Bangladeshi security forces have frequently used excessive force in responding to street protests, killing at least 150 protesters and injuring at least 2,000 more since February 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on August 1, 2013. While large numbers of protesters have been arrested, the Bangladeshi authorities have made no meaningful efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable.
The 48-page report, "Blood On The Streets: The Use of Excessive Force During Bangladesh Protests," is based on 95 interviews with victims and their family members, witnesses, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. The report documents case after case in which police, the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) opened fire into crowds or beat protesters in a brutal and unlawful manner. In some cases, security forces carried out extrajudicial executions. Human Rights Watch also documented the killing of at least a dozen members of the security forces and police officers over the course of the protests, as well as three members of the ruling Awami League party.
"With national elections and more war crimes verdicts ahead, street protests are likely to be frequent and the risk of further violence is high," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Unless the government takes firm action to rein in the security forces, there is going to be a lot more blood on the streets before the year is over."
Large protests began in February in Bangladesh in response to decisions by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a domestic court set up to put on trial those responsible for war crimes and other abuses during Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971. Large numbers of protesters came onto the streets to demand the death penalty after the court handed down a life sentence for a senior member of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. Jamaat supporters later called strikes, engaged in violence, and staged demonstrations against the February 28, 2013 death sentence against the vice-president of the Jamaat party, Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Security forces killed dozens and injured hundreds of protesters and bystanders as they tried to break up Jamaat protests and targeted individual protesters between February and April.
Another bloody round of violence took place in response to a massive march and demonstration on May 5 and 6 in Dhaka by the Islamist Hefazat-e-Islami movement. Security forces confronted tens of thousands of protesters. While some police efforts at dispersing crowds appeared to adhere to international standards, in other cases the police use of force was unlawful. This left at least 50 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Human Rights Watch spoke to witnesses who described seeing the police beat protesters they had detained and shoot others at close range with buckshot and tear gas canisters. "He was aiming at my chest but six small rubber pellets hit my face," 12-year-old A.R. told Human Rights Watch. "The man who fired it was standing about 2 meters away from me. I then pretended to be dead and they dumped me with some other bodies."
The Bangladeshi government needs to ensure that the security forces immediately stop using excessive force against protesters, Human Rights Watch said. The government should appoint an independent commission to investigate the deaths of dozens of protesters, including children, and prosecute anyone responsible for unlawful killings. Bangladesh should also allow United Nations special rapporteurs into the country to conduct independent assessments.
"There are more verdicts to come from the ICT, which will inevitably mean more protests," Adams said. "That makes it all the more critical for the government to take immediate steps to train its forces in crowd control and hold them accountable."
The security forces have used spurious criminal charges to intimidate witnesses and family members of protesters killed by security forces, Human Rights Watch said. After protests, police lodged criminal complaints - called "First Information Reports," or FIRs - against hundreds and sometimes thousands of "unknown assailants." Police would then enter the communities where protesters lived, using these reports as justification for arbitrary arrests of scores of individuals, particularly men thought to be Jamaat supporters. The sweeps left men in these communities fearful and drove many into hiding.
Human Rights Watch also documented a shrinking space for media and civil society to independently report on the protests. Two television stations that support opposition political parties, Islamic TV and Diganta TV, were taken off the air by the government on the night of May 5 and 6 and have been closed down ever since. The stations were reporting live from the site of the protests. The government also shut down the opposition newspaper Amar Desh and jailed its editor, Mahmdur Rahman, and other journalists, as well as four bloggers who had expressed atheistic sentiments in their writings.
"The government's claims to be the most open and democratic in Bangladesh's history are undermined by censorship of critical voices," Adams said. "The government can take reasonable steps to restrict incitement to violence, but this doesn't mean closing down opposition media."
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," 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." The Principles make clear that intentional lethal use of firearms is only permitted when "strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." Human Rights Watch also called for effective investigations into the deaths of all killed during the demonstrations.
Opposition parties such as the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jammat-e-Islam Party, as well as independent organizations such as Hefazat, should take steps to deter their supporters from carrying out unlawful attacks, including on law enforcement officers or members of the public with different political views.
"Bangladesh's reputation is at stake, and all responsible leaders should counsel calm, avoidance of violence, and respect for the law," Adams said.
Click here for selected statements from the report.
Download the full report:
bangladesh_report_protesters_hrw.pdf (896 KB)