Website - Mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially in Women and Children - http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/trafficking/index.htm


CATW - Coalition Against Trafficking in Women



CATW Representatives Go to Bangladesh

After trying to obtain visas to Bangladesh beginning in August, 2007, Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice Raymond of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - CATW - were finally able to go to Dhaka from February 6-10, 2008.  Our goals were to visit the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially in Women and Children, Sigma Huda in prison, meet with the US Embassy in Dhaka, and appeal to Bangladeshi authorities on Sigma’s behalf. This report is the result of our fact-finding mission and our efforts to urge relevant officials, on humanitarian grounds, to provide Sigma with much-needed medical monitoring and treatment and to move her out of the prison back to a specialized hospital and ultimately to her home.


Sigma Huda’s arrest and detention are part of the political situation in Bangladesh that in 2007 resulted in the general deterioration of democratic values and human rights. In January, 2007, after a series of violent clashes between political parties in the streets, Bangladesh was put under a state of emergency, and a military-controlled civilian caretaker government was installed, promising elections within several months.  Fundamental rights and freedoms were suspended and remain so today, including massive arrests without warrant, deprivation of bail, and the setting up of special military-controlled courts. The Special Powers Act imposed a ban on political activities and gave the police the power to disperse or arrest four or more persons assembled in one place, which has been applied also to in-house meetings designated as “indoor politics.” In the ensuing months of 2007 and continuing into 2008, there have been considerable numbers of arrests and detentions -- by some estimates, at least 90,000 or more – and many reports of custodial torture, including that of Sigma’s brother-in-law (who was hung upside down by his ankles, beaten on the soles of his feet and other parts of his body and then drugged in an attempt to force him to incriminate his brother and Sigma’s husband, Nazmul, which he resisted); extrajudicial killings; and eviction of slum dwellers and street hawkers.


Sigma Huda was arrested in July, 2007 and sentenced the next month by a special court to a 3 year jail term on charges of aiding and abetting corruption. Bail, although granted to her by the High Court, was subsequently denied by the Appellate Court. Sigma was made to appear in court, transported from the jail by ambulance, hooked up to oxygen and unable to walk, given her deteriorating health condition that was exacerbated by her arrest and detention.


Sigma’s health problems are multiple and major: a totally occluded mid right coronary artery, coronary heart disease, accumulation of fluid in her feet and lungs, chest pain, an irregular heart beat and other cardiac problems that require immediate hospitalization.  As her medical reports acknowledge, ischemic(inadequate blood circulation) heart disease in women is often silent so she requires regular skilled monitoring of her condition.  Additionally, Sigma suffers from type 2 diabetes, requiring several medications, which have not been administered properly in jail.  She has diabetic nephropathy, or renal impairment, that has led to chronic kidney failure. She also suffers from spondylolisthesis (displacement of one vertebrae upon the other), causing severe spinal and back pain.


When it became clear that we would not be allowed to visit with Sigma in jail, we set about planning another way to meet her.  Aided by some Bangladeshis, Dorchen and I both wearing a salwar kameez went into the courtroom where a second trial of Sigma and Nazmul, her husband (and former Minister of Parliament and Minister of Communications in the BNP administration), was in progress.  We were able to see Sigma during a trial break and were shocked at her condition. After staying about ½ hour to talk with Sigma, we were detected as a foreign presence in the courtroom and were told by the armed guards to leave.  However, we were overjoyed that we had succeeded in meeting with Sigma for even a short time because Sigma had been expectantly awaiting our visit and seemed energized by our presence.  Her family told us how much it meant that we had come to see her and plead for her treatment and release.


After meeting with Sigma, we were able to arrange several key meetings that helped us obtain more information about Sigma’s situation.  We met with a representative from the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry. We had been told by government authorities that Sigma had little support from Bangladeshi NGOs, which we knew to be false but needed to refute in an evidentiary way. Therefore, we interviewed several prominent human rights groups, one that publishes ongoing and trenchant reports of the current government’s repressive measures and lack of due process. They affirmed that Sigma was an historic human rights defender in Bangladesh, the founder of key human rights organizations, an icon of truth and courage who had defended women’s rights and the rights of other dispossessed persons, and a fearless lawyer. And they confirmed our knowledge that others were scared to come forward and defend Sigma, knowing that they might meet a similar fate; and that witnesses were commandeered to testify against Sigma, under threat to themselves and their families. Some groups were also critical of the western embassies in Bangladesh whom they alleged have been instrumental in helping to initiate and support the current regime and tolerant of governmental human rights abuses and the suspension of democracy in the interests of countering terrorism, suppressing corruption, and reforming the political parties from without.


