(New York) The Bangladesh government must revoke authority granted to the police to "shoot-at-sight" as part of its anti-crime campaign, Human Rights Watch said today.
Last week, the government announced that it would deploy paramilitary forces to combat a deadly crime wave of the past several months. Dhaka police chief Ashraful Huda told reporters that police have been directed to "shoot-at-sight" in self-defense or to protect the security of others.
"Using the term 'shoot-at-sight' is the wrong message for senior government officials to give to police officers, because it will inevitably be abused," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "A crime wave does not justify law enforcement that does not observe basic standards of due process."
Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure that its anti-crime activities are carried out in strict compliance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Where the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved. The U.N. Basic Principles further provide that the intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made "when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the proposal to form a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as part of the government's new anti-crime initiative. The RAB will include members of the armed forces, the police, and members of the Bangladesh Rifles and Ansars, both paramilitary groups.
During meetings held in April and May, the Bangladesh cabinet objected to the RAB proposals, fearing that the excessive authority of the new force may lead to widespread abuse of power. The Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, however, recommended the formation of the RAB in view of the law and order crisis in the country.
In October 2002, the Bangladesh government launched Operation Clean Heart, an army-led anti-crime initiative that led to thousands of detentions. The government credited the operation with reducing robberies, muggings, and extortions by criminal gangs. In January 2003, the troops were withdrawn following reports that over forty people had died in police custody. While authorities attributed many of the deaths to heart failure, relatives of the deceased claim they were tortured.
In February, Bangladesh's President Iajuddin Ahmed signed a controversial bill granting troops immunity from civilian court prosecution for custodial deaths and other abuses connected to the operation. Soldiers can still be tried under military law.
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Bangladesh to revoke civilian court immunity for military personnel and investigate and prosecute all allegations of deaths in custody and torture.
"After the serious abuses of the Clean Heart campaign, we are very concerned about the lack of accountability for police and army abuses," said Adams. "Any new anti-crime campaign must contain internal checks against abuses and a system for holding officials accountable."