HR abuse in Bangladesh concerns Hillary

By SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD

WSJ: May 6, DHAKA—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a trip to Bangladesh, raised concerns about the recent killing of a labor-rights activist and the disappearances of a number of political figures.

Ms. Clinton’s two-day visit to Dhaka, the capital, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2003, came amid a political standoff between the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party that has shaken this nation of 160 million people.

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Associated PressBangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, center, looks on as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, and Bangladesh Foreign Minster Dipu Moni exchange signed agreements in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Saturday.

The BNP claims Ilyas Ali, one of its senior leaders, was abducted last month and that the government was involved, something Ms. Hasina’s Awami League-led administration denies. At least 22 people have disappeared this year, according to the Dhaka-based legal-rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, which says it believes many of those who went missing were last witnessed in the custody of security forces.

Clashes between police and BNP supporters, which left at least five people dead last month, have threatened to destabilize a country that had remained relatively calm in recent years amid textile-powered economic growth of around 7% and a successful crackdown on Islamist militant groups.

Ms. Clinton, who met with Ms. Hasina and BNP head Khaleda Zia, said she urged independent investigations into Mr. Ali’s disappearance and the killing of Aminul Islam, one of the country’s best-known labor activists, who was found dead outside Dhaka last month. His body bore marks of torture.

“It would send the wrong signal to foreign investors and buyers if the murder of labor-rights activists like Aminul Islam are not properly investigated,” Ms. Clinton said Sunday, before leaving for a two-day visit to the Indian cities of Kolkata and New Delhi.

Ms. Hasina’s government is facing rising criticism for what many here and abroad view as increasingly authoritarian policies, including harassment of nongovernmental workers and journalists. Mr. Islam, the labor activist, was facing trial for his role in labor protests last year. International human rights say the charges were trumped up to dissuade other labor activists from pushing for higher minimum wages, allegations the government denies. His murder followed the February killing of a journalist couple, found dead in their Dhaka apartment, heightening a sense of lawlessness in the country.

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European Pressphoto AgencyHillary Clinton speaks in a news conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Saturday.

International human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have long raised concern about the role of the nation’s security forces in extrajudicial killings and abductions.

“It is important that in this country… everybody take seriously any disappearance, any violence against activists, any oppression of civil society, any intimidation of the press,” Mrs. Clinton said Saturday at a joint press conference with Dipu Moni, Bangladesh’s foreign minister.

But she also used her visit to urge the BNP to back down from threats to continue street protests until Mr. Ali, the missing party official, returns safe. The BNP launched a program of crippling general strikes and protests after Mr. Ali went missing but suspended demonstrations ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s visit.

“Violent demonstrations … exact a heavy toll, especially on Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens,” Ms. Clinton said. “They also send a negative signal to the international community about the investment climate here.”

Mrs. Clinton praised progress Bangladesh’s progress in meeting poverty-reduction targets and the nation’s role in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. She added that the U.S. government will provide $300 million over the next four years to help Bangladesh—a low-lying country prone to flooding and cyclones—deal with the effects of climate change.

Bangladesh urged Mrs. Clinton to allow duty-free access to the U.S. for Bangladeshi ready-made garments. Garments made up more than 90% of the country’s $5.1 billion exports to the U.S. in the financial year ending last June 30.

The two sides also discussed the recent demarcation of Bangladesh’s sea boundary with Myanmar by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which analysts say has cleared the way for offshore exploration of oil and gas. U.S. energy company ConocoPhillips COP -2.01% has a contract with the Bangladesh government to look for gas in the Bay of Bengal.

Ms. Clinton also met with Muhammad Yunus, the deposed head of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s best-known company. The country’s central bank forced the Nobel laureate from the helm of the microlender last year on a technicality, and it remains without a leader. Some analysts said Bangladesh’s politicians had decided Grameen, with more than eight million depositors and a score of other businesses, had grown too powerful.

U.S. officials this year have publicly urged the government to quickly find a qualified successor to Mr. Yunus.