Political Violence On All Sides

June 1996, Vol. 8, No. 6 (C)



The fierce struggle for power between Bangladesh’s main political parties has fostered a situation of lawlessness and civil strife in which wanton acts of violence and intimidation by both the former ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), backed by security forces, and the opposition parties, have become routine features of the political process. While in power, the BNP deployed the police, the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), and the army to counter the opposition’s two-year campaign of anti-government agitation, with grave human rights abuses taking place in the process, including torture, arbitrary detention and excessive and indiscriminate use of force in confrontations with demonstrators. Both the BNP and the opposition parties, led by the Awami [People’s] League, have used crude “cocktail” bombs, knives, and guns against one another and the police, causing scores of casualties. These abuses escalated in the months leading up to and following the February 1996 elections, polls that were rigged by the BNP despite an opposition boycott.

There is reason to believe that the political violence may recur as the country’s political parties prepare for new polls on June 12, 1996 or after the outcome of the election becomes clear. Nothing has been done since the discredited and violence-marred February election to account for serious human rights abuses committed by Bangladesh’s police, army and other security forces. At the same time, neither the BNP nor the Awami League has taken affirmative steps to ensure that their supporters and party cadres desist from the kind of violence that characterized their earlier political feuding. The head of an interim government formed when Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP finally stepped down on March 30, 1996 has warned that a fair poll is possible only with the restoration of law and order which, in turn, depends on the cooperation of the political parties.

In releasing this report on the eve of the June 12 election, we hope to pressure party leaders to hold their organized cadres accountable for acts of political violence and take concrete steps to end such acts by immediately and permanently disarming their youth and student wings. Party authorities should fully cooperate with investigations and prosecutions of cadre members and supporters responsible for murder, assault, arson, intimidation, destruction of property and other crimes. Human Rights Watch calls upon all political parties to respect the rights of citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly and association guaranteed by international law. President Biswas and the political parties should extend their full cooperation to the caretaker government to ensure that meaningful and fair elections take place on June 12. The interim authority and the government formed pursuant to the June polls must also ensure that police and members of other security forces act within the law; law enforcement personnel who participated in or refused to prevent violent attacks, or abused their authority in any way during the recent political crisis, must be brought to justice. In his capacity as head of the Defense Ministry, President Biswas should demonstrate the same commitment with respect to the armed forces, and make certain that army personnel who have committed human rights violations are punished for their actions and not granted further career promotions.

The international community also has a role to play in pressing the chief contenders for power—the BNP and the Awami League—to disarm their militant cadres to allow for a free poll. At the annual meeting of the donor consortium for Bangladesh, scheduled for July 1996, donor countries and the World Bank should urge whichever party comes to office pursuant to the June poll to impartially investigate all reports of abuse and violence and punish the perpetrators as required by law. Whichever party attains power must also be prepared to ensure that the police and other security forces consistently abide by international human rights law.

Human Rights Watch has concluded that in the election-related violence, the BNP, the security forces and the opposition parties all violated their obligations under domestic and international law. Specifically, the election-related violence is the sort of situation addressed by the Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards adopted by a group of experts in Turku-Abo, Finland in 1990. The Declaration applies to situations of “internal violence, disturbances, tensions and public emergencies” and specifically holds not only governments but “all persons, groups and authorities, irrespective of their legal status” responsible for protecting individuals against, among other things, murder, torture, mutilation, rape, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, pillage, deliberate deprivation of access to necessary food, drinking water or medicine, and unacknowledged detention. The Declaration is meant to codify many existing international law standards and to clarify their applicability to “gray area” situations not adequately covered by peacetime human rights law but that also fall short of the definition of armed conflict. Its importance derives not only from the recognition enjoyed by the jurists who drafted it, but by the fact that it was endorsed by the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in October 1994 and by the Budapest review meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in December 1994. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights has asked governments to comment on it with a view to its adoption soon. For these reasons, although this Declaration is not a binding instrument at this time, Human Rights Watch believes that it constitutes an authoritative guideline by which to judge the conduct of governments and non-state actors in situations of civil strife.

Both ruling party and opposition leaders and supporters have violated these minimum standards. Both sides have used and sometimes armed their youth wings to perpetrate violence against opponents. Just before the February polls, gun battles and other armed confrontations broke out frequently in the streets of Dhaka, the capital, and other cities. Several newspaper offices were attacked in the main cities, and journalists and news photographers reporting on the violence were assaulted and threatened. Mobs organized by opposition leaders in Chittagong engaged in arson attacks that destroyed millions of dollars worth of property and endangered dozens of individuals.

