It was a warm afternoon in May 2020 when Ahmed Kabir Kishore, dozing lazily, awoke to 20 men breaking down the door of his apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With guns waved in his face, he was dragged to a van outside. “Move away, we have arrested a terrorist,” he heard them shout at the crowds.
Kishore was not a terrorist. He was a cartoonist whose political drawings, published in prominent Bangladesh newspapers and magazines, took a critical view of the alleged corruption, human rights abuses and mishandling of the Covid pandemic by the government, led by prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
For three days, he was kept blindfolded and handcuffed in a tiny room. Then the interrogation and torture began. “They beat me all across my body using sticks,” said Kishore. “They made me lie down and beat my feet.”
The plainclothes officers questioned him about his connections to several journalists, hitting him so hard that his eardrum ruptured and he could barely walk.
When the blindfold was removed, Kishore understood with dread that he was in the hands of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the elite anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh police, which has become notorious as a “death squad” and has been sanctioned internationally for its involvement in extrajudicial abductions, abuses and killings.
On 5 May 2020, Kishore, whose wounds had begun to go septic, was handed to police and sent to Dhaka central jail. Alongside 11 others, including journalists and activists, he was charged under the Digital Security Act, ostensibly for spreading misinformation about Covid. Human rights groups claimed the law was a brazen attempt to silence government critics and criminalise dissent.
For almost a year, Kishore remained behind bars, growing weaker from his injuries. But after a fellow detainee, journalist Mustaq Ahmed, died in prison nine months later – allegedly from his torture wounds – and global outrage followed, Kishore was granted bail in March 2021.
After attempts were made to detain him again, Kishore fled to Nepal and on to Sweden, where he has lived in exile ever since. “I still cannot walk properly due to my injuries and I have lost hearing in the right ear,” he said.
The ordeal endured by Kishore, Ahmed and countless activists, writers, artists, opposition politicians and lawyers since Hasina came to power in 2009 has formed the basis of the anti-government protest movement that is swelling in Bangladesh’s biggest cities.
Economic hardship and rising fuel and food prices caused by the Covid pandemic and Ukraine war, coupled with frustration at a decade of alleged corruption, human rights abuses and rigging of elections, have driven hundreds of thousands to the streets for protests organised by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and allies.
Critics of Hasina and her Awami League government fear that elections due at the end of the year will be neither free nor fair – polls in 2014 and 2018 were marred by opposition boycotts and credible allegations of vote stuffing. They are demanding she resign and make way for a caretaker government. The BNP says it won’t take part in another election under Hasina.
The response from Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the country to independence in 1971, has been draconian. While the Awami League is free to hold vast gatherings, BNP rallies have been denied permission and transport strikes have been imposed to stop people attending.
Police are accused of a coordinated campaign of violence against the opposition. Officers have fired on peaceful protests, killing eight BNP activists and injuring more than 200 protesters in the past five months. At least 20,000 cases have been filed against BNP supporters, while more than 7,000 BNP members and activists have been arrested, including prominent party leaders, including more than 1,000 detained just in the last month.
“In the past, they used to carry out extrajudicial killings in staged gunfights at night; now they are killing in broad daylight. No one can hope for a free and fair election in this situation, under this government,” said AKM Wahiduzzaman, a BNP leader.
During Hasina’s 13 years in power, Bangladesh has thrived as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, becoming the main supplier of garments to the west. However, the period has also seen authoritarianism and human rights abuses at the hands of the state, particularly by the RAB. Last year, the US sanctioned six RAB commanders for alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Zakir Hossain, 37, a former army major, was among those “disappeared” by the RAB in December 2011. After more than 50 officers seized him from his home, he was interrogated, tortured and accused of planning a coup against Hasina’s government.
“During the detention I received inhuman treatment that can only be compared to those horrifying stories of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay,” he said. He was kept in solitary confinement for almost three years, and for 11 months in jail before he was finally released, never having faced a courtroom for his alleged crimes. In 2021, he fled to the UK. “I am thankful to God that I am still alive,” he said.
Despite the US sanctions a year ago, human rights groups say the RAB is still involved in such abuses, and at least 16 people were forcibly disappeared in Bangladesh. “The human rights situation in Bangladesh is appalling,” said Ali Riaz, professor of political science at Illinois State University. “The number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances are blatant testimony to this.”
As international pressure from the US, UK and others has increased on Hasina’s government, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen has rejected accusations of a crackdown on the political opposition. “Our government has always come to power through the fair electoral process,” he said, adding that forthcoming polls will offer “a free and fair election which will be acceptable to all”.
However, Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Asian Legal Resource Centre in Hong Kong, said that, in the current situation, “a fair and credible election is unimaginable”.
“Bangladesh does not have an independent institution to hold the ruling party accountable,” he said. “The judiciary, the election commission, intelligence agencies, and the law-enforcement agencies all collaborate with each other to rig elections for the ruling party and hide the crimes of the regime.”-The Guardian