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Bangladesh Cited for Human Rights Violations

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Bangladesh is one of the most populous countries in the world. Yet, the world paid little attention when elections there were cancelled 14 months ago and a state of emergency was declared. Now, there's growing evidence of widespread human rights violations in Bangladesh.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the international community has noticed.

PHILIP REEVES: Eleven months had elapsed since the group of armed Bangladeshi security men barged into Moudud Ahmed's home. They arrived without a warrant. His supporters say that didn't deter them from trashing his house, blindfolding him, and leading him away to be interrogated around the clock. Since that day, Moudud Ahmed's been held in custody without trial or access to lawyers.

Moudud Ahmed has been one of Bangladesh's most prominent figures since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971. He's been prime minister and vice president. He was law minister in the last government. He's among several hundred top politicians and businessmen who are being detained since Bangladesh's president declared an emergency and installed an interim government controlled by the army. His wife, Hasna Moudud, says he's being held purely for political reasons.

Ms. HASNA MOUDUD (Wife of Moudud Ahmed): By silencing him, they are silencing a very eloquent voice that can tell the world how can you solve (unintelligible) in Bangladesh.

REEVES: The authorities initially accused Moudud Ahmed of unauthorized possession of alcohol. Bangladesh's supreme court ruled that this alleged minor offense was insufficient grounds for detaining him and ordered his release. His wife says the government responded by slapping him with another charge - alleging his assets exceeded his income.

Ms. MOUDUD: There has never been really any serious case against him. So they just came up with very fictitious charge to malign his character.

REEVES: Hasna Moudud is worried. Her husband's 67 years old and in poor health. She's far from the only person concerned by what's going on in Bangladesh.

Mr. RAVI NAIR (Executive Director, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center): There is an attempt to attack civil society, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of the judiciary.

REEVES: That's Ravi Nair of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center. When Bangladesh's interim government was installed in January last year, it promised to root out corruption which has long been rampant and to fix the country's broken government institutions. Many Bangladeshis were relieved. They were tired of seeing their country paralyzed by deadly battles between the two main political parties and by the endless feuding between the female party leaders - former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Both are now detained over corruption allegations.

Even the West quietly welcome the interim government. But Rave Nair says the international community's finally having second thoughts.

Mr. NAIR: What is amazing is that it took so many people SO long to wake up to what is happening in Bangladesh right in front in their eyes.

REEVES: The U.S. State Department says human rights abuses in Bangladesh have worsened since the interim government took over and suspended fundamental rights. Its annual human rights report cites Bangladesh's security forces for torture and numerous extrajudicial killings.

Mr. TASNEEM KHALIL (Journalist): I was blindfolded all the time, blindfolded and handcuffed.

REEVES: That's Tasneem Khalil, a prominent Bangladeshi journalist. He says he was arrested by Bangladesh's military intelligence in May, held for 24 hours, and tortured into signing a force confession. Khalil believed this was because he'd been critical of the army's intervention in Bangladesh and was investigating extrajudicial killings by the military. His inquiries included human rights abuses by notoriously ruthless government paramilitary organization called the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.

Moudud Ahmed was partly responsible for establishing the RAB several years ago when he was law minister. The idea was to curb a crime epidemic. The force was welcomed by Bangladeshis. But the RAB went on to kill hundreds of people in what it routinely describes as crossfire.

Khalil says Moudud Ahmed's role in creating the battalion does not diminish his right to due process.

Mr. KHALIL: In a civilized society, you cannot go after anyone in a totally arbitrary manner without access to bail and imprison them and not let them -their cases tried by a free court, independent court.

REEVES: Bangladeshis are now waiting to see what happens to their jailed former leaders. They're also waiting for the return of their basic rights and the democracy. The military-backed interim government says it will hold elections by the end of the year. The truth is, no one's sure what's going to happen next.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

NORRIS: We contacted the government in Bangladesh for a comment but the spokesman was unavailable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.