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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on sponsoring this important debate. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has a noble record in addressing human rights issues and that many people are alive today because of him.

There has been much criticism of Bangladesh in this debate, and rightly so. However, I would also like to congratulate the Bangladesh cricket team on its stunning victory over Australia and hope that that is a harbinger of better things to come.

Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Poverty is widespread with almost half the population living on less than a dollar a day. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly said that the Bangladeshi people have endured much. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, pointed out that Bangladesh has managed to reduce population growth and has improved health and education. It should also be congratulated on its excellent peacekeeping duties.

However, political tensions have spilled over into violence in recent years. The political antagonism between the Awami League, which governed until
 
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July 2001, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party reflects personal animosity between their leaders rather than substantial ideological differences. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds injured in attacks at opposition gatherings and public venues. Senior opposition figures have also been targeted.

Although Bangladesh signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in September 2000, it has been criticised by organisations such as Christian Aid and Amnesty International for its poor human rights record. In a report released at the Bangladesh Development Forum on 15 May 2003, Amnesty International highlighted the fact that successive governments in Bangladesh have failed to curb serious human rights violations arising from the use of legislation and widespread practices in the law enforcement and justice system.

These violations include torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention of government opponents and others, excessive use of force leading at times to extra-judicial executions, the death penalty, sporadic attacks against members of minority groups, acts of violence against women and harassment of journalists. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out that Bangladesh is the second most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist.

Amnesty International went on to highlight its concerns about two specific laws that facilitate endemic human rights violations in Bangladesh: the Special Powers Act, which allows arbitrary detention for long periods of time without charge; and Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which facilitates torture in police or army custody.

On coming to power the BNP-led government pledged to take a number of actions to improve human rights. Last year the Anti-corruption Commission Act was passed. As a result an independent anti-corruption commission was set up in the second half of last year after concerted donor lobbying but has yet to become fully effective. According to Amnesty International there has been little progress made on other key reforms such as the separation of the judiciary and executive in lower level courts and the formation of an independent human rights commission.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, the police themselves are frequently accused of a wide range of human rights violations, taking bribes, and failing to prevent other human rights abuses. They are becoming increasingly tolerant of the threatening and inciting behaviour of political and religious extremist activists. Deaths in police custody have risen significantly. Several hundred thousand people are awaiting trial, and prison conditions are poor. Will the Minister say something about the aid that we are giving for police reform and training?

Several noble Lords mentioned the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There have been internal tensions since the 1960s between the Bengali settlers and the tribal inhabitants there. The Bangladesh Government initiated discussions with representatives of the tribal inhabitants in December 1996 which, as I understand it, resulted in a peace accord being signed in
 
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December 1997. But there has been little progress on implementing it or on settling the land disputes that are at the heart of many of the tensions between tribal inhabitants and Bengali settlers. What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to urge the Bangladesh national Government to fully implement that peace accord?

Bangladeshi law states that,

and that,

Despite that, there have been multiple attacks on religious minorities, including Hindus and the Ahmadiyya community, since the BNP Government came to power in October 2001. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry both mentioned attacks on the Ahmadiyya. They are a small—100,000 strong—minority Muslim movement. Since 2003, there have been anti-Ahmadiyya attacks on mosques and demands that they be declared non-Muslim. In January last year, the government of Bangladesh authorised a ban on all publications of the Ahmadiyya community. The ban, enforcement of which was subsequently suspended by the courts pending further deliberations, violates Bangladesh's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to uphold human rights and freedom. Amnesty International has criticised the Bangladesh Government for banning those publications and for not taking action against the hate campaign.

Human Rights Watch released a 45-page report earlier this month entitled Breach of Faith: Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Bangladesh, in which it accuses the Bangladesh Government of failing to act against those responsible and complicity in violence against the country's Ahmadiyyas. It alleged that the two junior partners in Bangladesh's coalition government—the JI and the IOJ—have incited violence against the Ahmadiyyas. It highlights specific examples, such as the incident in Bogra in March this year, when 10,000 KN supporters armed with rods marched on an Ahmadiyya mosque; and the attack in Satkhira in April when a mob led by the KN attacked members of the community, injuring at least 25 people.

Although the BNP claims that it is not instigating attacks on minorities, the Prime Minister and other leaders in Bangladesh have failed to demand that coalition partners desist from any role in aiding or abetting attacks and restrictions on religious minorities. That is because the ruling BNP Government hold power as part of a four-party coalition. In the most recent election, the BNP-led coalition won by a very close margin of 46 per cent to 42 per cent over the AL. The JI-IOJ alliance with the BNP determines if the BNP remains in power. Consequently, the BNP appears to be conceding to the pressure of the anti-Ahmadiyya while attempting to minimise bloodshed.

Human Rights Watch argues that if the BNP's political strategy is to give in to some extremist demands, thereby retaining JI and IOJ support, while
 
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simultaneously working to maintain peace, the policy is not only dangerous but appears to be failing. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, pointed out:

Will Her Majesty's Government put pressure on the Bangladesh National Party to stop the human rights abuses that are currently taking place against the Ahmadiyya community?

Several noble Lords have mentioned problems against the Hindus. Amnesty International has been particularly concerned about the persecution of Hindus since the general election in 2001. Hindus in Bangladesh have tended to vote for and support parties such as the Awami League. They have therefore been the target of political backlash by supporters of parties opposing the Awami League. Also, as a minority community in Bangladesh sharing a language and religion with the Indian populations of West Bengal, Hindus have been subjected to discriminatory practices or attacks by Muslim groups in Bangladesh. Since its independence, no government in Bangladesh have taken any decisive steps to protect Hindus in the face of murder, rape, kidnapping, temple destruction and physical intimidation.

While both Hindu men and women have been subjected to attacks and intimidation, Hindu women have also been subjected to sexual violence. The Awami League points out that as a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, the Bangladesh Government are required to take steps without delay to eliminate discrimination against women in Bangladesh.

According to a report published by the Hindu American Foundation, which asserts that the human rights of Hindu citizens are consistently violated, over 400 documented attacks took place on Bangladeshi Hindus last year. The report urges the international community to compel the government of Bangladesh to respect the human rights of Hindus as an urgent priority. In the light of that, what steps are the Government taking to address human rights abuses against the Hindu community there?

There have been some attempts by the Bangladesh Government to address the growing political and religious violence, for example, implementing Operation Clean Heart, the signing of the peace accord, and the establishment of the anti-corruption commission. There is a good deal of criticism about how effective those measures are. Meanwhile, the level of political and religious violence in Bangladesh is increasing, and the BNP is not taking sufficient steps to address it. Indeed, it seems to be positively turning a blind eye to the religious violence taking place against the Hindu and Ahmadiyya communities. Unfortunately, that is emboldening extremists, which is deeply worrying.

I hope that the Bangladesh High Commission in London will listen carefully to, and act on, what has been said in this debate about the worrying events in
 
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that country, particularly as there is a great deal of goodwill to Bangladesh. She has many, many friends in this country.

2.59 pm


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