US report says Bangladesh minorities are terrified

A sharp spike in attacks, particularly on religious minorities and foreigners, in recent months in Bangladesh has heightened the sense of fear among different religious groups in the country, says a report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The attacks on religious minorities, particularly the Hindus, were either claimed by extremist groups – Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al-Islam, and Islamic State – or were attributed to them.

“In response to the attacks, the Bangladeshi government has shown some political will to investigate and arrest perpetrators, provide protection to likely targets, and actively combat extremist and terrorist groups,” the USCIRF report says. But the government and the police often fail to investigate the land grabbing issues.

The USCIRF’s 2017 Annual Report, published on April 26, has documented religious freedom violations in 37 countries, makes country-specific recommendations, and assessed the US government’s implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act. In a statement, USCIRF Chair Thomas Reese said: “The Commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations.”

The USCIRF made a number of recommendations to the US including providing technical assistance and encourage Bangladesh to further develop its national counter-terrorism strategy.

It also suggests urging Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and government officials to “frequently and publicly denounce religiously divisive language and acts of religiously motivated violence and harassment.”

The report recommends the US assist Bangladesh train local government officials, police officers, and judges on international human rights standards, as well as how to investigate and adjudicate religiously motivated violent acts.

Bangladesh’s religious minorities have faced repeated attacks after the 2014 national election, most of which were attributed to people and groups associated with the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the report says.

Last year’s killing of several Hindu priests, a Rajshahi University professor, a blogger, and a Christian man have raised fears among the people, it adds. At least 15 temples and more than 200 houses were damaged when a mob attacked Hindu-dominated Nasirnagar in late October.

The government arrested or charged more than 1,000 people over the incident while the ruling Awami League suspended three of its local leaders for their involvement in the attacks.

Although the report mentions the July 8 terror attack near the Sholakia Eid grounds, it does not say anything about the July 1 Dhaka cafe attack in which 22 people, including 17 foreigners, were killed.

The government has increased protection for religious minority communities, especially around religious holidays and festivals, it says. Violent attacks on the minorities are often followed by land grabbing and Hindus say they believe they are particularly vulnerable targets of illegal land seizures.

“Local governments and police often fail to investigate violent attacks that accompany landgrabs because their colleagues are implicated,” the report claimed.

The process to reclaim vested property is “cumbersome and confusing,” the minority communities say, and that many properties are not eligible for return or compensation under the Vested Property Return Act.

Minority communities say they believe the government has not provided enough training and equipment to police and report that political parties continue to use “religiously divisive rhetoric” for political gains.

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