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(New York) - The Bangladeshi government should take immediate steps to stop extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests by the security forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

According to local human rights groups, Bangladesh’s security forces are implicated in a spate of extrajudicial killings since a state of emergency was declared in the country on January 11. The killings have been attributed to members of the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force.

“A state of emergency cannot justify killings by the security forces,” said Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The government should put a quick stop to these abuses.”

Bangladesh is in a period of political uncertainty as the country’s caretaker government, tasked with running the country until elections, negotiates with the main political parties over an election date and proposed electoral reform.

The recent upsurge in reported extrajudicial killings by security forces began on January 11, when the first caretaker government head declared a state of emergency and resigned. After weeks of violent protests, elections originally set for January 22 were indefinitely postponed.

Eleven days later, on January 22, the Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar said that, in the period January 12 to 21, security forces had killed 19 people, either in custody from torture or in what the security forces attributed to “crossfire” during arrest. Two people reportedly died while trying to escape arrest.

Based on press accounts and its own investigations, Odhikar attributed eight deaths to RAB, five to the police, and four to the army. Another Bangladeshi human rights group, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), reported that five people had died in army custody alone since the state of emergency.

The main English-language newspaper Daily Star reported on January 22 that three people had died in army custody hours after their arrests, although it is not clear if these people are included in the count from human rights groups. The paper also reported on the two men who died while trying to escape.

Killings in custody have been a persistent problem in Bangladesh. During the last large-scale military deployment in 2002, at least 50 people died in army custody in unclear circumstances. To date, no military personnel are known to have been held criminally responsible for any of the deaths.

In December 2006, Human Rights Watch documented killings by RAB in a detailed report, “Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Torture and Extrajudicial Executions by Bangladesh’s Elite Security Force.” RAB has been implicated in more than 350 killings in custody since 2004, the report said.

Human Rights Watch called for an independent inquiry into allegations of these and previous extrajudicial killings, and for the government to make the findings public.

“The government’s first step must be to issue a direct order not to kill suspects in custody,” Adams said. “The government should then aggressively investigate and hold all those who violated the law accountable, or its reputation inside Bangladesh and abroad will suffer.”

Human Rights Watch pointed out that as of January 1, Bangladesh was contributing 9,681 military and police to UN peacekeeping operations, second only to Pakistan.

“Extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh’s security forces put the country’s reputation as a respectable contributor to UN peacekeeping forces at risk,” Adams said.

Since the current caretaker government assumed power with army backing on January 12, the army, police and RAB have conducted what they call an anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign.

On January 13, the police said that security forces had arrested 2,552 people on “various charges.” On January 17, the government asked the army to stay on the streets for as long as it takes to restore law and order. That day, the home ministry said that police and RAB had arrested more than 1,700 people. Three days later, the police said they had arrested 2,265 people during the previous 24 hours.

The arrests include politicians and activists from both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. Some of the arrests were of senior party members accused of corruption or ties to underworld gangs.

Human Rights Watch called for the release of Aminul Islam and Abul Kashem Palash. On January 12, members of RAB arrested the two leaders of the Association of Development Agencies of Bangladesh, an organization of some 1,150 nongovernmental organizations across the country. They were reportedly held in incommunicado detention until January 23, when family members were allowed to visit. On January 16, the High Court directed the Bangladeshi government to show cause within 10 days why the detentions should not be considered illegal. The court will review the case on February 5.

“Arrests must be carried out in accordance with the law and due process, not by rounding up huge numbers of people who may or may not have broken the law,” said Adams. “Putting NGO leaders in prison and holding them incommunicado without any apparent grounds is indefensible.”

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