Although acts of intimidation and violence by the opposition clearly required a government reaction, the response by the police and other security forces to most of these acts of violence was both disproportionate to the threat and partisan. Although the police and paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) responded to serious armed clashes with tear gas and rubber bullets, on some occasions they also fired indiscriminately at demonstrators in violation of the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Subsequent to such clashes, the police and paramilitary also resorted to indiscriminate arrests of suspected opposition supporters, in some cases arresting children. On the pretext of searching for illegal arms, the police conducted a brutal raid at Dhaka University, beating and arresting minority students, many of whom were not politically active. The police also assaulted journalists who attempted to report on or photograph police abuses, and while they arrested opposition activists for acts of violence, they failed to arrest BNP militants who had engaged in similar crimes. During an arms recovery drive ahead of the February election, the army engaged in indiscriminate beating of villagers, arbitrary arrest and torture.

Two of the most serious incidents of brutality by the security forces were a military raid on Charsayedpur village in Narayanganj district in which army troops terrorized the entire village and a police/BDR raid on Jagannath Hall, a Dhaka University dormitory for religious minority students, in which approximately 150 students were injured. During the Charsayedpur raid—carried out on February 4 in retaliation for an attack by some villagers on a small group of military personnel the previous day—army troops stormed over a hundred houses, destroying property and indiscriminately beating villagers. Three villagers were arbitrarily detained, and one of them was severely tortured in custody. The police/BDR raid on Jagannath Hall, a stronghold of the Awami League’s student front, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), followed a shoot-out on the university campus between BCL activists and the police. Police detained ninety-five students after forcibly entering student rooms and dining halls, beating students with rifle butts and lathis (wooden batons), and cursing them with anti-Hindu epithets. The government failed to hold abusive forces accountable for illegal actions.

The government also initiated a spate of arrests of key opposition figures in an attempt to dampen the opposition’s anti-government agitation, which had intensified in the wake of the February 1996 election denounced as “farcical” by Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. Anwar Hossain Manju and Moudud Ahmed of the Jatiya Party and Mohammad Nasim and Matia Choudhury of the Awami League were arrested on February 24. Another two leaders, Abdul Kader Mollah of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Tofayel Ahmed of the Awami League were picked up on February 27. All six, who were held for about two weeks and released, were arrested under the Special Powers Act of 1974 which authorizes the government to detain any person for up to four months without charge or trial. Police reportedly raided the homes of Awami League leaders Amir Hossain Amu, Abdur Razzak and Suranjit Sengupta on February 24 but were unable to locate them. Also in February, at least one journalist was arrested and detained for over a month under the Special Powers Act.

Since mid-1994 opposition parties led by the Awami League had waged their political campaign and street agitation to force then prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia to hold early parliamentary polls under a neutral interim government. The success of the opposition’s political campaign depended in significant measure on acts of violence and intimidation by members of its youth and student wings. All the major political parties have well-armed youth wings and student fronts whose criminal activities are tolerated and even encouraged by party leaders. The BNP sponsors the Jatyabadi Jubo [Youth] Dal and the Jatyabadi Chhatra [Student] Dal (JCD) while the Bangladesh Jubo League and the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) are affiliated with the Awami League. During the long-running stand off between the opposition and the government, militant cadres of all political parties engaged in factional fighting, sabotaged their rivals’ political rallies and meetings, and carried out bomb and arson attacks on party bureaus, newspaper offices, government buildings, and polling centers.

In their efforts to bring pressure to bear on the government, opposition political parties organized a series of strikes all over the country, frequently relying on intimidation and violence to keep people and transport off the roads. The opposition also orchestrated massive street demonstrations, marches and sieges of government offices that frequently turned violent, leading to loss of life, thousands of casualties, and extensive property damage. The port city of Chittagong, whose powerful mayor is an influential Awami League leader, suffered widespread destruction at the hands of opposition protesters; on February 28, 1996, marauding crowds rampaged through the city ransacking offices, gutting buildings and damaging vehicles in protest at the mayor’s arrest under the SPA earlier that day. (The mayor, A.B.M. Mohiuddin Ahmed, was released on March 11.)

