State of Human Rights in Bangladesh

State of Human Rights in Bangladesh

The internet, improved travel, and a 24 hour news media have made the incidences of gross violations of human rights around the world feel more immediate to us, and thus less tolerable.  The overreaches of the American security state notwithstanding, those of us living in consolidated democracies might feel somewhat insulated from these abuses. They seem to our imaginations still localized to countries that are ruled by oligarchic or dynastic dictatorships, illiberal democracies practicing tyranny, and states under direct or indirect foreign occupation.  Though this may in fact be true, the ranks of these states seem to be growing. Indeed, the sovereign Peoples Democratic Republic of Bangladesh may have descended into this category. Bangladesh, a nation founded upon a grass-roots movement that yearned for democratic institutions, human dignity for all, and social equality, is at the moment failing to protect the basic human rights of many of its citizens.

The period with the greatest human rights violations in Bengal’s history was during the British rule. 10 million people (a third of the then population) perished during the famine in 1869-73 and another 4 million met a similar fate during the famine in 1942-43. These famines were man-made and caused by extreme colonial exploitation and callousness of the colonial rulers. The colonialists always behaved as if the natives were less than human and their lives were not worth saving.

With the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate sovereign state in 1971, the country witnessed several cases of severe human rights violations. There was a reversion to severe famine conditions during 1973-74, and the-then government’s ineptness and insensitivity compounded the crisis that reportedly caused about 1 million deaths.

Some of the worst forms of human rights violations such as unlawful torture and killings, abduction, rape and other violent crimes happened during the war of liberation in 1971 (perpetrated mostly by the Pakistani army, and their local civilian collaborators.) There are controversies regarding the number of victims (estimates vary from 26,000 to 3,000,000).

There were also allegations and published examples of cruel revenge killings, degrading treatment and deprivation of ‘non-Bengali’ civilians by some freedom fighters during and after the liberation war.

Postcolonial bureaucratic structure of public administration and political propensity for authoritarianism (during periods of both civil and military regimes) resulted in human rights abuses in varying degrees at different times.

In recent years, the human rights situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated to an alarming stage. Arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture, without clear legal authority and due process of law seem to have become a normal practice of governance. A very bad picture of the human rights situation in Bangladesh is portrayed in the Amnesty International Report 2010. It states, among other things, that some members of the security forces act with impunity, prison
conditions at times are life-threatening, lengthy pre-trial detention continues to be a problem, and authorities infringe on citizens’ privacy rights.

With universal growth of information technology, public antipathy and civil society activism is growing everywhere about violations of human rights. In Bangladesh too, public concern and resentment are being increasingly voiced about the denial mode of the present Awami League (AL) government and their inability or inaction to prevent or reduce the instances of human rights violations. The most worrisome factor is the express justification fallaciously advanced by some ministers and leading politicians of the ruling party for abuse of the coercive power of the state to suppress opposition activists, to block political criticism, and to gag media freedom.

Extra-judicial killings

During Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) rule (2001-06), Bangladesh Awami League (AL) as the main opposition party criticized, very rightly, the culture of extra-judicial killings by law enforcing agencies including the special crime fighting force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) formed in 2004. Before 2008 elections, AL promised to stop such unlawful killings. Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni made commitments of “zero tolerance” regarding this type of killings in different international forums including the Human Rights Council (March 01, 2010; May 12, 2009) and the Universal Periodic Review Session (UPR) in Geneva (February 2009).

But these commitments were never fulfilled. Unlawful killings have continued unabated. The victims are suspected “criminals”, members of the radical left political parties, or simply innocent people, all killed without due process of law.