We entered Bangladesh with the knowledge that Sigma had been transferred out of the hospital back to the jail, and we wanted to gather evidence of her health condition in order to make the case for, at the very least, getting her returned to the hospital for medical monitoring of her heart condition and the treatment that she needs. We were able to obtain her medical records, dating back several years to the present, which confirmed how critical her health is and has been.  And we were able to speak with one of Sigma’s doctors – a cardiologist and diabetes specialist who has treated Sigma for many years -- who conveyed in urgent terms that Sigma was at “imminent risk of death” from an irregular heart beat that at any moment could be “fatal.” The physician emphasized Sigma’s need “to be immediately transferred to a hospital” where she can be monitored continuously, where her blood pressure can be controlled, and where her other health conditions can be treated and alleviated.  He affirmed that Sigma’s condition had substantially deteriorated during the months she has been in prison.


This same day, we met with several of the lawyers who are handling Sigma’s legal defense. They outlined the 6 criminal cases pending against Sigma, the main charges against her, and were helpful in our general understanding of the violations of Sigma’s due process rights.


With the help of Sigma’s sister, we decided to hold a press conference on February 9, 2008 at Dhaka Reporters Unity.  Given that it was a Saturday and short notice, we feared that few media might attend.  We were gratified when 28 journalists came, among them 6 TV networks and key international and regional news networks such as the AP, Reuters, AFP and UNP (the Bangladeshi News Service). Janice Raymond outlined Sigma’s health condition, the tireless advocacy of Sigma Huda on behalf of many individuals and groups who have been victimized and deprived of justice and basic freedoms, especially women whose legal rights have been violated in the most extreme ways such as acid survivors and victims of trafficking, and our awareness that Sigma’s situation is the plight of many other Bangladeshis in jail. Dorchen Leidholdt emphasized our concerns about Sigma’s due process rights, the special court apparatus, and the transparency of judicial procedures. She also expressed our disappointment that the Bangladeshi authorities had rejected our request to visit Sigma in jail.  Both of us urged the government to transfer Sigma to a hospital or to her home where she could obtain much-needed monitoring, treatment and relief.


Our sense from our brief encounter with Sigma and the court process and from interviewing knowledgeable sources is that Sigma, who has always been a forthright advocate of women’s self-determination as one of the first woman lawyers in Bangladesh, is being treated as an appendage of her husband and as aiding and abetting his alleged crimes. Many of the wives of prominent politicians have been jailed but, in Sigma’s case, the difference is that she has the added distinction of being one of the country’s topnotch lawyers and of having challenged corruption in the police. It is our sense that Sigma’s history of  being an  independent and outspoken woman who has been  willing to challenge powerful institutions in the society and who has been consistently critical of government abuses, including those occurring under her own husband’s government, has been instrumental in her being arrested, condemned and jailed. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sigma is being singled out for shabby treatment, given the conditions under which she has been imprisoned compared to those of other detained prominent and VIP women.


Bangladeshi jails are grim and gritty, much more so the women’s prison.  In speaking with various members of Sigma’s family and others who are cognizant of prison conditions, we learned that the women’s facilities differ substantially from men’s, another example of gender discrimination.  This was illustrated by comparing the environment of Nazmul’s internment to Sigma’s.  Nazmul has his own space, an area  where he can walk and exercise, more sanitary facilities and the society of other male prisoners with whom he is allowed to converse.  In contrast, Sigma is incarcerated in filthy conditions in a common area with multiple women who share one toilet that constantly overflows, is not allowed to talk at length with other women, and has no space in which to walk. Every day that she leaves the jail to go to court, she must climb 3 flights of stairs to get back into her cellblock.


On the last evening that we were in Dhaka, we met again with a representative from the US Embassy, especially to emphasize our firsthand knowledge of Sigma’s health condition and to reiterate the immediate need for her removal from the prison to a specialized medical facility and ultimately to her home for monitoring and treatment.


We conclude this report with a final statement made at the CATW press conference in Dhaka. “We are keenly aware that thousands of Bangladeshis are suffering in jail and that Sigma Huda’s situation is the plight of many others.  We hope that by raising our voices in support of Sigma Huda’s rights that this will help the many others who have been detained and deprived of basic rights and will give them hope that the international human rights community is watching what Bangladesh will do to restore democracy in the country.”


Contact: Dr. Janice Raymond, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)

E-mail: Jraymond@wost.umass.edu


Janice G. Raymond. Ph.D
Professor Emerita
University of Massachusetts, Amherst (USA)


Board of Directors
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)
PO Box 9338, N. Amherst, MA 01059 USA
Fax: 413-367-9262
E-mail: jraymond@wost.umass.edu


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