Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is “widely seen” by politicians from other countries as an “authoritarian leader who is surrounded by people who tell her what she wants to hear and who are desperate to remain in power themselves,” Brad Adams, who until April 2022 was the executive director of the Asia Division for Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Netra News in an exclusive no-holds-barred interview conducted by David Bergman.
“What we’ve seen since 2009 is that Hasina and the Awami League have grabbed full control of the state, and in their minds, the party and the state aren’t very separate, and they think that they have a historical right to govern,” he said.
During the interview, Adams strongly criticised Awami League’s human rights records, including its practice of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, freedom of speech, elections and how it dealt with the Rohingya crisis. At the same time, however, Adams was equally critical of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that had originally set up the Rapid Action Battalion in 2004.
The people “who presided over the BNP’s terrible human rights records are still central characters as far as we can tell,” he said. “The BNP [...] needs to clean its house.”
Specifically about Tarique Rahman, the acting chairman of the BNP, currently living in the United Kingdom, Adams said, “I mean we still have the same leadership [of the BNP]. We have Tarique who if [the BNP] got into power would operate from behind the scenes, undoubtedly; maybe even find a way back into Bangladesh, I don’t know. But he has hinted at some repentance for his role in the past but I don’t think there is any reason to think that is sincere.”
Adams, who headed HRW’s Asia division for 20 years, spoke about his various meetings with Sheikh Hasina, including how in 2008, when as the opposition leader, she had thanked HRW for getting her released from house arrest during a period when a military-controlled caretaker government was in power. “Sheikh Hasina, personally, in my presence in London thanked me, thanked Human Rights Watch, said — whether it’s true or not — that we had saved her life. She claimed that she was being poisoned in custody and that we were among the only voices that were calling for her release and she did get released.”
Now, however, Adams accuses the prime minister of being fully aware of the extrajudicial killings and disappearances and doing nothing about them. “There’s [no diplomat] we talked to that doesn’t know that Hasina is overseeing this consciously, that it’s not happening behind her back, that she knows about it and she hasn’t taken responsibility.”
“If Sheikh Hasina wanted to stop them, she could mostly stop them. There will be some rogue actors but then she could deal with them through the justice system, hold them accountable. But she hasn’t done that. And so these people are allowed to carry on doing what they’re doing and Hasina just pretends that’s not happening or turns a blind eye.”
Adams said that the recent imposition of US sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion was a “very strong message” to Bangladesh and has already “saved lives.” “Human Rights Watch and other organisations are going to be asking for more people to be put on the sanctions list because the evidence is clear,” he added.
He expected other governments, including the UK, EU and Australia “to initiate their own sanctions.”
Adams, who left HRW recently to work on climate change, said that the government was wasting money on lobbying firms to get the sanctions removed. The only way “out of this problem” was “to stop what they’re doing”; removing Benazir Ahmed as head of the country’s police force; “remov[ing] the other leaders who have been implicated”; and “put in people who are committed to following the rule of law.”
The interview also covered the International Crimes Tribunal, freedom of speech, upcoming general elections, and the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The Awami League
Adams spoke about how the Awami League broke the promises it made in opposition.
“What’s very disappointing was that when the Awami League was in opposition, they were very loud opponents of RAB and other parts of the security services that were doing similar things. And we met with Sheikh Hasina, with many officials in the Awami League and they always said they were going to disband RAB, and they were going to have complete control over the security services and they claimed they were the party of human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression. And they said, ‘We are the liberal democrats and that we would restore the civil liberties and political rights to the country and make sure that there were no more extra judicial killings or other kinds of state violence.’”
“What we’ve seen since 2009 is that Hasina and the Awami league have grabbed full control of the state. And in their minds the party and the state aren’t very separate. and they think that they have a historical right to govern. And when a leader and a party think that they have the right to govern, not that they govern with consent of the public, that they have the right to govern, and it’s an existential fight with everybody else, then abuses happen routinely. And they can always be defended because ‘we’re doing this in the interests of the country,’ they would tell themselves, instead of their own political interests. And so I think the trajectory right now is very negative. We haven’t had serious multiparty elections for a long time. It’s not clear that we’re going to have them next time around either and whether the Awami League would be willing, for example, to ensure a neutral election commission — the old caretaker system is already gone and won’t be brought back — and to ensure that there is a level playing field for all parties is very unclear. So I think that people who work on this subject inside the country have been very clear to us that they are very pessimistic about the direction of travel on human rights and democracy, and external governments are also extremely pessimistic. I mean, Hasina is widely seen as an authoritarian leader who is surrounded by people who tell her what she wants to hear and who are desperate to remain in power themselves.”
The International Crimes Tribunal
Adams spoke about the International Crimes Tribunal which from 2010 held trials of those alleged to have committed international crimes during the country’s 1971 War of Independence.