According to Odhikar (a non-profit rights activist group) Human Rights Report Bangladesh 2010, 127 people were killed extra-judicially in 2010. Of those 127, 1 was a BNP activist, 2 belonged to the Islami Chattra Shibir; 1 an expelled AL leader, 33 from radical left parties, 3 small businessmen, 2 drivers, 1 street sweeper, 2 farmers, 1 rickshaw puller, 3 workers, 1 night guard, 2 detainees, 1 hospital employee, 9 youths, 1 father of an alleged drug peddler, 64 alleged criminals. This figure includes only the reported number of those killed in the so-called “crossfire” as well as those tortured to death and custodial killings. But it does not include where the causes of deaths (while in custody) remain uncertain.

According to Ain O Shalish Kendra (Law and Order Center), another human rights forum, during January – December, 2009, a total of 229 persons were killed by crossfire. Odhikar put the number of extra-judicial killings at 154 for the same period. Of these, 35 were killed in custody. The number given by Odhikar is lower than that cited by the Law and Order Center.

The exact figure, probably much higher than those reported in the media, remains indeterminate. An unspecified number of detainees or prisoners die under torture during interrogations. The official versions for such deaths are heart attack, suicide or similar causes. Faced with harsh criticism, the government conducted some enquiries on some of these deaths and punished only a few of the perpetrators. But the practice of extrajudicial killings has not stopped.

Custodial torture and deaths

National and international laws prohibit the use of intimidation, mental and physical torture of any detainee or prisoner by state agencies. But in Bangladesh, like many other third world countries (in the wake of war on terror, in some “interrogation” centers of world powers as well), inflicting different kinds of mental and physical torture to extract information from detainees is routine. In some cases, the victims simply “disappear”.

The practice of custodial torture and unlawful killings of opposition political party leaders and workers started in the country overtly during the first AL regime (1972-75) and has continued covertly to date. It reached a tragic climax during the army-led emergency regime (2007-2008), when hundreds of top political leaders and businessmen were subjected to mental and physical torture in detention and jailed by summary trials. The allegations were mainly those of financial corruption, gaining illegal wealth, tax evasion, bribery and abuse of power. Serious physical injuries were inflicted by torture on some leading politicians, including Tareque Rahman, now senior Vice President of the opposition BNP party. More than 70,000 political activists at various levels were thrown into prisons with or without any specific charges. A terrorizing campaign was launched against over a million of roadside vendors and unplanned structures, in the name of removing illegal constructions without any attempt at the rehabilitation of displaced persons. It has been alleged that some military and police officers collected fat sums of protection money from some of their victims, especially some top businessmen.

After the AL government came to power in January 2009, the two top leaders of the emergency government (General Moeen U. Ahmed and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed) left the country and are now living in the USA. The fact that the AL government has not brought any charges against them lends credence to the suspicion that Sheikh Hasina came to power through some kind of understanding or deal with the leaders of the extended caretaker government exercising emergency steam roller.

After 2008 December elections and a year of AL government, Odhikar compiled a report with 68 proven cases of custodial torture during 2009. Notwithstanding denial by authorities, media reports showed that more than often those entrusted with the enforcement of law and order were themselves the worst violators.

Media and Freedom of Expression

In Bangladesh, in 2010, freedom of thought and conscience and of free speech deteriorated significantly. Attacks on journalists, the press, newspapers, and television have increased. A Mass Line Media Center report quoted in the Daily Star says that in 2010, 5 journalists were killed, 124 were assaulted while on duty, 112 after publishing their reports and 99 out of vengeance.

In the election manifesto of Awami League-2008, the government party promised that it would ensure the freedom of all types of mass media and flow of information. Despite having a law on right to information in place, one of Prime Minister’s unelected Advisers said on September 20, 2010, that the government is not bound to give information to the journalists. Commerce Minister Faruk Khan even accused the journalists for publishing “false” reports against the government. There is no information and public discussion about dozens of treaties and agreements signed with India or with other countries and organizations that affect the vital national interests.

