Bangladesh’s government should publicly order security forces to avoid using lethal or excessive force when dealing with protesters. The leaders of all political parties, including Jamaat-i-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, should keep supporters from engaging in violence.
The government should set up an independent commission to carry out prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into the violence and hold all those responsible to account, the New York-based rights body says in a statement on its website.
Security forces appear to have stepped up operations against the opposition in recent days. Jamaat supporters have attacked police posts, government buildings, ruling party activists, and Hindu communities. Media reports say that security forces have killed at least 20 opposition members during clashes and have arrested many more.
“Security forces and opposition militants are engaged in a vicious cycle of attacks that are leading to death, destruction, and fear,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Jamaat and others in the opposition may have legitimate reasons to hold protests, but that is no excuse for the appalling levels of violence by their supporters.”
Killings and injuries escalate
More than 100 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the past two months since the political crisis in Bangladesh began over upcoming elections and the conduct of war crimes trials. On December 14, for example, members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) entered the house of Fayez Ahmed, the 66-year-old deputy head of the Laxmipur district unit of Jamaat. His wife, Marzia Begum, said that they then took him up to the rooftop of the house, shot him in the head, and threw his body onto the ground. A RAB spokesman denied Ahmed had been shot and instead said he fell while trying to escape. RAB has a long history of claiming that detainees died while trying to escape or in crossfire.
The crisis worsened following the December 12 execution of a leader of the Jamaat party, Abdul Qader Mollah, who was found guilty of war crimes during Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971.
Jamaat activists allege that many of their colleagues have been wrongfully arrested and mistreated by the police. One man described to Human Rights Watch an incident in Noakhali in southeastern Bangladesh on November 26 in which police seized a Jamaat leader and shot him in the leg before arresting him. This same witness said he was shot in the back as he walked away from police during a demonstration.
The Bangladeshi authorities are obligated to impartially investigate violence by protesters and the unlawful use of force by security forces, and to prosecute those responsible for carrying out or ordering such acts. In the past, the government has taken no action, even in cases of well-documented unlawful killingsby the security forces during protests.
Human Rights Watch said the government should publicly order the security forces to follow the UN 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,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”
Violence by members of opposition parties
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous serious acts of violence by opposition party members and supporters. For example, a doctor at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the country’s largest burns unit, told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had treated 83 victims of fire bombings, 14 of whom died. More than a dozen patients and their relatives told Human Rights Watch that while many had not seen who had thrown the bombs, others had been able to identify their attackers as opposition supporters.
Members of Jamaat and its youth wing, Shibir, and supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have engaged in countless attacks on security forces and others. Attacks have included throwing homemade grenades and petrol bombs at police, arson attacks to enforce a road blockade, derailing passenger trains, setting fire to the homes and businesses of Hindus and Awami League officials, and throwing grenades into crowded streets. More than 12 ruling party activists have reportedly been killed in one district, Satkhira, known as a stronghold of the Jamaat party.
Children have been killed and injured in the violence, including by picking up stray homemade grenades, Human Rights Watch said.
Opposition parties have organized a series of lengthy general strikes and transport blockades to force the government into reinstating the practice of holding elections scheduled for January 5, 2014, under a neutral “caretaker” administration. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has refused. United Nations-sponsored talks between the two sides have so far failed to resolve the impasse. Many senior opposition politicians have been arrested. With the deadline for submitting papers to stand for election now passed, more than half the seats in parliament will be uncontested.
“Bangladesh security forces and political parties have a long history of turning their members loose for political purposes, seemingly indifferent to the loss of life that results,” Adams said. “Most victims are ordinary citizens who have absolutely no involvement in politics, and political leaders should tell their supporters to stop endangering lives.”