have promised but failed to ensure that law enforcement officials and soldiers responsible for abuses are brought to justice.
The 76-page report, "Ignoring Executions and Torture: Impunity for Bangladesh's Security Forces," details the involvement of soldiers, paramilitary officers, and police in so-called "crossfire killings" and other custodial killings, torture, "disappearances," and arbitrary arrests. It examines a number of cases that have received national and international attention, in which those responsible have not been prosecuted. Facing constant threats, harassment, and even physical abuse, victims and family members have often been forced to abandon their efforts to seek justice, and the suspected perpetrators have continued serving in the security forces.
"If you are a soldier, a member of the Rapid Action Battalion or the intelligence services, or a police officer, you can get away with murder in Bangladesh," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But those who kill or torture should be behind bars with other violent criminals."
Over the past five years, the military, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) - an elite crime-fighting force - and the police have been responsible for well over 1,000 killings. Human Rights Watch and others have long contended that many of these deaths, often described as "crossfire killings," were actually extrajudicial executions of people in custody. Bodies of the victims often had wounds that suggested that they had been tortured. While there have been far fewer extrajudicial killings since the new government took power in January 2009, new cases have begun to emerge in recent weeks and no one has been held accountable for past abuses.
The report highlights the case of Choles Ritchil, a leader of the indigenous Mandi tribe, who was arrested and tortured to death by a group of soldiers in March 2007. It also describes how Khabirul Islam Dulal, a local politician in Bhola district, was tortured by navy officers in front of his family and neighbors a few weeks earlier. Although witnesses have identified suspects in both cases, no one has been prosecuted and imprisoned.
"The very forces tasked with upholding the law and providing security to the public have become well known for breaking the law in the gravest manner without ever facing any consequences," Adams said. "Forces such as RAB and the military intelligence agency DGFI have become symbols of abuse and impunity."
The report concludes that Bangladeshi governments since independence in 1971 have been unwilling to prosecute and punish state officers responsible for grave human rights violations. The problem is one of both law and practice. Alleged human rights violations should be investigated by an independent and neutral body, and archaic laws that shield security officials from prosecution should be amended. The report urges the government to set up a witness protection program and to prosecute or take disciplinary action against anyone who tries to stop or hinder a criminal investigation.
The situation is partially the result of an outdated legal framework under which law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces are shielded from prosecution. In violation of international legal standards, article 46 of Bangladesh's Constitution empowers parliament to pass laws that provide immunity from prosecution to any state officer for any act done to maintain or restore order, and to lift any penalty, sentence, or punishment imposed.
Soldiers and RAB officers are also protected from the civilian criminal justice system under rules that ensure that they can only be prosecuted in internal courts by their peers through processes that lack independence or impartiality. While the civilian courts have jurisdiction over cases involving police officers suspected of involvement in criminal activities, such officers are protected by Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which requires explicit government approval to prosecute an officer purporting to act in an official capacity. Several other laws state that no legal action can be taken against a person who in good faith acts to implement any of its provisions.
Foreign governments are well aware of the poor human rights record of these agencies, but nevertheless cooperate with and provide training to them.
For all of these reasons, senior law enforcement and military officers have never been under strong systemic pressure to ensure that soldiers, paramilitaries, or police officers operate within the law or human rights norms. They take for granted that they have complete discretion in carrying out their mandate, even if it includes the use of unlawful violence. They send the message to victims that anyone who attempts to hold them accountable will have to pay a high price and that, in any case, the efforts will be fruitless.
Bangladesh's new government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has declared a "zero-tolerance" policy for extrajudicial executions and stated that state officials who engage in such acts will be punished. There are, however, no indications that the authorities have initiated any serious investigations into past abuses or into credible allegations that several suspects in the February 2009 rebellion and massacre at the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, the country's border security forces, have been tortured and killed while in custody.