The press was victimized by all sides during the prolonged political stalemate and related disturbances. Newspaper offices were attacked by partisans of all stripes, journalists were imprisoned by the government, and reporters and news photographers on the job were frequently beaten up by the police or by political activists with various affiliations. Newspaper editors reported stiff pressure to engage in self-censorship from all sides. Certain papers loyal to the Awami League told Human Rights Watch that they were intimidated into self-censorship by their own party.

This report is based on an investigative mission to Bangladesh by two Human Rights Watch/Asia researchers in April and May 1996. It documents a few of the many instances of abuse by police, army and other security forces that took place between January and March 1996. The report also documents violent actions by activists of major political parties that were tolerated or encouraged by senior party officials.



Human Rights Watch makes the following recommendations for action to be taken prior to June 12 by all of Bangladesh’s political parties, President Biswas, the caretaker government and the international community, as well as after June 12 by the government to address the incidence of human rights violations in the country.

To All Political Parties
Political parties should hold their own cadres accountable for acts of political violence and take concrete steps to end such acts by immediately and permanently disarming their student and youth wings and bring to justice members known to have participated in acts of murder, assault, arson, intimidation, destruction of property and other crimes. Political parties should fully cooperate with investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for criminal acts.

Political parties should desist from engaging in violent acts of political protest that contravene the Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards, endorsed by the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in October 1994, and Bangladesh law.

Political parties should fully respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as described under Articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and ensure that fair elections take place on June 12 in accordance with Article 25 of the ICCPR and Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To the Future Elected Government
The government should ensure that the police and paramilitary forces are instructed in non-lethal methods of crowd control, in accordance with the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and those methods should be made available. The government should also institute mechanisms to review such training on a regular basis.

The government should require that police register all criminal cases, regardless of the political affiliation of the perpetrators, and enforce this regulation through appropriate disciplinary measures. During periods of heightened political tension, the government should establish a non-party civilian board, which would include representatives for a range of political groups and headed by a magistrate or other competent judicial authority, mandated to review police registers and conduct spot inspections of lock-up and jail facilities.

The government should institute measures to end the practice of torture. At a minimum these should include swift prosecutions and punishments for all members of the police, paramilitary forces and army responsible for torture; frequent inspections of all lock-ups by judicial magistrates; and the elimination of all temporary detention centers. Detainees should be allowed immediate access to lawyers, family members and medical care.

The government should bring to justice members of all state security forces, including the police, BDR and army, who participated in or refused to prevent violent acts or abused their authority in any way during their deployment to restore civic peace in the country. The steps the government has taken in this regard should be made public.

The government should investigate and prosecute in a nonpartisan and even-handed manner all acts of politically-motivated violence and intimidation committed during the recent political crisis.

The government should repeal the Special Powers Act of 1974 and immediately review the cases of all those detained under it with a view to releasing them.

The government should demonstrate its commitment to human rights by ratifying or acceding to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

To President Biswas
In his capacity as head of the Defense Ministry, President Biswas should ensure that members of the armed forces are held accountable for abusive actions. He should set up an independent and impartial review board to make certain that personnel who have committed human rights violations are not granted career promotions.

To the Caretaker Government
The caretaker government should immediately release all persons arbitrarily arrested and detained during the opposition’s anti-government agitation.

The caretaker government should order a prompt and independent inquiry into cases pending against Jagannath Hall students, Charsayedpur villagers, journalists and others indiscriminately rounded up during the recently-concluded security crackdown and order the withdrawal of all unwarranted and unfounded charges. The findings of the inquiry should be made public.

To the International Community
The international community should press both parties with aspirations to govern the county—the BNP and the Awami League—to disarm their militant cadres and to be prepared, if elected to office, to fully investigate all reports of violence and abuse and punish those responsible as required by law. These concerns should also be forcefully raised by donor countries and the World Bank at the annual meeting of the donor consortium for Bangladesh scheduled for July 1996.






Village of Charsayedpur, Narayanganj District: February 3 and 4, 1996

Jagganath Hall Incident: January 31, 1996

Uttara Incident: March 2, 1996
Tongi and Sherpur Incidents: February 26, 1996
Narayanganj Incidents
Arson Attacks by Awami League Activists in Chittagong: February 28, 1996

Rajshahi Incident
Feni Incident
Ajker Kagoj Newspaper
Chittagong Incidents


Human Rights Watch      June 1996      Vol. 8, No. 6 (C)

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