“And we concluded after looking at the evidence very carefully, interviewing judges, interviewing prosecutors and finding that they were not conducting fair trials based on due process and evidence. I had meetings with the chief prosecutor that basically frankly boggles my mind. I mean he was totally disinterested in fair trials. He was completely unable to explain their investigative process, how they collected facts, how they verified them, why they were using hearsay from 30 years ago from somebody who wasn’t even present describing an alleged murder scene, as their main evidence in the trial. I mean that’s just ridiculous. Somebody who wasn’t present 30 years ago or more saying that, ‘I am sure that this happened as someone told me that happened,’ and that being the main reason for convicting someone. That is not a serious justice process.”
“I don’t know of a single independent organisation that looked at the ICT thought these were credible trials. Many universities had projects working on this. Many donor countries wanted to be involved because they wanted to support accountability. I mean look, Human Rights Watch, we support accountability for war crimes and grave human rights abuses around the world. That is one of the main things we do. We’re in favour of this, but it has to be through a proper process. And no independent organisation I know, truly independent organisation, consider these to be fair trials.”
RAB, extrajudicial killings and sanctions
“I should just mention that RAB is the most famous purveyor of extrajudicial killing, but they’re not the only one. There are other security services that do it. And I also should mention, this is in one of our reports in the 2000s — like maybe 2005, 2006 or 2007 — but a very senior BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] official admitted to me that he had been present at meetings with Khaleda [Zia] when they started the Rapid Action Battalion and that they had decided to use it to kill people, and this was an open admission.”
“When we talked to the BNP and the caretaker government and then the Awami League about extrajudicial killings, we told them, we predicted that someday it could metastasize into something different as well. Because that’s the logic of countries that operate with security forces with impunity and use violence to achieve either political or corrupt ends. And we explained to them that in many countries where violence was used, this ended up turning into large scale arbitrary detentions and often into large numbers of disappearances.”
“As with all of the things we’re talking about, if Sheikh Hasina wanted to stop them she could mostly stop them. There will be some rogue actors but then she could deal with them through the justice system and hold them accountable. But she hasn’t done that. And so these people are allowed to carry on doing what they’re doing and Hasina just pretends that’s not happening or turns a blind eye. I don’t believe the narrative that she’s out of touch and doesn’t know. Some people try to say well you know, she’s got other things on her mind, ‘She's dealing with economics and other things.’ No, I mean the political class in Bangladesh is pretty small and the leadership knows what’s going on with these things.”
“[Imposition of US sanction] is a very strong message that Bangladesh isn’t special; that when there are death squads in the country that the people who are behind them are known, identified. This sanction wasn’t put in place without substantial evidence.”
“I know Human Rights Watch and other organisations are going to be asking for more people to be put on the sanctions list because the evidence is clear. And for the UK, EU and others like Australia included, to initiate their own sanctions and I expect that will happen.”
Freedom of speech, elections, BNP and Rohingya
On freedom of speech, “[There is] so much self censorship, so many people are afraid to speak openly. Everybody wants to be on WhatsApp or Signal. Nobody’s even trusting mobile because they know that the security services are willing to illegally listen in to their conversations or read their email. People are afraid to publish their views even when their views are peaceful, they’re just political in nature. And many significant media houses, whether it’s print, digital or broadcasting, have completely changed their editorial policies so that they try to avoid having conflict with the government. And I have spoken to many journalists about how afraid they are to just do journalism. Journalism should not be a crime, but in Bangladesh it often is now.”
On elections, “It doesn’t seem that [the Awami League] would have any intention of handing over power if they lost in a free and fair election. Of course to know whether they lost in a free and fair election, there has to be a free and fair election and it’s not clear that the system is set up for that right now.”
On the Rohingya refugee crisis, “Let’s not forget that successive Bangladeshi governments have been terrible to the Rohingya over the years. They were very happy for them to live as miserable a life as possible, on the grounds that they thought that making them unhappy and miserable would mean that they would just walk back into Burma and assume the risks of living under the Tatmadaw [Myanmar army]. That that hasn’t happened in the 90s very much and has hardly happened since the 2012 and 2017 violence. I went to Bangladesh right after the 2012 violence and pleaded with the government to be generous to the Rohingya, that these were human beings and if you want to look at them as fellow Muslims please do; if you want to look at them as having some kind of historical relationship culturally, ethnically and otherwise you know feel free. But the Bangladesh government pushed them back and in 2012 after the June and October violence. [...] There are just horrifying videos of boats being pushed back out to sea and a number of those boats sank. So I mean as a legal matter, the government of Bangladesh has legal responsibility for those deaths. Of course, so does the Tatmadaw.”
“The Bangladeshi government still has this ridiculous expectation that someday some deal will be done with Myanmar, and people will go back voluntarily and that’s just not going to happen.”
“Let children go to school. I mean it’s so heartless, it’s just unimaginable that the Bangladesh government policy is for kids not to get an education, not to learn in Bangla where they’re going to live. Saying that they are going to learn in their original language but they ban informal schools. Why would you do that? Why would you create large numbers of illiterate people? How does that benefit anybody? Doesn’t benefit them; it doesn’t benefit Bangladesh. These people are going to live in Bangladesh from most likely until the Tatmadaw falls [...] and we don’t see that happening anytime soon.”●