Given their long history of arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch recommends that DGFI and RAB be disbanded or, at the very least, that an independent commission be set up to assess their performance, identify and recommend for dismissal officers believed to be responsible for serious human rights violations, and develop an action plan to transform them into agencies that operate within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms.
DGFI's operations should be strictly limited to lawful military intelligence activities and in no circumstances should it have powers to detain or to engage in surveillance of the political opposition and critics of the government.
"As a party to the UN human rights conventions, Bangladesh is obliged to ensure that all violations - past and future - are investigated, and that those responsible are brought to justice," Adams said. "If Bangladesh is to become a country in which fundamental human rights are respected and the law is applied equally to the poor and the powerful, the existing culture of impunity has to be torn down."
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"For no real reason at all, hungry people are set to lose food while tax cheats get a free pass."
Progressive economists and advocates warned that the tentative debt ceiling agreement reached Saturday by the White House and Republican leaders would needlessly gash nutrition aid, rental assistance, and education programs, all while making it easier for the wealthy to avoid taxes.
The deal, which now must win the support of both chambers of Congress, reportedly includes two years of caps on non-military federal spending, sparing a Pentagon budget replete with staggering waste and abuse.
The Associated Pressreported that the deal "would hold spending flat for 2024 and increase it by 1% for 2025," not keeping pace with inflation.
The agreement would also impose new work requirements on some recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) while scaling back recently approved IRS funding, a gift to rich tax cheats.
In exchange for the spending cuts and work requirements, Republican leaders have agreed to raise the debt ceiling for two years—a tradeoff that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is pitching as a victory to his caucus, which includes far-right members who have demanded more aggressive austerity.
President Joe Biden, for his part, called the deal "a compromise, which means not everyone gets what they want."
"After inflation eats its share, flat funding will result in fewer households accessing rental assistance, fewer kids in Head Start, and fewer services for seniors."
Lindsay Owens, executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, said in a statement Saturday night that "this is a punishing deal made worse only by the fact that there was no reason for President Biden to negotiate with Speaker McCarthy over whether or not the United States government should pay its bills," alluding to the president's executive authority.
"After inflation eats its share, flat funding will result in fewer households accessing rental assistance, fewer kids in Head Start, and fewer services for seniors," said Owens. "The deal represents the worst of conservative budget ideology; it cuts investments in workers and families, adds onerous and wasteful new hurdles for families in need of support, and protects the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations from paying their fair share in taxes."
The agreement comes days before the U.S. is, according to the Treasury Department, set to run out of money to pay its obligations, imperiling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments and potentially hurling the entire global economy into chaos.
House Republicans have leveraged those alarming possibilities to secure painful federal spending cuts and aid program changes that could leave more people hungry, sick, and unable to afford housing, critics said.
"For no real reason at all, hungry people are set to lose food while tax cheats get a free pass," wrote Angela Hanks, chief of programs at Demos.
While legislative text has not yet been released, the deal would reportedly impose work requirements on adult SNAP recipients without dependents up to the age of 54, increasing the current age limit of 49. Policy analysts and anti-hunger activists have long decried SNAP time limits and work requirements as cruel and ineffective.
"Time limits for food assistance. Expanded ineffective work requirements for food and cash assistance. Effectively cutting (by not providing needed inflationary costs increase) rental assistance during an already worsening homelessness crisis. Cruel and shortsighted," Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote on Twitter in response to the agreement.
"House Rs held our nation's lowest-income people hostage in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling," Yentel continued. "The debt ceiling 'deal' could lead to tens of thousands of families losing rental assistance... Expanding ineffective work requirements and putting time limits on food assistance adds salt to the wound, further harming some of the lowest income and most marginalized people in our country."
The White House and Republican leaders also reportedly agreed to some permitting reforms that climate groups have slammed as a boon for the fossil fuel industry. According toThe New York Times, the agreement "includes measures meant to speed environmental reviews of certain energy projects," though the scope of the changes is not yet clear.