Mr. Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of the Bengali daily Amar Desh, was targeted for government vendetta after publishing a report on the alleged corruption by some government leaders including the prime minister’s son, Sajib Wajed Joy. Mr. Rahman was arrested without warrant in June last year, on fake charges of contempt of court, interrogated under remand and put into prison. He was seriously tortured both physically and mentally. The case aroused nationwide protests and condemnation. Mr. Rahman was released from prison on March 17, 2011, but there are still dozens of false charges against him. Mr. Rahman has recently described the background to his arrest by the government and the extreme violations of his legal and human rights by the government agencies in a series of media reports. The stories describe very vividly the barbaric treatment (both physical and psychological torture) meted out to an eminent citizen and a distinguished Editor under custody. He also describes from his own direct experience, how other prisoners are neglected, abused and subjected to sub-human treatment by the authorities.

Failure of the Judiciary

The Judiciary Body has been formally separated from the executive, but it has failed to act independently without manipulation and control by the government and the powerful. Allegations of corruption and bribery are rampant, especially in the lower courts. There are such allegations also against the higher courts. The government has not only failed to take any action to prevent irregularities and corruption in the judiciary, but it harasses those who highlight such bad practices. Last year, cases were filed against some leading figures in Transparency International for reporting on the corruption in various departments of the government including Judiciary and Police.

Thousands of cases against the ruling party members (some of them facing serious charges of corruption and violent crimes) have been withdrawn by the government, while thousands of opposition members (belonging to BNP and Jamaat) are facing hundreds of charges. The law ministry recommended the wholesale withdrawal of cases against the ruling party members on the false ground that all those cases were “politically motivated”. Even some criminals convicted of arson and murder have been pardoned. The investigative process and framing of charges are often influenced by government interference or due to corrupt practices. Justice seems to be unachievable for those without government connections or without money.

Filing of cases against Dr. Yunus on flimsy grounds and his subsequent removal from the post of Managing Director of the Grameen Bank by the government have been widely criticized at both national and international levels. Even the US Foreign Secretary Hilary Clinton expressed her displeasure at the way Dr. Yunus was mistreated and vilified. Many prominent lawyers and legal experts have said that the campaign of vilification against Dr. Yunus and his forced removal from the Grameen Bank were unwarranted, illogical and unjust. Most of the common people believe that there are hidden motives behind this action including personal jealousy and revenge for Dr. Yunus’ attempt at launching a political party during the army-led emergency rule and the desire of a section of the ruling party to grab the vast organizational and financial assets of the Grameen Bank and its sister companies. Dr. Yunus tried to get redress in the highest court of Bangladesh, but unfortunately the justice system failed to withstand government pressure and uphold fairness and neutrality. In this and several other cases, even if justice was done, it hardly was seen to be done!

Many ruling party leaders and activists escape arrests and punishment for their crimes. Several ruling party MPs have assaulted government officials at different places and engaged in land grabbing and other illegal activities, but they remain outside the justice system. It is simply not possible for anybody to file a case against any illegal or criminal acts by the ruling party elements.

The government is proceeding with the so-called “War Crimes Trial” against some top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh for their alleged roles in the barbaric crimes committed in 1971. The “International War Crimes Tribunal” set up for the purpose has been criticized for its investigating personnel and judges being selected only from the AL family of officers and lawyers. Opposition political leaders and lawyers suspect that these trials would be politically motivated. The government has failed so far to clear the fog of suspicion regarding the process.

Government measures and legal system have failed miserably to ensure justice for the poor and their children, for ethnic and religious minorities, for the workers in general, but women and child workers in particular. Trade union rights of industrial workers are restricted and sometimes their wages are withheld.

Instances of appointing judges based on party loyalty, not on merit, have resulted in the lack of transparency and fall in public confidence and respect for the justice system. The sorry state of Bangladesh judiciary was described recently (March 25, 2011) by Dr. M. Saidul Islam, an academic and columnist. He rightly points out that the state of the judiciary has reached such a deplorable state that no court in Bangladesh dares to accept any case against the cadres of the ruling party regardless of the crimes they are involved in.

