We must insist upon human rights not just for the Rohingya, but also for the Bangladeshi people
British Government Ministers must do more to challenge Bangladesh’s behaviour as we approach their December general election, says Rupa Huq MP.
Although I’m consistently labelled as one of three British-Bangladeshi MPs I was born in Hammersmith and didn’t go to Bangladesh until aged 17 in 1989. When I was a kid growing up in my now seat Ealing I had idealised images of what the country was handed down through my parents who’d left pre-independence when it was still East Pakistan. My maternal grandmother used to joke about all the countries she’s lived in starting with British India – without ever moving house once.
As an adult and opposition politician all these years on, I’ve come to see a sinister side under its current administration who have stifled all ability to criticise. When I went on a Parliamentary delegation there last year we met former PM and opposition party leader Khaleda Zia, who like the current PM has been in Bangladeshi politics for four decades now. She was then under house arrest. This year she’s apparently properly imprisoned. She’s not the only one. You don’t have to be in party politics to fall foul of the regime either.
Last week after clocking up 100 days in captivity, came the good news that renowned photo-journalist Shahidul Alam had been released having been granted bail. The case had attracted support of 10 Nobel prize winners and even been championed Sharon Stone. His family are my constituents and since the Summer had been relaying terrifying details of his predicament to me regularly which included torture.
It feels that while the eyes of the world have been diverted by the Rohinga crisis for which Bangladesh’s PM has won plaudits internationally for receiving some 700,000 fleeing atrocities in neighbouring Myanmar since 2017, seriously bad things are happening on the home front. Even if in the small-print the Bangladesh Government refuse the Rohingya refugee status, so they can’t apply for the right to remain.
Meanwhile Shahidul’s extensive work has included skilfully bringing the Rohingya to international attention with his unique style including portraits of kids in refugee camps, who’ve fled the most despicable and violent attacks on a population we’ve seen this century – cute childhood innocence contrasting with the horror of genocide.
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt MP has stated regarding the Rohingya: “We must always pay tribute to the Government of Bangladesh…”. He’s also told me in answers to questions in Parliament that Bangladesh is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s watch-list of 30 “human rights priority countries”, alongside Saudi Arabia, Burma, Russia, Syria and North Korea. The two statements highlight an almighty clash.
In July, thousands of students engaged in peaceful protest in the capital, Dhaka after two of their own were killed by a speeding bus, the wider public sympathised as traffic accidents are a major issue. The authorities rapidly moved in to quash the demonstration with water cannons and tear gas. Among those documenting young protestors being beaten with iron bars and clubs, arrests and injuries was Shahidul Alam.
Sadly, this is not unusual in Bangladesh. In March this year the independent Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank re-categorised Bangladesh from democracy to autocracy, including it with Myanmar, Belarus and Russia.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have detailed numerous examples of human rights abuses: enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, often against opposition party activists and leaders. Draconian laws have been introduced, such as the Digital Security Act, which curtail free speech and have seen people imprisoned.
Shahidul Alam paid a heavy price: to accompany his photography he voiced concerns about the Bangladesh government handling of the student protests on Al Jazeera TV, criticising their "clinging on to power by brute force”, arguing that “if there is a free and fair election, they would lose”, listing "extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption" as reasons civil discontent had been building up for a long time. In the age of globalised media his interview was shared across the world. Within hours of the broadcast, over 20 security personnel arrived at his home and took him away. I’ll spare you the gory details of torture meted out to him but his release on bail does not mean the charges are dropped, it’s just a welcome delay.
This is the reality of Bangladesh. Alongside adulation from helping the Rohingya persecution woe betide anyone challenging the ruling regime’s legitimacy and power. It’s said that the last government (who are not contesting the election in protest) were no better but two wrongs do not make a right: the country could do with a shake-up if silencing critics is the norm in the nation.
Given that our Prime Minister is currently the Commonwealth chair-in-office, we should be doing all we can to uphold the Commonwealth Charter pledge that people have an inalienable right to participate in free and fair elections.
That means British Government Ministers doing more to challenge Bangladesh’s behaviour as we approach their December General Election. It’s time we insisted upon human rights not just for the Rohingya, but also for the Bangladesh people which includes many on the receiving end of torture and imprisonment in Bangladesh for speaking out or, as in Shahidul’s case, simply doing their job.
Rupa Huq is chairing a panel discussion meeting on 17th December in Parliament to examine freedom of the press looking at this case and others. To attend please email for more details: [email protected]
Rupa Huq is Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton.
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