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Bangladesh (Religious Minorities)

Volume 614: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Spencer.)

I thank Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to raise the plight of religious minorities in Bangladesh. It is apposite that this debate is being held today, because it is exactly the first anniversary of the visit to Bangladesh by the UN special rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) as the newly appointed Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister with responsibility for the Indian subcontinent. It is clearly a very well-deserved appointment, and I look forward to working with him over the coming years to further good relations between the UK and the countries of the Indian subcontinent.

I am chairman of the all-party group on British Hindus, and I have chaired a number of meetings at which the plight of Hindus and other religious minorities has been raised. I have also had the opportunity to visit Bangladesh on two occasions to participate in social action projects, as well as to meet the leaders of all political parties in Bangladesh and the President. At every opportunity, I have raised the plight of religious minorities and requested further action by the Government of Bangladesh to safeguard those minorities. I have seen at first hand the challenge of assisting some of the poorest people in the world to achieve their full potential, but also the determination of those people to do so.

I recently tabled early-day motion 351 on the plight of religious minorities in Bangladesh, which has so far been supported by 31 hon. Members. The UK has a very long history of assisting Bangladesh, stretching back to the battle for independence and attempts to combat the atrocities that were committed.

The widespread and persistent violations of human rights and the persecution of minority religious groups—Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other tribal communities in Bangladesh—by the extremist armed groups are deeply worrying to all concerned within the country and in this country. Holding this debate today will highlight the deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh.

Religious extremism and terrorism exploit multiple societal failures in the middle east, south Asia, east Asia and the Russian Federation, but they also rely on ideologies that reject secular governance as illegitimate. The atrocities of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London attacks, the Bali bombings and a large number of other acts of religious violence pose a dire and unique challenge to peace and security throughout the world. The recent ISIL-inspired jihadi attack in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka against innocent diners at the Holey Artisan Bakery, which I had the opportunity of visiting in the past, highlights the seriousness of an enduring threat to the peace and security of the country.

The terrorists who commit such dreadful crimes are not organised as a single worldwide hierarchical group; they are small autonomous clusters or cells, whose principal common link is a millenarian ideology. They are dedicated to the destruction of secular government and the advent of a society based on an imagined model of the early 7th century. Local problems everywhere are exploited as one means to attract people to that world view, aided by funding from wealthy patrons and the Governments of certain Islamic countries. It enables extremists to recruit devout members of society, who are discontented for various reasons, to participate in acts of terrorist violence to attain martyrdom.

The world cannot forget the scale of the suffering of the people of Bangladesh and especially the grim fate of its Hindu minority during the war of liberation in 1971. That ranks with the worst mass killings of the 20th century, alongside the holocaust, the Armenian genocide during world war one and Rwanda. Indeed, assaults on minority communities have been rife in Bangladesh since before the partition of India in 1947. The Bangladesh Government estimate that during the independence struggle of 1970-71 up to 3 million people were killed and 200,000 to 400,000 individual rapes occurred, in which even the most senior Pakistani officer of the province, Lieutenant General Niazi, participated without restraint.

According to one report the mass murder of boys and young men denuded entire communities and was the world’s worst gendercide in half a millennium. To quote from a report at the time, Robert Payne wrote:

“For month after month in all the regions of East Pakistan the massacres went on. They were not the small casual killings of young officers who wanted to demonstrate their efficiency, but organized massacres conducted by sophisticated staff officers, who knew exactly what they were doing…soldiers…went about their work mechanically and efficiently, until killing defenceless people became a habit like smoking cigarettes or drinking wine…Not since Hitler invaded Russia had there been so vast a massacre.”

Terrorism in contemporary Bangladesh is motivated not only by the aim of exterminating or expelling its minorities and creating an unsullied theocracy at home, but by a global agenda. That is why events in Bangladesh are of grave concern to the wider global community, and to us in the UK. Bangladesh is the fourth largest Islamic society in the world, and the deepening roots of religiously motivated terrorism there pose a significant challenge to peace and security in a world already besieged by terrorism from other sources. A handful of determined killers, influenced by intensifying extremist ideology in their country of origin and the right to visa-free travel as EU or US nationals, will create an additional nightmare for national security agencies.