Political violence

Political violence leading to deaths and injuries has been a chronic disease in the body-politic of Bangladesh society for a long time. This violence is caused mainly by the in-fighting among different factions of student/youth armed groups (the so-called cadres) affiliated to the political parties and/or supported by unscrupulous but powerful individuals/quarters having connections with the ruling party. Widespread inter-party quarrels and conflicts also lead to violence and deaths.

According to a very recent media report, during the first four months of 2011, about 39 people were killed and 3,756 injured due to political violence across the country. Of those killed, the highest number of incidents occurred in January when political violence claimed the lives of 14 people, with the corresponding figure of 10 in February, 7 in March and 8 in April. Of those injured 664 fell victims in January, 1015 in February, 848 in March and 1229 in April. The statistics were collected by the rights group Odhikar on the basis of reports published in different daily newspapers during the period.

Suppression of Opponents

The AL government is nominally democratic but it has narrowed down the space for socio-political opposition by denying the rights of peaceful protests and public meetings. Thousands of criminal cases have been filed against opposition political leaders and workers, mainly to intimidate and harass them.

Last year former Prime Minister and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was evicted from her residence, while a court-case challenging the government decision to do so was still pending for final hearing in the court. Salauhddin Quader Chowdhury, an opposition party leader and MP, has been imprisoned for openly criticizing the government’s authoritarian policies. The government alleges that he is a “war criminal”. Ehsanul Huq Milon, a former MP and minister in the last Khaleda Zia government has been languishing in jail for alleged charges of snatching a vanity bag from a lady. In May, the house of Fazlul Azim MP, the only independent Member in the House, was attacked and ransacked by the pro-government activists for criticizing the government. The police attack on the house of the opposition leader Mirza Abbas and brutality towards his family members including women last year was one of the current government’s inglorious acts. On July 6th, Zainal Abdin Farouque, the chief whip of the BNP, was bloodied by the police while participating in an anti-government march. He was repeatedly struck by the police with batons and was dragged and beaten again while fleeing to his apartment. His injuries are so severe that he is still, as of this writing, recovering in a hospital in New York City, USA. Last year, Shahiduddin Anny, an opposition MP was brutally attacked by the police and the pro-AL student front an anti-government protest march near the Sheikh Mujib Medical University. These are only a few examples of the government’s policy of political intimidation and suppression.

It is well known that the present AL government has been following a ruthless policy towards the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and its student front to completely eradicate these opposition platforms. They are accused of promoting militancy and “Islamic terrorism” in the country. But this does not explain why AL entered into an alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami to dislodge the BNP government during 1994-96. Many informed persons would remember that at that time Sheikh Hasina, Sajeda Chowdhury, Moudud Ahmed (then a Jatio Party leader) and Motiur Rahman Nizami (Jamaat leader) held a joint meeting at the National Press Club to force the downfall of then Khaleda Zia government.

The national parliament has become a one-party show, a place for condemning the opposition for all failures of administration and governance. There are no meaningful discussions in the parliament on issues related to national problems on security, economy, employment, development, education, shortage of electricity, gas and water, traffic jam, housing and other public concerns. The main agenda of the government seems to erase the name of former President and founder of BNP, Ziaur Rahman, from history and denigrate his legacy.

Repression of Dissent

Professor Anu Mohammed

Police continue to use unnecessary and excessive force against protesters. In September, 2009, dozens of police attacked peaceful protesters with batons in Dhaka at a rally organized by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. At least 20 protesters, including one of their leaders, Professor Anu Mohammed, were injured. Some 1,000 protesters were calling for greater transparency in the government’s decision to award contracts to international oil companies. There was no independent investigation of the attack.

Nick Stace of Daily Telegraph reported on 12 May, 2011, that Sagir Rashid Chowdhury, the chairman of the Employee Association of Grameen Bank, who supported Dr. Yunus against the government, was brutally beaten by a group of thugs, probably let loose by some government leaders or agencies. It quoted the victim as saying, “They said they would kill me if I don’t call off the protests. They beat me with sticks. I begged for my life. They broke my hands and left me in a field.”

In January 2011, mass protests against the proposed Sheikh Mujib International Airport at Arial Beel were violently suppressed by the government. Twenty villages were raided and ransacked by the police and RAB. According to a Channel i News program telecast on February 3, cases were filed against 18,000 unknown protesters. Along with the local BNP leaders, the names of BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury of Dhaka University were also included in the list of the accused. Faced with unprecedented public protests, the government was forced to temporarily abandon this mega-project. Recently, the government has unveiled new plans for the construction of another airport named after Sheikh Mujib, the father of the current Prime Minister.

Violence in Campuses

The University and College students have always pioneered every movement for democratic rights in Bangladesh. But under the present regime, no student organization opposing the government is allowed to operate in the campuses. The student hostels are totally controlled by the Chatro League militants (the student wing of the current Awami League regime) and their criminal associates. Moreover, factional violence between opposing groups of Chatro League for domination and extortion has been a routine phenomenon, leading to serious disruption of academic activities and panic among general students. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed disgust at this culture of in-fighting and violence perpetrated by her student supporters, but in reality nothing has been done to punish these gangs. This raises serious questions about the sincerity and commitment of the government to stop violence in the campuses. Violent incidents involving Jubo League, the youth wing of Awami League, have also been reported in media.

Vulnerability of Women & Children 

Although Bangladesh has made considerable efforts for improving the educational, social, economic and cultural status of women, and some of the successes have been appreciated by different quarters, there still remain gross violations of women’s rights in different forms. Women’s contributions to family, economy, and society are not properly recognized. Many poor women in the rural areas and those forced to live in urban slums are often subjected to neglect and violence. Women who work in the garment and other industries have to work for long hours and are paid extremely low wages (probably lowest in the world). Thousands of young girls who work as servants (domestic help) in urban households are forced to work throughout day and night without any holidays and many of them suffer physical and sexual abuse, torture, and even death. Stories of violence against domestic servants are published almost daily in national newspapers. Some cases of violence against women due to so-called fatwa issued by some questionable “religious leaders” in the rural areas have been highlighted in the international media. There is no exact statistics on the women and children whose basic human rights are violated in different ways. However, according one report, there were 134 incidents of dowry related violence across the country during January-April 2011 while 27 persons became victim of acid throwing.

Abuse of Female prisoners

Treatment of female prisoners are even worse than that meted out to male prisoners. There are reliable statistics on the number of female prisoners and the number abused while in custody. They are probably supposed not to exist in our society. However, it is widely known that common abuses to female prisoners involve the denial of food and bed, and on many occasions, rape, especially to women from poor sections of the society. Many are held in prison without any concrete charges or trial for months and years, under sub-human conditions. In recent years, high profile female prisoners including the family members of some leading political figures were ill-treated in prison and many were denied bails pending trial.

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB): A New Rakkhi Bahini?

It has become quite obvious during the last six years of RAB’s operations that some members of the force have been responsible for serious abuses of human rights. Compared with the earlier BNP regime, it became more powerful and desperate in its acts during the army-led Care Taker Government (CTG) in 2006-2008. The present AL (Awami League) government seems to be more dependent on RAB to not only fight crime but also to suppress opposition political forces and dissenting voices.

There is a growing suspicion in the country that the present government wants to remodel this force after the infamous Rakkhi Bahini (Protection Force) that existed during 1972-75. This Bahini was formed as the main security arm of the then AL government (under the supervision of a top Indian army officer). It recruited only the AL party loyalists and was given more power and authority than the regular police, army and other security forces. They engaged in indiscriminate murders and torture of thousands of political opponents and became a dreaded force (like death squads in Latin America). Rakkhi Bahini was disbanded after the change of government in August 1975.

