(New York) - The Bangladesh government should protect detainees suspected of involvement in a February massacre of army officers from being killed or mistreated, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should ensure that those responsible for the massacre are held accountable, while ensuring that suspects are held in official detention centers, are quickly charged or freed, have access to lawyers, and, if charged, receive a fair trial in a civilian court.
The massacre on February 25 and 26, 2009, left more than 70 army officers and others dead. The massacre shocked and outraged the country and heightened tensions between the army and the recently elected government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. More than 1,100 people, including approximately 20 civilians, have reportedly been detained.
An April 23 statement of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the border guard security force whose members carried out the massacre, said that 16 detainees have died in custody - four from suicide, six from heart attacks, and six from other diseases. It also said that commanding officers had been instructed to make their men aware of "the negative aspects of suicide."
"Given the history of abuses by security forces in Bangladesh, there is no reason to take at face value the claim that these detainees have committed suicide," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to act immediately to make sure that there are no more deaths in custody."
Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of torture of detainees. On April 22, one of the suspects, Harunur Rashid Mia, told a Dhaka court that he had been detained by the Rapid Action Battalion for seven days and tortured with electric shocks.
Family members of Havilder Kazi Saidur Rahman, 46, a detainee reported to have died of cardiac arrest at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital on April 16, allege that torture marks were found on his body. Hospital records, seen by journalists, reportedly show that Rahman was already dead by the time he was taken to the hospital by a member of the border guards.
Other family members of detainees have publicly alleged that the men who died in detention were in good health before they were taken into custody. The family members have accused the security forces of torturing and killing detainees.
In the case of Mobarak Hossain, hospital staff have confirmed that his body had wounds indicating that torture had been inflicted.
The authorities have suggested that wounds on the bodies of people who died in custody could have been inflicted when they tried to escape following the rebellion.
"The explanations given by representatives of the security forces are simply not credible," Adams said. "Torture is a regular ‘investigation technique' in Bangladesh and killing of detainees in government custody is an endemic problem."
The detained suspects, who are being held by a range of law enforcement and security agencies, have in most cases been denied access to lawyers and family members.
Human Rights Watch said that the government should establish a commission, including lawyers, human rights workers, and other civil society representatives, to visit and monitor detention centers, ensure that detainees are properly treated, and document abuse allegations.
"The committee should be set up today and have access to all detention centers 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Adams. "To avoid future suspicious deaths, the government should transfer all detainees held by the military to civilian custody and instruct the police and prison officials not to lay a hand on any detainee."
Human Rights Watch called for the government to ensure that anyone accused of involvement in the massacre will be tried in regular civilian courts or a special civilian court created by new legislation. Senior army officers have demanded that detainees be tried in military courts, and the government is considering bringing the accused border guards before a military court martial. But border guards are not part of Bangladesh's Armed Forces. Under Bangladeshi law, the unit reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, not the Defense Ministry.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that the jurisdiction of military courts, if used at all, should be restricted to offenses of a strictly military nature, only when committed by military personnel, and only when the military courts provide full guarantees of a fair trial. The committee oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party.
"In this environment where the army is seeking retribution, there is no prospect of a fair trial by an independent judge in a military court," said Adams. "To try border guards before a military tribunal would be in violation of both domestic and international law."