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Tasneem Khalil is an independent Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist and the author of Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia (London: Pluto Press, 2016)

Foto: Sharmin Afsana Shuchi

Sweden's walkover on human rights in Bangladesh

Sweden should listen to the exiled bengalis who have fled here, about how to support democracy and human rights in Bangladesh, writes journalist and author Tasneem Khalil as Bangladesh's notorious prime minister Sheikh Hasina visits Stockholm.

In Sweden, it is not everyday we get a state visit by a third world demagogue. Also rare are occasions when our prime minister would invite the chief political sponsor of a brutal death squad to Rosenbad. Stefan Löfven hosting Sheikh Hasina on June 15 is one of those rare occasions.

Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, is doing lots of meetings in Stockholm during her two-day-long visit. After meeting Löfven, she is also meeting Isabella Lövin, Morgan Johansson and Tobias Billström. Even poor Carl Gustaf will take a break from looking funny in Viking helmets and receive Hasina at the royal castle. Quite a royal affair — the Bangladeshi Queen of Hearts meeting the King of Sweden.

Bangladeshis are of course not little Alices swimming in a pool of tears in some surreal wonderland. Unlike the fictional Queen of Hearts, when Hasina wants to get rid of someone, she does not scream “off with their heads” to a bunch of playing cards. She has the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — a special police death squad — to do the dirty work of abducting, torturing and executing opposition party leaders and activists. It is with Hasina’s blessings and patronage, RAB has perfected the science of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution.

As it happens, Swedish Radio exposed details of this back in April, in an explosive report based on a secret recording in which a senior RAB officer was bragging about torturing detainees by hanging bricks from their testicles. The recorded officer explained how they get rid of bodies after torturing people to death by putting the body in a sack, tying blocks of concrete to the sack, and throwing it down the river.

It was not supposed to be like this. Just like Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, who graced us recently with a state visit, Sheikh Hasina was once globally hailed as a torch-bearer of democracy and human rights. Both have now turned out to be cold, cynical opportunists beholden to the military and religious bigots (Buddhist “mad monks” for Suu Kyi and Muslim Hefajat-i-Islam for Hasina). In Sweden, we do have a better view of the sorry state of things in Myanmar. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is an under-reported story.

And quite a horror story. It was just a few days back, when one of the most courageous human rights advocates of the country tried defending the principles of secularism in public spaces (the Supreme Court premises, in this case), a group of Islamist thugs brazenly threatened to break her bones and beat her into pulp. That group — Hefajat-i-Islam — has emerged as Sheikh Hasina’s political ally in recent months. In other cases, Bangladeshi freethinkers and activists have been brutally murdered (as in chopped to death with machetes) by a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda. How did Sheikh Hasina’s government respond? By blaming the victims (of “hurting religious sentiments”) and failing to investigate most of these cases.

What are Sweden's priorities?

There is now an exodus of freethinkers and activists from Bangladesh, because Sheikh Hasina and her government failed – and, failed terribly – to protect them. As it happens, some of them are now in exile in Sweden: Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb (one of the leading proponents of LGBT rights in Bangladesh), Shamima Mitu (feminist journalist and blogger), Siddhartha Dhar (writer and researcher), Subrata Shuvo (writer and blogger).

Would Stefan Löfven invite them to Rosenbad sometime in the near future, to discuss how Sweden can help in the struggle for basic human rights in Bangladesh? Would Isabella Lövin talk to them and find out how Swedish development aid can be directed more towards supporting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh? Is that even a priority for Sweden? In 2016, Swedish development aid to Bangladesh was SEK 250 million — bulk of it was allotted to humanitarian aid and health. This needs to change.

In Bangladesh, Sweden must do more to stand for freedom of expression (especially for freethinkers and intellectuals); freedom of the press (especially when journalists are being silenced by government agencies); labour rights (especially in the garments sector); LGBT rights; indigenous rights (especially in the militarised Chittagong Hill Tracts); minority rights (for Hindus, Christians and Buddhists); refugee rights (for the Rohingyas); environmental rights (especially in the area around the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world); and, political rights (of opposition parties and government critics).

And, the first step towards that is raising these issues, one after another, using clear-and-candid language, when Sheikh Hasina meets representatives of the Swedish government in Stockholm. There of course is the risk that this will irritate her, just like Al Gore (former US vice president) irritated her in Davos recently. Pushed too hard, she may even loose her temper, as she often does. That is when our Carl Gustaf can put his Viking helmet back on and make Her Majesty smile. Did we not try that with the Saudis once – no?

Tasneem Khalil is an independent Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist and the author of "Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia".