The Bangladeshi government should authorize an independent investigation into a recent spate of alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday. The government should publicly order law enforcement agencies to ensure the safety of all those taken into custody.
Joint Forces consisting of the Bangladesh Police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Border Guards Bangladesh continue to arrest opposition supporters, some of whom are accused of involvement in violent protests before and during the January 5, 2014 elections which were boycotted by opposition parties. Security forces claim that the deaths after arrest occurred during “crossfire,” which Human Rights Watch has previously documented is used by security forces as a common euphemism to describe what they claim to be shootouts, but which in reality appears to be the killing of people already in detention.
“We are seeing a frightening pattern of supposed ‘crossfire’ killings of opposition members in Bangladesh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Bangladeshi government needs to ensure proper control of the security forces and order an independent and credible investigation into these deaths.”
On January 21, the State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said that the Joint Forces were engaged in an operation against “terrorists” and that none of those involved in violence before the elections “will be spared.” More than 150 people died before the polls, the bloodiest in Bangladesh’s history. Many were ordinary citizens whose vehicles were set on fire by opposition supporters.
Human Rights Watch interviews suggest a recent pattern of extrajudicial killings by security forces. Azharul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) student wing in Satkhira district, was killed on January 27, a day after his arrest for murder and for taking part in the pre-election violence, a police spokesman said. The police said he died in crossfire when he was leading the police to an opposition “hideout.”
Two members of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing died in similar circumstances in Satkhira on January 26. The police said that Abul Kalam and Maruf died after receiving wounds during a gunfight a day after they were arrested. The police said that they were leading the Joint Forces to a place where other suspects were hiding when the security forces came under attack. Police said three police officers were injured.
Another Jamaat member, Tarique Mohammad Saiful Islam, was killed in alleged “crossfire” on January 20, a day after he was arrested. The police said he died while leading investigators to a place where Jamaat activists were hiding firearms.
Killings in custody escalate
In each case the police said they only opened fire after coming under attack.
Also among those who have died recently are two BNP members accused of involvement in one of the worst incidents of pre-election violence. Atiqul Islam Atiq and Golam Rabbani were both wanted by the police in connection with an attack on the motorcade of ruling party Member of Parliament Asaduzzaman Noor,on December 14, 2013.
According to the police, the attackers killed five people, including four members of the Awami League. The police charged 1,500 people with involvement in the attack and named 14 ringleaders, including Atiqul Islam Atiq and Golam Rabbani. According to a relative of Atiq, he was taken from his house, along with a cousin, Mohidul Islam, on January 13, 2014, by five or six men who said they were from the detective branch of the police. The police told family members that he was first taken to Deldowar police station and then to Tangail district headquarters. Atiq’s body was subsequently discovered by the side of a road on January 20 with a bullet injury to the back of the head. Mohidul Islam is still missing.
According to relatives, Golam Rabbani was taken away by a large group of men at dawn on January 15. The men wore black uniforms resembling those of the RAB, but they were not carrying rifles. The RAB does not have a camp in the area, and denied any knowledge of Rabbani’s detention when questioned informally through friends and relatives who work for the RAB. The police also denied knowledge of his whereabouts. Rabbani’s body was found on January 19 with two bullet wounds to his head and a rope around his neck. A relative who saw his corpse said it was bruised in several places, suggesting he had been tortured.
Rabbani’s wife, Shahnaz Begum, told Human Rights Watch that he should have been put on trial and punished if found guilty. “I would even have accepted him being hanged after a proper trial. But what happened to him was murder and I seek justice from the Bangladeshi government,” she said.
A member of Jamaat’s student wing, Shibir, described to Human Rights Watch how he was beaten several times after he was arrested in Dhaka in October 2013:
“Seven to eight people beat me with fists, kicks, and a stick. I was handcuffed and one man held me and another one beat me. He knocked me to the ground, on the spot, there in the police station.”
The man said he was arrested along with two other men while leaving a mosque. He said the police believed they were a gang, but he said he had never seen the others before. He was released three months later. For most of that time he was held in Kashimpur prison, outside Dhaka:
“There were 200 in my cell, most were members of the 18-party alliance [opposition]. It was so hot, it was suffocating. There were no beds, people slept on the floor. One of the men was a student from Mirpur. He was also a member of Jamaat-Shibir. He had been beaten with a hammer. Every joint was badly swollen and he was not given proper treatment. He could not feed himself or even go to the toilet without help.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to publicly order the security forces to follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Section 22 states that: “Governments and law enforcement agencies shall establish effective reporting and review procedures for all incidents… In cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities responsible for administrative review and judicial control.” Section 23 states that: “Persons affected by the use of force and firearms or their legal representatives shall have access to an independent process, including a judicial process. In the event of the death of such persons, this provision shall apply to their dependents accordingly.”
“The situation in Bangladesh is spiraling into a human rights crisis, with the possible return of suspicious killings by security forces, which we haven’t seen in recent years,” Adams said. “The governing Awami League complained bitterly about crossfire killings while in opposition, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stop them now that it’s in power. It’s time for the prime minister to make a public statement condemning killings and torture, and hold the security forces accountable.”