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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for this debate. He has a distinguished record of addressing human rights issues, and he has been fearless in his critique of regimes which abuse the rights and liberties of individuals. I am aware that many people are alive today because of the intervention of my noble friend Lord Avebury on their behalf. I have travelled to many countries, but have always found that my noble friend has been there before me. He has a deep knowledge of the issues that we are debating and the Government should take very serious note of what he had to say.

Perhaps I may also put on record my thanks for the very balanced contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. She identified the issues of concern, but she also mentioned the progress that the nation of Bangladesh is making. More importantly, her stand on human rights issues is most welcome. We should be equally grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for their contributions.

Bangladesh has had a difficult birth. It was originally a part of Pakistan, but those two states are now separated by 1,000 miles at the two extremes of the Indian sub-contintent. Bangladesh's struggle to become an independent nation was undeniable—and that is precisely what happened. I do not believe that it is necessary to dwell on history, but suffice to say that the dreams of an effective democracy in Bangladesh have not been fully realised. I had the opportunity to meet Sheikh Mujibar Rahman when he was released from prison in Pakistan and flew to London. He was a man of great stature, who was determined that Bangladesh, with its unique culture, would pull itself from the turmoil of the struggle for independence and build a nation in which the rule of law would prevail.

I love Bangladesh and have many friends there, and I was deeply touched when I was invited to chair the afternoon session of the European human rights conference on Bangladesh, held last Friday at the University of London, in which my noble friend Lord Avebury participated. It was not an easy job; emotions were running high; and it did not help when people in authority denied that there was any violation of human rights there. As I have always said, if there are issues we should not be squeamish about them but should take the necessary action. With all the evidence available and documented, it was difficult to accept the statements made by some of the officers. Despite
 
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all that, it was a good conference with ample opportunity for a constructive approach to problems in Bangladesh.

But I have another worry. There is a large law-abiding Bangladeshi community here. They have struggled hard to build an economic base and contribute substantially to the revenue in this country. They were the last people involved in large-scale migration to the United Kingdom, and despite adversity they have come out well. They also have close relations in Bangladesh, so we should be mindful that what happens in Bangladesh has repercussions in the Bangladeshi community here. We ignore that at our peril.

So what are the issues that concern us all? I have studied mountains of documents, and there are matters that need addressing. Briefly, they fall under the following categories: the prosecution of religious minorities, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, said; extra-judicial executions and custodial deaths; attacks on the media, educational institutions and students; violence against women; allegations of political assassinations; political persecution and torture; evidence of terrorism and growing extremism; and the security and safety of citizens.

I deplore human rights abuses arising anywhere in the world, because as part of the global community what happens in one part of the world has an impact on all of us.

I turn now to the plight of the minorities in Bangladesh. In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Avebury, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, replied:

In a Written Answer to a Question by Jeremy Corbyn in the other place, the Minister, Mr Alexander, replied:

Mr Alexander added:

Again, in answer to another Question from Mr Drew on 8 February this year, Mr Alexander replied:


 
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So what are these allegations? Let us examine the situation in the context of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and the Ahmadiyya communities. Religious persecution is having a devastating effect on their freedom to practise their faith. It is damaging their culture, and there are numerous examples of families uprooting themselves from their place of birth. You simply have to look at the exodus from Bangladesh.

The Amnesty International report dated 1 December 2001 is quite explicit on the subject. It says:

There is a continuous flow of refugees who have been forced to leave their homes and property as a direct result of the discrimination and persecution to which they are subjected. There is also evidence of looting, arson and murder aimed at that minority.

Even more disturbing is the plight of women, who are victims of sexual violence—or rape, gang rape and mass rape. We all know that sexual violence affects not only the victim but the whole family and in many cases the whole community. I shall resist the temptation to cite reports from some eminent and independent foreign journalists and the serious concerns expressed by international human rights organisations, but there are serious allegations that these crimes are the direct results of religious cleansing of the indigenous Bangladeshi Hindus and other minorities.

