(New York) - The Bangladeshi government should take urgent action to make good on its campaign promise to end impunity for human rights abuses and to establish the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Successive governments have promised but failed to ensure that law enforcement officials and soldiers responsible for abuses are brought to justice.
The 76-page report, "Ignoring Executions and Torture: Impunity for Bangladesh's Security Forces," details the involvement of soldiers, paramilitary officers, and police in so-called "crossfire killings" and other custodial killings, torture, "disappearances," and arbitrary arrests. It examines a number of cases that have received national and international attention, in which those responsible have not been prosecuted. Facing constant threats, harassment, and even physical abuse, victims and family members have often been forced to abandon their efforts to seek justice, and the suspected perpetrators have continued serving in the security forces.
"If you are a soldier, a member of the Rapid Action Battalion or the intelligence services, or a police officer, you can get away with murder in Bangladesh," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But those who kill or torture should be behind bars with other violent criminals."
Over the past five years, the military, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) - an elite crime-fighting force - and the police have been responsible for well over 1,000 killings. Human Rights Watch and others have long contended that many of these deaths, often described as "crossfire killings," were actually extrajudicial executions of people in custody. Bodies of the victims often had wounds that suggested that they had been tortured. While there have been far fewer extrajudicial killings since the new government took power in January 2009, new cases have begun to emerge in recent weeks and no one has been held accountable for past abuses.
The report highlights the case of Choles Ritchil, a leader of the indigenous Mandi tribe, who was arrested and tortured to death by a group of soldiers in March 2007. It also describes how Khabirul Islam Dulal, a local politician in Bhola district, was tortured by navy officers in front of his family and neighbors a few weeks earlier. Although witnesses have identified suspects in both cases, no one has been prosecuted and imprisoned.
"The very forces tasked with upholding the law and providing security to the public have become well known for breaking the law in the gravest manner without ever facing any consequences," Adams said. "Forces such as RAB and the military intelligence agency DGFI have become symbols of abuse and impunity."
The report concludes that Bangladeshi governments since independence in 1971 have been unwilling to prosecute and punish state officers responsible for grave human rights violations. The problem is one of both law and practice. Alleged human rights violations should be investigated by an independent and neutral body, and archaic laws that shield security officials from prosecution should be amended. The report urges the government to set up a witness protection program and to prosecute or take disciplinary action against anyone who tries to stop or hinder a criminal investigation.
The situation is partially the result of an outdated legal framework under which law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces are shielded from prosecution. In violation of international legal standards, article 46 of Bangladesh's Constitution empowers parliament to pass laws that provide immunity from prosecution to any state officer for any act done to maintain or restore order, and to lift any penalty, sentence, or punishment imposed.
Soldiers and RAB officers are also protected from the civilian criminal justice system under rules that ensure that they can only be prosecuted in internal courts by their peers through processes that lack independence or impartiality. While the civilian courts have jurisdiction over cases involving police officers suspected of involvement in criminal activities, such officers are protected by Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which requires explicit government approval to prosecute an officer purporting to act in an official capacity. Several other laws state that no legal action can be taken against a person who in good faith acts to implement any of its provisions.
Foreign governments are well aware of the poor human rights record of these agencies, but nevertheless cooperate with and provide training to them.
For all of these reasons, senior law enforcement and military officers have never been under strong systemic pressure to ensure that soldiers, paramilitaries, or police officers operate within the law or human rights norms. They take for granted that they have complete discretion in carrying out their mandate, even if it includes the use of unlawful violence. They send the message to victims that anyone who attempts to hold them accountable will have to pay a high price and that, in any case, the efforts will be fruitless.
Bangladesh's new government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has declared a "zero-tolerance" policy for extrajudicial executions and stated that state officials who engage in such acts will be punished. There are, however, no indications that the authorities have initiated any serious investigations into past abuses or into credible allegations that several suspects in the February 2009 rebellion and massacre at the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, the country's border security forces, have been tortured and killed while in custody.
Given their long history of arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch recommends that DGFI and RAB be disbanded or, at the very least, that an independent commission be set up to assess their performance, identify and recommend for dismissal officers believed to be responsible for serious human rights violations, and develop an action plan to transform them into agencies that operate within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms.
DGFI's operations should be strictly limited to lawful military intelligence activities and in no circumstances should it have powers to detain or to engage in surveillance of the political opposition and critics of the government.
"As a party to the UN human rights conventions, Bangladesh is obliged to ensure that all violations - past and future - are investigated, and that those responsible are brought to justice," Adams said. "If Bangladesh is to become a country in which fundamental human rights are respected and the law is applied equally to the poor and the powerful, the existing culture of impunity has to be torn down."