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BCWS: A history of harassment, beatings and extortion

The Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) has long had to contend with Bangladeshi government repression and surveillance as security forces tap their phone lines, monitor their emails, and sometimes search their offices. However, the current crackdown is the harshest yet, threatening BCWS’s existence and putting staff and organizational leaders in serious physical danger.

When, on June 3rd, 2010, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB) of the government of Bangladesh cancelled the non-governmental (NGO) registration of BCWS, it deprived it of its legal right to exist and operate. At the same time, the Director General of NAB ordered government officials to seize the BCWS office and property and also instructed their bank manager to close their foreign donations bank account, preventing it from continuing important work funded by international donors.  A daily newspaper reported that the government was to “prepare a list of cash foreign donations and the movable /immovable properties procured through foreign donations and take them under government control/possession.”

On June 16, 2010, at 1:50 pm Bangladesh time, BCWS staff member Aminul Islam was detained at the offices of the Director of Labour as he was arriving for a scheduled meeting with the Chief Inspector of Factories to discuss worker unrest at garment factories owned by the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Also invited to the meeting were 30 garment workers, four other staff members of BCWS, and two representatives of the BGMEA. The Chief Inspector of Factories reportedly had received special permission from the Labour Minister to hold the meeting despite the fact that the government no longer recognized BCWS as a legal entity.

As Mr. Islam and the workers ascended the staircase to the Labour Director’s office, 30-35 National Security Intelligence (NSI) police arrived from a back entrance and detained Mr. Islam along with three workers. According to Mr. Islam’s testimony, he managed to escape custody late at night the same day while being transported to another district.  Mr. Islam reports that the NSI officers blindfolded him, and beat him and threatened to kill him in an attempt to extort false testimony against BCWS.

“Why did you stop work at the garment factories?” NSI officers demanded of Mr. Islam. “If you just say Babul and Kalpona (leaders of BCWS) asked you to stop the work at the factory then we will set you free.”  When Mr. Islam responded that BCWS never told workers to stop working and that Babul and Kalpona would “never support any illegal task or unlawful demand” he was beaten unconscious.  “They were hurting me at the joints of bones of my body. My arm, knee, joints, ball-joints were their targets.” Mr. Islam’s testimony continues in excruciating detail, describing the beatings and threats to kill him and orphan his children, and covering up his killing in a so called “cross-fire” incident.

Mr. Islam is exhausted as he ends his testimony. “Now I’m living in extreme anxiety,” he says. “I don’t even know what I should do now.  I can’t walk. I can’t even move because of the pain that I got from the beating. I can’t sleep. Nightmares of torture won’t let me sleep.”
Continued repression
Mr. Islam’s escape from the NSI officers on June 16 was not the end of this crisis for BCWS. As his testimony reveals, the real targets of the security forces are the leaders of BCWS who have worked tirelessly to support workers’ rights in recent years. On July 2, BCWS reported that their staff were scared but still coming to the office, despite harassment from security police. Because of the trouble their landlord increased their rent by 60%.  Mr. Islam still had not returned home, but was finally able to see his wife and children.

On July 22, BCWS reported that “our phone is still tapped, and we are being followed, getting many visits and phone calls from security intelligence.”  BCWS staff and leaders remain at risk of unlawful detention and possible inhumane and degrading treatment at the hand of the authorities. As of this writing, BCWS legal status has not been restored though the government has not yet ceased their offices and properties.


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