I would like to put on record some key statistics relating to Bangladeshi minorities. The number of religious minorities in Bangladesh, including Hindus, has been declining rapidly. In 1947, religious minorities accounted for 34% of the population. By 1971, that figure had been reduced to 19.8%. Two years ago, it had reduced to 9%. The political parties of Bangladesh are not committed to restoring the original spirit of the liberation war of 1971 and the Bangladesh constitution of 1972. The Enemy Properties Act 1965 is still in force in the name of the Vested Property Act, enabling the seizure of Hindu properties in a blatantly discriminatory way. Since independence, Governments have failed to protect places of worship of minorities in Bangladesh. The restoration of the important religious sites of Ramna Kalibari Temple and Ma Anandamoyi Ashram is still pending. The Debottar land of Shree Shree Dhakeshwari national temple has been “grabbed” and reduced from 6.75 acres to 2.75 acres—a drastic and unjustified reduction.

Demographic changes are clearly being instigated to reduce Hindu-Buddhist-dominated districts, particularly in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Cases relating to persecution and oppression inflicted upon minorities are not being investigated by the authorities. No one is being brought to justice. There is no minority Ministry or Department to oversee the interests of religious minorities and regulate policy matters to redress sufferings and issues related to them. There is no budgetary allocation for religious minorities in the national budget and no special law to protect their specific interests. Secular political parties are under threat and secular Bangladesh is gradually turning into a land of political thugs and religious extremists. I regard the first duty of any Government to protect their own borders. The second duty is to protect the rights of the minorities who live within those borders.

I want to highlight some of the key findings of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and beliefs, Heiner Bielefeldt, who visited Bangladesh from 31 August to 9 September 2015. He said:

“The religious demography in Bangladesh has changed considerably in recent decades, mostly as a result of migration. When the demography changes rapidly, this can pose some challenges to the religious harmony in the country. This risk is even higher, if certain minorities feel vulnerable and insecure.”

Islamic radicalisation has been on the rise in Bangladesh and has caused a mass migration of Bangladeshi minority communities, including Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, who believe their lives are in danger if they do not convert to Islam. It is a huge challenge that the Government of Bangladesh are battling every day, as the unfortunate incidents of persecution continue to be on the rise. The UN special rapporteur attributes the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country to the growing influence of ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam stemming from the Gulf region. The atrocities carried out on the minorities, particularly on Hindus, come in many forms. It may be useful to look at the history of them in Bangladesh. The UN special rapporteur’s report says:

“Unsettled property disputes constitute challenges in many societies, including in Bangladesh. In various ways, they are closely linked with problems concerning freedom of religion or belief. One link is the salient decline of the Hindu population in Bangladesh, which has shrunk significantly since the time of independence. The Government of Pakistan initially instituted the designation of minority owned land as ‘enemy property’ under the provisions of the Enemy Property Act of 1965. That Act encompassed a series of discriminatory property laws targeting primarily Hindus and tribal communities in the eastern portion of the country (Bangladesh). After achieving independence from Pakistan in 1971, the newly formed Bangladesh retained the inequitable provisions of the Enemy Property Act through the 1974 Vested Property Act. Hindus remained the main target, and the Vested Property Act caused many Hindu families to emigrate to India and other countries. As in many instances, when a person left the country for any reason, whether temporarily or permanently, they were designated as an ‘enemy’ under the Vested Property Act and their property was ‘vested’ or seized by the State. Frequently, when one Hindu member of a family left the country, the family’s entire property was confiscated. In reality, much of the confiscations carried out amounted to sheer land grabbing.”

The increasing influence of Daesh, or ISIL, is known to us here in the UK, and our Home Office has reported as follows:

“There is a high threat from terrorism in Bangladesh. Since September 2015, Daesh has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

In late September and early October 2015 two foreign nationals were shot and killed. Since then and as recently as July 2016, attacks against religious minority groups including the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Shia and Ahmadiyya communities, have killed several people and injured many more. Previous methods of attack have included crude explosives, grenades, shootings and knife attacks.

On 1 July, a terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the Gulshan 2 district of Dhaka resulted in the death of 20 hostages, mainly foreign nationals and 2 police officers. Daesh has claimed responsibility for this attack.

Groups affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent…are also active and have claimed responsibility for the murder of a number of people who they consider to have views and lifestyles contrary to Islam. Online activists, including secular bloggers and two members of the LGBTI community, have been murdered most recently in April 2016.”

The global community has a stake in engaging with the Government and people of Bangladesh to combat religious extremism, which is a serious threat to our own citizens as well as those of Bangladesh. Attacks by such extremists against minorities are only the first step in intimidating and imposing their authority on communities. That is why it is vital to encourage and assist the Government of Bangladesh to act by investigating and prosecuting heinous crimes such as gang rape, frequent seizures of private property and desecration of religious places. A permanent haemorrhage of the minority population, fleeing abroad to escape grim oppression, only weakens the moral standing of established authority, and eliminates voters who support politicians committed to human rights. The final stage of the triumph of extremism is likely to be the empowerment of political authority that has a benign attitude towards it because extremists have sunk deep roots in society and can mobilise to demand acceptance of their views. That scenario will be familiar from recent experience elsewhere in the world.

Just this year, a large number of priests, preachers and followers of minority religions have been killed by Islamist militants in a series of acts, and have gone missing.

Hindu priest Jogeshwar Roy Adhikari in the Panchagarh district, Hindu priest Ananda Gopal Ganguly in the Jhenaidah district, Nityaranjan Pande in the Pabna district, Nikhil Chandra Joarder in the Gopalganj district, Sulal Chowdhury, and Hindu priest Shyamananda Das were all hacked to death. They were literally cut up before people’s eyes. The veteran saint Sadhu Paramananda was murdered, and a Hindu businessman, Tarun Dutta, was beheaded in the Gaibandha district. Hindu devotee Pankaj Sarkar, of the ISKCON temple in the Satkhira district, was brutally stabbed. College lecturer Ripan Chakraborty, of the Madaripur district, was chopped to pieces in front of his class.

Several bloggers, human rights activists, atheists and authors, including foreign nationals, have been hacked to death in the past two years. I will not go through the list of those individuals but I will make it available to the House for its consideration. All those people have been murdered for a simple reason: their religious beliefs or way of life do not fit with this extremist ideology.

Hindu shrines, temples, monasteries, congregation and cremation lands in Bangladesh are now the prime targets of Islamist extremists in Bangladesh. It is apparent that all the Islamic outfits based on radicalism and onslaught, particularly those I have mentioned, in districts throughout Bangladesh are growing fast and operating armed camps to propagate hatred against non-Muslims. Their ultimate goal is to transform Bangladesh from the secular state that it was always intended to be into an ultra-conservative Islamic state. That is set out by the writer Bertil Lintner. I will not go into his report, but it is available for the Minister, should he wish to have some light reading; it is only about 500 pages long.

I therefore ask the Minister to raise the following key recommendations from the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist & Christian Unity Council with the Government of Bangladesh. Laws for the protection of minorities, such as a human rights Act and a minority protection Act, and for the protection of places of worship need to be implemented as fast as possible. A minorities rights commission should be created to safeguard minorities’ rights. The discriminatory laws that exist, especially the Vested Properties Act, should be repealed. The UK Government should make a recommendation to the Bangladeshi Government for a United Nations special taskforce to investigate the disappearance between 2001 and 2011 of over 900,000 Hindus from Bangladesh, as noted in the European Parliament resolution on the situation in Bangladesh in 2013.

The Government should also publicly condemn attacks against members of the Hindu community and other minorities. Decisive action is required to protect members of minority communities against these attacks. A full, impartial and independent investigation of all such attacks should be initiated and the results of the investigation made public. All the perpetrators of the attacks should be brought to justice, regardless of their position in society or membership of a particular political party. The victims of the attacks and their families should be provided with compensation.

There should also be a crackdown by the Bangladeshi Government on all Islamist terrorist organisations in the country. An independent inquiry commission should be set up to investigate the incidents and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Action is still required to ensure representation of these minorities in every sphere of the Government and in the Bangladeshi Parliament. The UK Government should give careful consideration to minorities who are already in United Kingdom who have applied for asylum on the basis that they are seeking refugee status for their protection.

A wealth of information is available backing up what I have said in the House today—evidence of the attempt literally to purge Bangladesh of all religious minorities other than the Islamic majority. It is incumbent on us as parliamentarians to protect religious minorities, wherever they are in the world, but particularly those in Bangladesh, which has so much potential. We have had a unique relationship with Bangladesh over the years. I look forward to the Minister giving a positive answer to the points I have made.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate and for the sensitive way in which he has presented some very traumatic information. While Bangladesh rarely makes the headlines in this country’s national press, my hon. Friend has had a long-running concern about the welfare of the people of that country and their freedom to express minority views of both religious and political sentiment.

I am speaking first as a member of the International Development Committee, which had hoped to visit Bangladesh during the past year, but unfortunately we were advised not to do so due to security concerns. Secondly, I speak as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I am currently conducting an inquiry into the shrinking space of civil society across many countries in which DFID is providing UK aid. That inquiry has taken evidence from both politicians and human rights activists from Bangladesh, who have confirmed the overall picture that my hon. Friend has painted of escalating violence and increasing concern about the protection offered to religious and political minorities, including by the state authorities.

I have been assisted in preparing for the debate by the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief and by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has recently completed a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh. I will not go into all the detail, which would largely echo my hon. Friend’s evidence today, but I invite colleagues to look at the website at csw.org.uk as it contains more information.

I want to reflect on two background aspects to the concerns my hon. Friend has raised. First, there is concern about freedom of the press in Bangladesh. As we know, protection of religious minorities is often greatly enhanced by the protection of a free press. Therefore, it should appropriately be of concern to this House that a number of high profile editors and journalists in Bangladesh have been arrested over the last few years. Earlier this year, Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s most popular newspaper in English, was arrested. He currently faces no fewer than 79 cases against him, 62 for defamation and 17 for the very serious charge of sedition. There is a real logistical challenge for him to defend himself because all his trials are being held in different parts of the country, and even appearing for them is a major logistical problem.

Mr Anam is reported to be the victim of a campaign that has allegedly been encouraged, if not orchestrated, by the current Government of Bangladesh over his printing of allegations of corruption. Reports tell of the Government putting pressure on his newspaper’s advertisers to withdraw their money and pressure being put on other press institutions to refrain from criticising the Government.

I also want to reflect on the political context of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. In January 2009, Sheikh Hasina and her party, the Bangladesh Awami League, took power through controversial general elections held in December 2008 and were re-elected in 2014, but DFID commissioned an independent expert report on those elections and their legitimacy was questioned. The report states:

“Recent election processes have had escalating levels of shortcomings, relating to the election commission’s ability to provide for neutrality, integrity, and freedom from undue influence, intimidation and violence.”

We all recognise that often in the context of religious persecution where there is intimidation against the press or political opposition, it paves the way for broader persecution against a range of minority groups, as the rule of law is increasingly undermined in favour of protecting the interests of a ruling party. Prime Minister Sheikh promised in her 2014 manifesto that the

“religious rights of every people would be ensured and the state would treat equally with every citizen irrespective of their religion, culture, gender and social status.”

Sadly, subsequent events do not appear to bear out this manifesto pledge.

I should like to turn now to the persecution of atheists. Some Members might be surprised at my wanting to defend those who have no religious belief, but it is essential in defending the rights of those who have a religious belief we should also defend those who choose to have none at all. This is particularly important in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, violence against atheists has led to an increase in confidence among those who are attacking non-Islamic communities, whether of any belief or none. Since 2013, Islamic extremists have regularly called for violence against atheist writers and bloggers. Killings have occurred with disturbing frequency, and there was a string of high profile murders in 2015.

I highlight the following case to the House. There are a number of others which bear striking similarities. Mr Avijit Roy was a well-known champion of secularism through his blog Mukto-Mona. On the evening of 26 February 2015, Mr Roy and his wife were returning home from a fair by rickshaw. At around 8.30 pm, they were attacked near Dhaka University by assailants. Mr Roy was struck and stabbed in the head with sharp weapons. Mrs Roy was slashed on her shoulders and the fingers of her left hand were severed. Both of them were rushed to Dhaka Medical College hospital. Sadly, Mr Roy died at 11.30 that night.

Mr Roy’s wife survived, and she has openly criticised the lack of response from the Government to the murder, as have others. Strikingly, even the Prime Minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, has acknowledged that the Prime Minister is unwilling to show public support for Mr Roy’s widow due, we are told, to a fear that the Government would be accused of siding with the atheists. The lack of faith among the atheist community that the Government will protect them is unsurprising when we reflect that Inspector General A. K. M. Shahidul Hoque and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan have warned atheist bloggers against expressing their views online. The first warned them not to “cross the line”, and the latter stated that the Government themselves would take action against those

“who defame religion in blogs and on social media”.

I want to turn now to reports relating to the persecution of Christians. Last year, a 57-year-old Catholic priest, Father Piero Arolari, was shot in Dhaka by three assailants as he cycled to church. Rosaline Costa, the 67-year-old Catholic editor of Hotline Bangladesh, has recently had to leave the country due to concern for her life. Hotline Bangladesh is a monthly newsletter that chronicles corruption, crime, terror and religious violence in the nation. Due to her reporting of the harassment of Christians in the country, Rosaline has been subjected to frequent phone calls intimidating her and telling her to “be careful”. A number of her relatives have also had to leave the country after they were followed at university and told to convert to Islam “under the fear of death”. An attempt was made to coerce one of her female relatives into a forced marriage with a Muslim. Rosaline reports that her and her family’s experiences are not isolated and that they represent a microcosm of the wider persecution that many Christians face in the country, with continuous intimidation in an atmosphere of hostility.