It is perhaps too early to say if the AL government really wants to recruit more party loyalists and cadres to remodel RAB after Rakkhi Bahini or not. What is evident, however, that the culture of extrajudicial killings and custodial torture, disregard for acting within the framework of law, and acting as an instrument of the ruling party are facing increasing criticism not only from the human rights defenders inside Bangladesh, but also from concerned persons and organizations abroad. International human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed deep concerns about the ongoing violations of human rights by different organs of Bangladesh state including extrajudicial killings and suppression of opposition.

Mr. Abbas Faiz, South Asia researcher for Amnesty International, Lord Eric Avebury of the UK House of Lords, and Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch raised this and several other issues with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent UK visit.

RAB: foreign connections

It was suspected from the very beginning that one of main purposes for the formation of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) (apart from ordinary crime fighting) was to “eliminate” the threats posed by various left radical groups operating in the western districts and also by the so-called Islamic militants. There are reasons to believe that the force had also the blessings of some foreign powers (USA, UK, India). The challenges coming from the extreme left and extreme right forces are also said to threaten Indian security. While the ambassadors and policymakers of these countries make daily public comments on smaller issues in Bangladesh, they have hardly “advised” any government since 2004 (BNP/CTG/AL) to stop unlawful killings and custodial torture by RAB. The first prominent victim of RAB’s unlawful killing during the present AL government was the leftist ideologue Mr. Mufakkarul Islam Chowdhury who was arrested unarmed and killed in a so-called crossfire. A pro-BNP lawyer M. O. Ahmed died in RAB custody recently. It is widely believed that his death was caused by brutal torture at the hands of the RAB.

In fact, the links of the USA, UK and India to RAB are no longer secret. The rulers of all these countries are obsessed with the potential threat of “Islamic terrorism” in Bangladesh and as revealed in WikiLeaks cables, they consider RAB as a potential counter-terrorism ally (The Daily Star, 23 Dec, 2010). Wikileaks disclosures have also revealed that the USA wanted RAB to become the “Bangladeshi FBI” and that that they were providing training to Bangladesh security forces on interrogation techniques. The EU proposal for a “Counter-Terrorism Training Center” in Dhaka to “fight terrorism in the region” indicates deep western (and Indo-Israeli)
involvement.

A Guardian report on January 17, 2011 revealed that the “UK authorities passed information about British nationals to notorious Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and police units, then pressed for information while the men were being held at a secret interrogation center where inmates are known to have died under torture.”

According to this report, “a number of the British suspects were taken to the secret interrogation center, known as the Task Force for Interrogation cell (TFI). The location of the TFI and the methods employed by those who work there became clear during the Guardian investigation, with both former inmates and intelligence officials speaking out about its operations.

“Faisal Mostafa, from Manchester, was taken to the TFI after Smith’s visit to Dhaka (2008) and is alleged to have been forced to stand upright for the first six days of his incarceration, with his wrists shackled to bars above his head. He is then alleged to have then been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while being questioned about Bangladeshi associates. At the point at which he was to be questioned about his associates and activities in the UK, he is said to have been blindfolded and strapped to a chair while a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip.”

Following this and several other reports published recently in the Guardian and other media on the collaborations of the UK authorities with the Bangladesh security forces on detention and torture are being questioned by human rights defenders across the world.

According to a UNB report (January 6, 2011), Phil Shiner, a human rights lawyer in Britain, has called for a UK-led international inquiry into the activities of RAB to uncover the truth behind RAB’s highly dubious human rights record. “If it is found that RAB consistently violated these rights in carrying out their operations, the UK government can be dissuaded from providing the training and support facilities that it has been to RAB over the last three years, as revealed in US embassy cables relating to Bangladesh released by whistleblower site WikiLeaks.”

