Correction appended Feb. 15, 2008
When Bangladesh's President Iajuddin Ahmed cancelled elections and declared a state of emergency in January last year, many Bangladeshis applauded. Campaigning by the country's two main political parties had descended into violence and opposition parties were threatening to boycott the poll. The new military-backed Caretaker Government brought peace to the streets and promised to clean up Bangladesh's rampant corruption, fix its institutions and hold clean elections. One year on and there is no doubt the government has begun the work it set itself: two former prime ministers are in jail awaiting trial, hundreds of other senior officials have been arrested, and the slow if important work of overhauling some of Bangladesh's broken state bodies is underway.
Despite this progress, there is growing concern that the cure is proving just as poisonous as the ailments. A new report from New York-based Human Rights charges that the Caretaker Government has trampled over basic human rights to achieve its goals. The report, which focuses on the testimony of Tasneem Khalil, a prominent journalist for the English-language Daily Star newspaper and for CNN and a part-time consultant to Human Rights Watch, paints a depressing picture of abuse at the hands of Bangladesh's military intelligence agency. Khalil, who had been writing about the security forces' alleged role in extra-judicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests, was picked up by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) in May, 2007. According to the Human Rights Watch report, he was kept in a detention center, beaten, threatened with execution and "forced to confess to and implicate friends and colleagues in anti-state and anti-military activity, and to smuggling of sensitive national security information to foreign organizations." After 22 hours and much pressure from foreign embassies in Bangladesh, authorities released Khalil. After a month in hiding he fled to Sweden, which granted him asylum and where he remains.
Human Rights Watch says that tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained and abused by security forces over the past 13 months most of them without the connections Khalil had to help set him free. "Rampant illegal detention and torture are clear evidence of Bangladesh's security forces running amok," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in launching the report. "Tasneem Khalil's prominence as a critical journalist may have prompted his arrest, but it also may have saved his life. Ordinary Bangladeshis held by the security forces under the emergency rules have no such protections."
In detention, Khalil said he was kept in a small windowless room and beaten with batons, including two that had electrified wires sticking out the end. "I saw what looked like a metal bed frame," he says in the report. "It was the same size as a normal single bed, but it was placed on a platform with steps up to it. The bed had straps fitted at the top and bottom, presumably for tying people on to it. There was a wheel to change the angle of the bed to lift it up or down. There were spikes at the top of the bed. Right beside that there were ropes fitted to the ceilings with rubber loops for wrists to go through."
Human Rights Watch says the government is undermining its reformist agenda by resorting to heavyhanded tactics of past regimes. "In its popular public campaign against corruption and abuse of political power, the government has routinely used torture to extract confessions or to gain information," the report says. "Torture has also been used to punish and intimidate peaceful critics of the government and army's role as the de facto rulers of the country." TIME could not reach the government spokesman for a comment, but officials have in the past downplayed allegations of abuse and said that anyone found guilty of doing so would be punished.
The complaints about human rights abuses come as Bangladeshis are growing increasingly impatient for fresh elections. The government has promised they will be held by the end of this year, but say a timetable won't be revealed until September, which many people interpret as a sign the poll could be delayed again. Rising inflation has people grumbling as well. "Anticipation of the rising prices of essentials has Bangladeshis really worried," says Indra Nath Mukherji, an Honorary Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "People are also saying elections should be taking place soon, they want the chance to have a say." The revelations of Khalil's treatment are only likely to add to the growing sense of disgruntlement.
The original version of this story incorrectly stated Indra Nath Mukherji's institution as the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, not Jawaharlal Nehru University.