And while the deal doesn't appear to include a repeal of Biden's student debt cancellation plan—which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court—it does contain a provision that would cement the end of the student loan repayment pause, drawing fury from debt relief campaigners.
\u201cResuming student debt payments will crush working families and is simply bad policy\u2014but agreeing to codify the pause\u2019s end into law before the Supreme Court decides on broad-scale relief is criminal.\u201d— The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5 (@The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5) 1685241461
The deal must now get through Congress, a difficult task given likely opposition from progressive lawmakers who oppose attacks on aid programs and Republicans who want steeper cuts.
As the Times reported, "Lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus were privately pillorying the deal on Saturday night, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus had already begun to fume about it even before negotiators finalized the agreement."
"The GOP claims doing so is necessary in the interest of $11 billion in deficit reduction. But at the same time, they have doubled down on tax cuts skewed to the rich and special interests."
The Biden White House late Friday accused Republicans of attempting to "take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans" by imposing new work requirements on recipients of federal nutrition assistance, a public rebuke of the GOP that came as negotiators worked to finalize a debt ceiling agreement.
Additional work requirements appear to be among the final sticking points in the time-sensitive talks, with the GOP insisting on their inclusion in any agreement to raise the debt limit.
In a statement Friday night, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said the GOP's proposed work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are "designed to tie the most vulnerable up in bureaucratic paperwork" and "have shown no benefit for bringing more people into the workforce."
"The GOP claims doing so is necessary in the interest of $11 billion in deficit reduction," said Bates. "But at the same time, they have doubled down on tax cuts skewed to the rich and special interests that would add $3.5 trillion to our debt."
House Republicans have demanded new work requirements for recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—many of whom already work.
Asked Friday whether the GOP would be willing to drop its push for work requirements, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.)—the party's lead negotiator—said, "Hell no."
"Hell no," he repeated. "Not a chance."
The White House has spoken out against new work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid, but it's unclear whether it opposes fresh work mandates for TANF, which replaced the more generous Aid to Families With Dependent Children program under the Clinton welfare reform law that Biden supported as a senator.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, welcomed the White House's statement against SNAP work requirements, which analysts say could strip food aid from millions of people amid a worsening hunger crisis.
"The president is calling out MAGA GOP hypocrisy of refusing to raise the debt ceiling so the economy doesn't crash simply to take food from hungry people," Jayapal tweeted Saturday. "When you count admin[istrative] costs of bureaucratic red tape, this would produce ZERO savings. Isn't and has never been about saving money."
The White House issued its statement amid growing progressive concerns over the concessions the Biden administration has reportedly granted to GOP hostage-takers.
On Friday, watchdogs, Democratic lawmakers, and policy analysts responded with outrage to reports that the Biden White House is leaning toward accepting Republicans' demand for IRS funding cuts—a giveaway to rich tax cheats.
Progressives have also voiced alarm over reports that the emerging debt ceiling deal includes a two-year cap on non-military federal spending, which would result in cuts to key domestic programs.
"Any deal is a disaster since most government departments and agencies are currently severely underfunded," warned Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project.
"We knew this was coming," wrote one policy expert. "But we still treat these burdens like they're unavoidable natural disasters."
With a green light from the federal government, states across the U.S. have thrown hundreds of thousands of low-income people off Medicaid in recent weeks—and many have lost coverage because they failed to navigate bureaucratic mazes, not because they were no longer eligible.
More than a dozen states, including Florida and other Republican-led states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, have begun removing people from Medicaid as part of the "unwinding" of a pandemic-era federal policy that temporarily barred governments from kicking people off the program.
In a bipartisan deal late last year, Congress agreed to cut off the pandemic protections, giving states 12 months to redetermine who is eligible for the healthcare program that covers tens of millions of Americans.
The process differs in each state, but Medicaid enrollees are typically required to complete paperwork verifying their income, address, disability status, and other factors used to determine eligibility for the program.