Phil Shiner described RAB as a reckless, Latin American-style “death squad”, as described in a damaging report by Ian Cobain published in the Guardian, on December 23, 2010. He further said, “all states owe duties to each other to cooperate and uncover RAB’s activities, and to bring all unlawful activities, including of executions, to an immediate end.”

Denial Mode of Ministers

The government position on the issue seems dubious. The Daily Star (January 27, 2011) quoted the home minister Ms Sahara Khatun as saying that no extra-judicial killings have taken place during the tenure of present AL government since January, 2009. When journalists asked about the ongoing incidents of the so-called “crossfires” by the law enforcing agencies, and condemnation of such practices by different national and international rights organizations, she retorted: “What will the law enforcers do — save themselves or die — when criminals open fire on them?” Clearly, the minister was defending the illegal acts of “extra-judicial killings” by the law enforces. Some other ministers are also on record to have condoned these actions as acts of “self-defense” by the government agencies.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remained silent on extrajudicial killings and custodial for a long time, but while visiting London recently, she said that her government is trying to reduce such practices. The fact, however, remains that her government has been ignoring or violating an earlier High Court order to completely stop extrajudicial killings and custodial torture by the security forces.

Custodial Deaths of BDR prisoners

In the aftermath of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) tragedy on February 25-26 in 2009, thousands of BDR personnel were detained for interrogation and trial. Many of those prisoners met with “unnatural deaths” while in custody. According to informed sources, some key witnesses simply “disappeared”. The number of deaths cited earlier does not include the custodial deaths of BDR prisoners. According to Odhikar, a total of 51 BDR members died during February to 31 December, 2009. Among them, 26 BDR members died while in custody, of which 6 have allegedly died due to torture. Some sources suggest that the “unnatural deaths” of BDR members in custody were close to 100. We do not know exactly how many of the thousands of detainees were illegally tortured, but considering the history of barbaric torture of our “crime investigators”, one may presume that the number would run into hundreds, if not thousands. Allegations of serious torture to extract confessional statements have been made.

Immediately after the BDR massacres, the government instituted three different committees for investigations into the tragedy. None of these reports were made public by the government, but one document (Anisuzzaman Report) was leaked and published in the internet. This report thoroughly discredited the original government version that the “Islamic militants were behind the massacre to destabilize the AL government”, as no connection with the so-called Islamic militants was found. Unfortunately, it failed to identify the main planners and masterminds behind the conspiracy. The names of some AL leaders were mentioned as holding secret meetings with some BDR conspirators before the massacre, but it is not known if those persons were interviewed by the investigating authorities for any information they might have withheld or on their alleged role in the incident.

Trials of hundreds of BDR personnel have been going on for more than a year but these are not completed yet. It has been widely alleged that there has been a cover-up in the investigation and trial process, which allowed the real masterminds to remain unexposed.

Killing Fields at Bangladesh Borders

One of the most significant but least discussed violations of human rights of Bangladeshi (and some Indian) citizens occurs along the India-Bangladesh border. Mainstream media including the TV channels and most of the otherwise outspoken members of the so-called “civil society” in Bangladesh remain mostly silent on the barbaric “shoot-to-kill” practices of India’s BSF along the border.

The problems along the border are not something new. There are cross-border movements of people living in the border area, without permission. These movements are of course illegal, and anybody doing this may be arrested, but the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) adopts a “shoot-to-kill” policy. This has resulted in regular and systematic violations of human rights for hundreds of Bangladeshis and also of some Indian citizens.

A BSF rifleman stands vigilant. Photo Credits: The Daily Star

The problems along the India-Bangladesh border and India’s barbed wire fence to prevent illegal cross-border movement of people and goods have been discussed in many media reports. Different human rights organizations including Odhikar compiled annual report on the number of people who become victims of BSF atrocities. According to Odhikar, 158 Bangladeshi citizens were killed, wounded, or otherwise harmed by the BSF and in a few cases by Indian citizens in 2010. During the last 10 years, the number of such victims is more than a thousand.