I endorse the evidence given by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East regarding the persecution of Hindus. Buddhists and Hindus are deeply concerned about persecution. Advocate Rana Dasgupta, secretary-general of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council of Bangladesh is quoted as saying:

“The entire community has been terrorised and is feeling very insecure. We are not seeing any active role by the political parties to find solutions to these problems that we are facing.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide continues to receive reports of attacks on Hindus and Buddhists, as shown in evidence on its website.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Spencer.)

In conclusion and in light of such concerns, I have several questions for the Minister. I pay tribute to DFID representatives in Bangladesh. What work is being done by DFID in that country to address both religious persecution and the reported absence of steps by the Government there to satisfactorily address them?

What representations have been made by our Ministers to their Bangladeshi counterparts to express concern about the abuse of human rights in Bangladesh, about which we have heard today?

Has there been any exploration of bans on the entry to the UK of law enforcement personnel who may be involved in attacks on activists in Bangladesh on religious or political grounds?

Finally, has a review been proposed of the UK’s business involvement in Bangladesh to ensure that no UK funds are being used to support systems that oppress religious minorities?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this incredibly important debate and thank him for his kind words about my appointment. I commend the commitment he has shown, as chair of the all-party group for British Hindus, towards the protection of religious minorities in Bangladesh and elsewhere. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on a powerful speech. From the day she arrived in this place, she has always championed and spoken up for minorities and the vulnerable wherever they may be. I commend her for that. They are both real champions for human rights and have raised several important issues and questions, which I will try to address in my remarks. If they do not feel that I have sufficiently answered them, I will be delighted to answer more substantially if they write to me.

The UK and Bangladesh are long-standing and close friends. We were the first European country to recognise Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and we continue to support its economic development. We have the largest Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe. The half a million British people with Bangladeshi heritage have made an immensely positive contribution to every aspect of British life. The UK cares deeply about what happens in Bangladesh. We want it to be economically successful and to maintain its rich tradition of accepting people of all religions and beliefs, and all backgrounds and cultures.

Religious tolerance is not just an end in itself; it goes hand in hand with economic prosperity. A country will reach its full potential only if it values and harnesses the power of all its people. As my hon. Friends have noted, however, the situation seems sadly to be moving away from, not drawing closer to, that aspiration for tolerance. The threat against minority groups and foreign nationals has intensified. My hon. Friends mentioned Hindus, who have suffered the largest number of attacks, but there has also been a rise in attacks against Sufi, Shi’a and Ahmadiyya Muslims, as well as Christians, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. Such attacks run counter to Bangladeshi traditions of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

When Bangladesh was last debated in the House at the end of June, hon. Members raised concerns about the political situation, about freedom of expression, and about the number of attacks against those whose views and lifestyles appear contrary to the teachings of Islam. Since then, we have seen further shocking incidents of extremist violence against minorities and foreign nationals across Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East noted, on 1 July, 22 people died in the appalling attack on the Holey Bakery café in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone. Also in July, the Sholakia Eid congregation was targeted and there were separate attacks on Hindus, including a deadly attack on a Hindu priest. On behalf of the UK Government, I utterly condemn all these attacks. Many have been claimed by Daesh or groups affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent—that is a clear demonstration of the global and shared threat posed by these extremist groups.

Terrorism is a global threat that faces all of us, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with Bangladesh and all our partners in the fight against terrorism, but it is clear that extremism flourishes where there is a culture of intolerance and impunity, or where space for democratic challenge and debate is lacking. I of course welcome Prime Minister Hasina’s “zero-tolerance” stated approach to countering extremism and terrorism, yet it is vital that the Government of Bangladesh also make it clear that they will uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all their citizens: the right to life; the right to religious freedom or belief; and the right to freedom of expression. Underpinning and guaranteeing all of those is the right to justice for all. Mass arrests, suspicious “crossfire” deaths and enforced disappearances at the hands of the police undermine confidence in the judicial system. Investigations must be conducted transparently and impartially, irrespective of the identity of either victim or alleged perpetrator. Anyone arrested should be treated in full accordance with Bangladeshi law—there must be no impunity.

