Democracy in the Crossfire

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(New York, April 30, 2014) – Bangladesh’s government and members of rival political parties all bear responsibility for the violence which scarred national elections on January 5, 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Hundreds were killed and injured in violent attacks surrounding the controversial elections, according to Bangladeshi human rights organizations.

“These were the bloodiest elections since independence, and unless concrete steps are taken to address what happened, the situation in Bangladesh is likely to worsen,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “It is important that the leaders of the main political parties not only make public statements denouncing this senseless violence, but also take measures to censure party members found responsible for the violence.”

The 64-page report, “Democracy in the Crossfire: Opposition Violence and Government Abuses in the 2014 Pre-and Post-Election Period in Bangladesh,” details violent protests by opposition activists who called for an election boycott. On numerous occasions, opposition party members and activists threw petrol bombs at trucks, buses, and motorized rickshaws. In some cases, opposition group members forced children to carry out the attacks. In response, the government unleashed a brutal crackdown. Human Rights Watch researchers documented how members of law enforcement agencies carried out extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and the unlawful destruction of private property.

The Bangladesh authorities should prosecute members of law enforcement agencies found responsible for unlawful killings, torture, and other human rights abuses. Leaders of the main political parties should make clear and unambiguous public statements opposing violence by their supporters.

For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 120 people, including victims, their family members, and eyewitnesses. Abuses documented were committed by members of opposition groups and law enforcement agencies before, during, and after the elections.

“Crossfire” killings Human Rights Watch also repeated its call to the government to end the reign of impunity enjoyed by Bangladesh’s security forces. After the elections, the security forces unlawfully arrested opposition leaders, naming them as suspects in violent attacks. Researchers documented the killing or unlawful arrests of 19 opposition leaders and activists. In nine of the killings, authorities claimed that the victims were killed in “crossfire” during gunfights between the security forces and armed criminals.

In all nine cases, there is strong reason to question the official account. In several of the alleged crossfire cases, witnesses said the killed person had been detained hours or days earlier, contradicting government claims. Security forces have little credibility when they simply claim that suspects die in crossfire, as they have regularly invoked the “killed in crossfire” explanation to justify what the evidence later showed to be cold-blooded executions of detainees or suspects.

For instance, local police authorities claim that security forces killed 15-year-old Abu Hanif, also known as Chhoton, when he and other members of the Jamaat youth wing attacked them in the Satkhira district on January 18, 2014. Several witnesses interviewed separately, however, said that security forces had detained Chhoton the previous day, accusing him of participating in protests and setting fire to several motorcycles in his village.

Law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh have a dismal human rights record. In particular, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has committed systematic human rights violations with impunity since its founding in 2004, which contributes directly to the culture of ongoing abuses. RAB should be disbanded and replaced with a fully accountable civilian law enforcement agency dedicated to fighting crime and terrorism, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Bangladeshi government needs to stop protecting its security forces, and make good on public pronouncements of zero tolerance for impunity,” Adams said. “The violence leading up to the January elections was entirely predictable, and yet the government did nothing to stem the abuses and have done nothing since to deliver justice to the victims.”

Opposition violence Human Rights Watch also interviewed many victims of opposition violence, including 25 people who were injured by fire-bombs. Rubel Mia, a driver of a motorized rickshaw from Comilla, told Human Rights Watch he was burned from the waist down after accidentally driving into an opposition road block.

Attackers in several locations also vandalized hundreds of homes and shops owned by members of Bangladesh’s Hindu community before and after the election, as well as some members of Bangladesh’s tiny Christian community. Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch blamed the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and Jamaat activists for some of the attacks. Hindus traditionally vote for the Awami League in elections. The government should investigate all attacks on religious minorities and prosecute the perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said.

Given Bangladesh’s long failure to deliver on justice, Human Rights Watch called on the government to establish an independent, external body to conduct prompt, impartial, and independent investigations into all allegations of violations by law enforcement agencies including the police, the Rapid Action Battalion, and the Bangladesh Border Guards. Such a mechanism should be invested with the mandate to investigate and to recommend prosecution of commanding officers and others in a position of authority who knew of abuses and failed to take action to prevent or punish abuses.

“With the elections over, the Bangladeshi authorities seem to be hoping that the abuses will simply be forgotten, and that business will continue as usual,” said Adams. “Unfortunately, that is exactly the kind of behavior that has fuelled violence in the past, and without proper redress will continue to fuel future violence.”

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