Awami League-led government used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to censor free speech and crack down on critics in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021 yesterday.
It said the authorities arrested journalists, artists, students, doctors, political opposition members, and activists who spoke out against the government's response to the pandemic, or otherwise criticised the ruling party.
"The ruling Awami League showed in 2020 that it will stop at almost nothing to maintain its grip on authoritarian control, even in the face of a global pandemic," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The ruling Awami League needs to stop worrying about cartoonists and kids criticizing the Prime Minister on Facebook, and start worrying about abuses by its own authorities amid the pandemic."
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.
The report said protests broke out after several gang-rape cases came to light, drawing attention to widespread violence against women and girls, and the impunity perpetrators often enjoy in Bangladesh.
Non-governmental groups reported a marked increase in reports of domestic violence during the Covid-19 lockdown. Instead of heeding activists' calls for real reform, the government hurriedly approved an amendment to allow for the death penalty for rape, it noted.
The New York-based global watchdog said health workers reported insufficient personal protective equipment and alleged corruption in access to critical services. The government responded by silencing healthcare workers, censoring media, arresting those who spoke out, and increasing surveillance to crack down on Covid-19 "rumours", it observed.
It said arrests under the abusive Digital Security Act increased dramatically. Police even arrested a child for "defaming" the prime minister in a Facebook post, it said.
The authorities released over 23,000 detained people to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, but did not include those held for criticising the ruling party, the report said.
It added the government continued to deny its unlawful practice of enforced disappearances, and ignored concerns raised by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Committee against Torture, and the UN Human Rights Committee.
HRW said security forces were accused of committing extrajudicial killings with near-complete impunity. However, when police killed a retired military officer, Maj Sinha Rashed Khan, the authorities were forced to take action. "Crossfires" – a euphemism for extrajudicial killings – dropped precipitously, indicating that the authorities are able to end them whenever they choose.
With Myanmar failing to create conditions for their safe and voluntary return, Bangladesh hosts nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. However, the government took an abusive turn in its approach to the crisis, deploying restrictive policies in the refugee camps in violation of basic rights, HRW said.
HRW claimed the authorities "arbitrarily detained" over 300 refugees on Bhasan Char island, and refused to allow safety assessment or protection visits by United Nations experts.
It claimed refugees on the island described being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care; some alleged beatings by Bangladesh authorities on the island. The government ignored calls from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts, to safely return them to the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, HRW said.
Following massive order cancellations during the pandemic, more than 1 million garment workers – mostly women – were laid off, and many did not receive payment of owed wages, it said.
The government provided US$600 million in subsidised loans to companies to support payment of these wages, but it is unclear how the wages were paid, particularly to women who may not have financial control or access in their households, it added.