It is claimed that there exists friendly relations between the current governments of India and Bangladesh. This is basically true, but only to a certain extent. The fact remains that India’s border atrocities towards Bangladeshi citizens and frequent illegal intrusions of armed Indians with the help of BSF into Bangladeshi territories have not stopped. According to a media report, in the first four months (January-April) of the current year, 10 Bangladeshi nationals were shot dead in separate incidents by BSF across the Indo-Bangladesh border, while 42 others were injured during the same period.

India’s inhuman policy of killing unarmed Bangladeshis along the border was highlighted by Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in an article in the Guardian on January 23, 2011. The following extracts from this article would illustrate the point:

“Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings, in spite of evidence in many cases that makes it clear the killings were in cold blood against unarmed and defenseless local residents.

Shockingly, some Indian officials endorse shooting people who attempt to cross the border illegally, even if they are unarmed. Almost as shocking is the lack of interest in these killings by foreign governments who claim to be concerned with human rights. A single killing by US law enforcement along the Mexican border makes headlines. The killing of large numbers of villagers by Indian forces has been almost entirely ignored.

India has the right to impose border controls. But India does not have the right to use lethal force except where strictly necessary to protect life. Yet some Indian officials openly admit that unarmed civilians are being killed. The head of the BSF, Raman Srivastava, says that people should not feel sorry for the victims, claiming that since these individuals were illegally entering Indian territory, often at night, they were not innocent and therefore were a legitimate target.”

One very callous and cruel atrocity happened in the border area (Kurigram district) on January 7, 2011. A 15 year poor girl (named Felani) was caught in the barbed wire fence while crossing the border; the BSF shot her in cold blood and kept the dead body hanging on the barbed wire for five hours. The incident has been heavily condemned not only in India and Bangladesh, but also by The Economist.

The incident aroused so much indignation that the BSF DG was obliged to express regret with a promise that such killings would not happen again. Senior leaders of the AL government including the home minister and prime minister use most of their time to criticize the opposition political parties but remain totally silent about the border killings by BSF. The home minister is on record to say that she would request the BSF to use “rubber bullets” instead of live ammunition to shoot at the people along the border!

Frank D. Cipriani, the founder and CEO of the US-based The Gatherer Institute, in a very recent article, has termed India’s border policy as state-sanctioned murder. He has expressed his disgust at the lack of protests and calling India to task for its brutality by the major political parties in Bangladesh and also by the international community.

Referring to the BSF brutality as “The Border Massacres”, Mr Cipriani says, “I would proclaim it the duty of every Bangladeshi, and of all friends of Bangladesh to make the world see that the torture and killing of children, women and men is as outrageous when it befalls the poor and Muslim as it is when it befalls any other human being. This new killing, sheds light on 15-year-old Felani’s death in January, the fact that she was kept hanging on the fence crying for water, as she bled to death was intentional torture on behalf of the individuals India chooses to arm.” He also asks the questions, “What sort of inhuman troops does India arm to patrol the Bangladesh border? Where is the outrage?”

According to the author, “India is not interested in justice. Talks will continue (between the BSF and BGB), smiles, handshakes and photo ops will be the outcome. Soulless border guards will continue to patrol and India will send another smiling someone to make yet another promise. But the killings will continue.”

In his opinion, Bangladesh is an “easy target” and there is not enough international attention. The main reason for such neglect towards Bangladesh seems to be its identity as a Muslim country. “If the perpetrators had been Muslim and the victims Indian,” says Mr Cipriani, “the news would have made headlines in every newspaper in the world.” ■

[Parts of this essay are based on a talk given at Kings College , University of London , in February, 2011]

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Dr. K. M. A. Malik is an academic, author, columnist, and human rights campaigner.

He currently  resides in Cardiff UK, where he lectures at Cardiff University.

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