When the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh in May at the G7 meeting, he expressed concern that extremist attacks risked undermining stability and investor confidence in Bangladesh. While in Dhaka at the end of last month, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), also raised the issues of countering extremism and gaining access to British nationals in detention in Bangladesh in his meetings with Government representatives. I urge the Bangladesh Government to do everything they can to tackle this scourge of violence, to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice, and to explore the root causes of these attacks.

The UK Government are supporting organisations that work to protect minorities in Bangladesh and that ensure that their rights are protected, both in law and through Government policy. Since 2010, the non-governmental organisations we support have defended the rights of more than 200,000 people in Bangladesh. This work ranges from advocacy at a national level to helping Dalit communities secure access to Government land meant for landless people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned the Chittagong hill tract. The advocacy that has been supported by the British Government has also persuaded the Bangladesh Government to establish a land commission to resolve land disputes in areas with a high proportion of ethnic and religious minorities, such the Chittagong hill tracts. UK support for civil society organisations promoting human rights and free speech in Bangladesh will continue under a new programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy.

Outside this House, a number of people have raised the issue of whether we should be imposing sanctions on Bangladesh to make it adhere to civil and political rights. With respect, I disagree with such an approach—let me explain why. Extremism and terrorism is a global threat, and one that countries must face together. Our development programme in Bangladesh, which is still one of our largest in the world, enables us to provide broad-ranging support to address some of the root causes of extremism, including poverty and economic marginalisation. Sanctions would hamper our ability to do that. We believe that the right approach is to engage with the Government of Bangladesh on areas of shared concern, such as countering terrorism and extremism, and promoting human rights for all. We will continue to do that. The UK Government have prioritised counter-extremism support for Bangladesh and we will identify areas where we can work with the Government of Bangladesh better to understand the problems of extremist views and to help counter them.

In their powerful speeches, my hon. Friends raised a number of points, which I will try to address. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked about the new laws being enacted in Bangladesh. As I have already noted, we have consistently called on the Bangladesh Government to protect religious minorities in the country. We continue to support advocacy to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected in Bangladeshi law and in Government policy.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of compensation. Compensation for the victims of attacks in the country is a matter for the Bangladesh Government to address. I urge them to ensure that all attacks are investigated transparently and impartially and to consider carefully the need to provide remedy to victims.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of refugee status. Of course immigration status is a matter for the Home Office, and I refer him to that Department for its consideration. He mentioned the United Nations in this regard. As he pointed out in his own speech last September, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visited Bangladesh. We urge the Bangladesh Government to implement the recommendations in the rapporteur’s report, which includes a call for the Government to

“protect the vibrant civil society and pluralistic society in Bangladesh.”

That is the right approach to take.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked about the press. I absolutely agree that a vibrant civil society and media, with the ability to discuss and debate freely, are fundamental to building democracy. Indeed, the charges brought against newspaper editors, even if they are eventually dismissed by the courts, can be seen as a form of harassment and intimidation. She talked about what we are doing to support bloggers and others who find themselves under attack. I can tell her that, in addition to ongoing public and private diplomacy, we have funded safety training for bloggers in Bangladesh. We have supported a review of its Information and Communication Technology Act to bring it into line with international standards and help lawmakers to develop a better understanding of international standards on hate speech. I have already mentioned that the new programme funded by the Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy is promoting freedom of expression and aims to protect those who exercise it.

Finally, my hon. Friend talked about the work that is being done by the Department for International Development. We are the largest grant aid donor in Bangladesh, allocating in this financial year of 2016-17 around £162 million. Our support focuses on improving the provision of basic services, supporting private sector development skills, and reducing the risks to development, especially those related to governance and natural disasters. I wish to make it clear that no UK aid is paid as direct budget support for the Government of Bangladesh. About one third of UK aid to Bangladesh goes to the Government as reimbursement for agreed activities or results and, as we all know, we are very clearly focused on that.

I hope that I have been able to address many of the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friends but, as I have said, if they wish to write to me on any particular issue, I will of course respond to them in a substantive manner.

As I have already outlined, the UK and Bangladesh share a set of values—they are core Commonwealth values—and they include a commitment to parliamentary democracy, inclusive communities, free speech and tolerance. As Bangladesh progresses from least-developed country status towards middle-income country status, it will need more than ever to promote and defend its people’s rights—the right to an effective justice system, the right to a vibrant civil society, the right to a free media and the freedom to hold authority to account. The British Government will continue to encourage Prime Minister Hasina to deliver on those commitments and to uphold the international human rights standards that Bangladesh has pledged to uphold as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.