A group of six Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives has sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging his department and other U.S agencies to continue to call for accountability into gross human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh. The Members expressed their concern about the deterioration of human rights as Bangladesh approaches its national elections in early 2024. The letter dated June 8, 2023 was signed by William R. Keating, James P. McGovern, Barbara Lee, Jim Costa, Dina Titus, Jamie Raskin; all members of the Democratic party. Co-Chairman of the Lantos Human Rights Commission Congressman Jim McGovern’s office shared a copy of the letter with SAP on Wednesday.
The letter specifically raises six questions for the State Department: its tracking of human rights violations; indicators to evaluate progress or lack thereof to determine whether sanctions to be imposed or lifted; measures taken by the department to protect human rights defenders; efforts to for coordination among allies to impose sanctions and visa restrictions; and steps taken to help ensure free elections and indicators about conditions conducive to free elections.
The letter highlights two specific branches of Bangladesh’s security forces (the Detective Branch (DB) and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which is the military intel wing) in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an already sanctioned paramilitary force. This broadens the scope of previous communications by legislative members who have previously focused on the RAB and the umbrella term ‘law enforcing agencies’. In particular, the DGFI has not been referred to publicly. The letter also asked the State Department to respond to the signing members of the House ‘at earliest convenience’.
The letter reads as follows:
“We write to express our concern about the ongoing deterioration of the human rights situation in Bangladesh as elections approach in January 2024. We urge the State Department and other U.S. agencies to continue to call for accountability for serious violations committed by law enforcement agencies, including the recently sanctioned Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary unit of the Bangladesh Police created in 2004. Clear and repeated statements and actions by U.S. officials can help ensure that the Bangladeshi government complies with its human rights obligations. This is especially important in preparation for the upcoming elections, as there have already been mass arrests and violence against opposition parties which could tarnish the results and deepen social conflict.
We welcomed the December 2021 U.S. sanctions designations and visa restrictions implemented against the RAB and seven of its current and former high-level officers as a necessary and proportional response to well-documented reports of serious human rights abuses by that entity. Unfortunately, despite these actions, repression in Bangladesh has not ceased. In its Annual Human Rights Report 2022, respected Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar documented 31 extrajudicial killings, 21 enforced disappearances, 68 deaths in jail, and 183 attacks on journalists committed by various law enforcement agencies including the RAB, Detective Branch and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. Despite these documented incidents, Bangladeshi government officials have continued to deny the occurrence of human rights violations, minimizing such findings as “negative [campaigns] against [the] country” and even awarding and promoting officials accused of committing grave human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Further, the December 2021 U.S. sanction designations empowered many in Bangladeshi society to speak out about the human rights violations they have witnessed, documented, or experienced at the hands of various law enforcement agencies. In response, the Bangladeshi government has intensified reprisals against civil society organizations, human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations and their families. For example, the families of victims of enforced disappearances have faced harassment and have been coerced into signing blank papers or pre-written statements to the effect that their relative had simply gone missing and was not forcibly disappeared. In addition, the previously mentioned human rights organization Odhikar was deregistered by Bangladesh’s Non-Governmental Organization Affairs Bureau in June 2022 for “seriously [tarnishing] the image of the state to the world” with its human rights documentation and reporting. Odhikar’s leaders, members, and their family members have faced increased surveillance, harassment, and questioning by law enforcement officials. Despite these actions, civil society organizations, human rights defenders, victims, and their families continue to call for additional sanctions against more members of the RAB and other law enforcement agencies to hold the government of Bangladesh accountable and send a clear message that impunity will not be tolerated.
We understand that Bangladesh is an important U.S. partner and appreciate its willingness to host around a million Rohingya refugees. At the same time, the decision not to invite Bangladesh to the 2023 Summit of Democracy was a clear signal that the State Department recognizes the country’s democratic and human rights challenges ahead of scheduled 2024 elections. We thus respectfully request that you provide responses to the following questions at your earliest convenience:
• How does the State Department track reports of human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh, including the Rapid Action Battalion, the Detective Branch, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence?
• What indicators is the State Department using to evaluate progress or lack thereof in Bangladesh in reducing impunity for serious human rights abuses committed by these entities? Are these the same indicators taken into account in deciding to impose or lift sanctions?
• What measures is the State Department implementing to protect civil society organizations, human rights defenders and victims of human rights abuses from governmental reprisals since the imposition of the December 2021 sanctions?
• What efforts is the State Department making to encourage U.S. allies to coordinate on the imposition of sanctions and visa restrictions against the Rapid Action Battalion and its current and former officials?
• What steps, in addition to the new policy to restrict visas for any Bangladeshi individual believed to be involved in undermining the democratic election process, is the U.S. government taking to help ensure that the scheduled January 2024 elections will be free and fair?
• What indicators is the State Department using to evaluate whether conditions for a free and fair election are present, including freedom of expression, association, and assembly?”
Previously, in another letter sent to President Biden in May; six Republican Congressmen asked the US government to stop human rights violations by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and help the people of Bangladesh to have fair election to express their will. That letter also asked the President to ban Bangladeshi military personnel from UN Peace Missions. Meanwhile, on June 12, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made a request to the UN to ‘enhance screening’ of Bangladesh peacekeepers.