While some states have undertaken public outreach campaigns to ensure Medicaid recipients understand what they need to do to continue receiving benefits, most enrollees across the country "were not aware that states are now permitted to resume disenrolling people from the Medicaid program," according to new survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).
As a result, The New York Timesreported Friday, "many people lost coverage for procedural reasons, such as when Medicaid recipients did not return paperwork to verify their eligibility or could not be located."
"The large number of terminations on procedural grounds suggests that many people may be losing their coverage even though they are still qualified for it," the newspaper added. "Many of those who have been dropped have been children."
Early data released by the state of Florida, for example, shows that more than 205,000 people in the state lost coverage for procedural reasons after April eligibility checks.
"We knew this was coming. But we still treat these burdens like they're unavoidable natural disasters," said Pamela Herd, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. "We need to be much more explicit about these failures because we're making a choice to allow this."
Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, said she is "very worried about Florida."
"We've heard the call center's overwhelmed, the notices are very confusing in Florida—they're very hard to understand," said Alker.
In a recent letter to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential candidate, more than 50 advocacy groups demanded a Medicaid redetermination pause, pointing to "reports of Floridians being disenrolled from Medicaid without having received notice" from the state's Department of Children and Families (DCF).
"One of these individuals is a 7-year-old boy in remission from Leukemia who is now unable to access follow-up—and potentially lifesaving—treatments," the groups wrote. "Families with children have been erroneously terminated, and parents are having trouble reaching the DCF call center for help with this process. Additionally, unclear notices and lack of information on how to appeal contribute to more confusion."
"We are deeply concerned about those with serious, acute, and chronic conditions who will continue to lose access to their lifesaving treatments during this time, along with people who risk substantial medical debt, or even bankruptcy, as a result of coverage loss," the groups added.
\u201cWhat if instead we just gave everyone health insurance coverage??!! \nhttps://t.co/hSOQKYU7JY\u201d— Ady Barkan (@Ady Barkan) 1685130002
The Times highlighted the situation in Arkansas, which is led by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders—a supporter of Medicaid work requirements and other attacks on the program. (Work requirements were briefly tried in Arkansas in 2018 and 2019, with disastrous consequences.)
"In Arkansas, more than 1.1 million people—over a third of the state's residents—were on Medicaid at the end of March ," the Times noted Friday. "In April, the first month that states could begin removing people from the program, about 73,000 people lost coverage, including about 27,000 children 17 and under."
An Arkansas law requires the state to complete its Medicaid eligibility reviews in six months instead of 12.
In a Wall Street Journalop-ed earlier this month, Sanders wrote that her state is booting people from Medicaid at "the fastest pace in the nation" and claimed those being removed are "ineligible participants"—ignoring evidence that many being stripped of coverage were technically still eligible.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department has estimated that upwards of 15 million people nationwide could lose Medicaid coverage during the redetermination process.
"This is such an enormous policy failure—profoundly cruel and will contribute to furthering inequities," Dr. Cecília Tomori, a public health scholar at Johns Hopkins University, wrote Friday.
While some who lose Medicaid will be able to access insurance through an employer or the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, KFF found that more than four in ten people with Medicaid as their only source of healthcare "say they wouldn't know where to look for other coverage or would be uninsured" if they were removed from the program.
"This is about to happen to a lot of people," warned Larry Levitt, KFF's executive vice president for health policy.
The Times pointed to the case of 54-year-old Arizona resident Debra Miller, who "lost Medicaid coverage in April after her roughly $25,000 annual salary as a Burger King cook left her ineligible."
"Ms. Miller, a single mother with diabetes and hypothyroidism, worked with an insurance counselor at North Country HealthCare, a network of federally funded health clinics, to enroll in a marketplace plan with a roughly $70 monthly premium," the Times reported.
Miller told the newspaper that the new plan is a "struggle" both because of the new monthly payment and because it doesn't include the vision coverage she needs and now may not be able to afford.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this week that states' Medicaid eligibility checks will likely leave 6.2 million people without any insurance at all.