The question that we must all ask is why there is a deafening silence on the subject from the authorities in Bangladesh. Why do the Bangladesh Government not institute an independent inquiry into those deaths? Why is there no evidence that perpetrators have been brought to justice? Why is the full protection of the law not afforded to the minorities in Bangladesh? Those are serious questions, to which we need answers.

It is not only the Hindu community that is the victim—the Ahmadiyya community has suffered the same fate. The campaign of hatred has resulted in attacks on places of worship. Again, I cite the Amnesty International report on Bangladesh, which says:

To date no one has been charged in connection with that killing.

Although there is a constitutional guarantee for freedom of religion and expression, Ahmadiyya literature is still being banned, as my noble friend Lord Avebury said. The Christian community has not been spared, either. A church in Gopalganj was seriously damaged by a bomb blast.

The constitution of Bangladesh enshrines secularism as one of its main pillars, and did not allow religion-based politics. However, following the death
 
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of the founding father, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, an amendment to the constitution allowed for religion-based politics.

Some months ago my noble friend Lord Avebury and I had the privilege to meet Sheikh Hasina. She was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh. She is the current leader of the opposition in Parliament. It is a serious concern that she was a victim of a grenade attack which nearly cost her life. Many were killed on that occasion.

There have been assassinations of Members of Parliament. First, it was Ahsanullah Master and then Mr Shah Ams Kibria. In the case of the latter it is worth quoting the editor of the Daily Star which stated:

This is a serious comment against a nation moved from secularism to supporting fundamentalism. That is not to blame Islam. It is one of the great religions of the world. Fundamentalism and Islam are incompatible, as demonstrated by a large number of Muslims throughout the world. Equally, the rise in extremism often ignored or directly or indirectly supported by those in power must be a matter of serious concern to all of us.

Bangladesh started as a liberal, peaceful, tolerant nation but is that the case now? Some of the examples may seem isolated incidents, but the total of more than 165 deaths and more than 1,700 injuries since 1999 cannot be ignored. The Awami League and its supporters have borne the brunt of such incidents. However, it is even more disturbing to find that those figures include leading intellectuals and journalists. There is evidence that over the past eight months 230 custodial deaths, apparently in cross-fire with the Rapid Action Battalion, have been recorded. Again, there are serious allegations of extra-judicial executions. Such allegations will gather momentum until such time as they are properly and independently investigated. Already the European Union heads of missions in Dhaka have issued a public statement expressing their "shock and dismay" and their deep concern that the apparent failure to investigate previous attacks had led to a climate of impunity.

The US Department of State has drawn attention to the failure of the government to bring to justice the perpetrators of acts of violence, fostering an intimidating climate of insecurity and impunity that encourages further attacks.

Peaceful protests are part of any democratic country but these have been met with violence and brutality. The conference I chaired last Saturday also received information on the repression of non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh. The NETZ Partnership for Development and Justice is a German NGO specialising in Bangladesh since 1979. It is supporting 10 NGOs in development work. I am informed by Ingo Ritz, the executive director, that NGOs in Bangladesh
 
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are facing serious threats. The government do not allow NGOs to work or hinder their work. Additionally, there were attacks on the offices and six co-workers were injured. A fundamentalist group is claiming responsibility for that.

It would be easy to blame the government of Bangladesh for all this. What is required is a very clear independent investigation to get to the root of why such violence occurs. The country's non-governmental organisations are among the most active in the world and successive governments have developed effective partnerships with them to improve services to the poorest people. It is a tragedy that some of the NGOs are the targets of repression.

The British Government should bring pressure on the Bangladesh Government to investigate and prosecute criminals responsible for violent attacks and grenade blasts on leading members of the opposition, the British High Commission, arts and cultural events, members and institutions of religious minorities and secular groups.

In essence the world community cares about a genuine democracy in Bangladesh. That democracy can survive only if the rule of law prevails and there is a halt to the abuses of human rights quite rightly mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that the Bangladesh Development Forum concentrates on good governance and maintenance of a stable democracy based on respect, dignity and freedom for all its citizens. The country has gone through some turbulent times. It cannot afford to sacrifice its founder's dream of a truly democratic society. We want a healthy, prosperous Bangladesh. It has to confront its own problems if it is to regain respect in world politics.

2.45 pm


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