(Kolkata) - India and Bangladesh should take immediate steps to end the killing of hundreds of their citizens at the West Bengal-Bangladesh border by India's Border Security Force (BSF), Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Indian government should prosecute BSF soldiers responsible for serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The 81-page report, "‘Trigger Happy': Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border," documents the situation on the border region, where both Bangladesh and India have deployed border guards to prevent infiltration, trafficking, and smuggling. Human Rights Watch found numerous cases of indiscriminate use of force, arbitrary detention, torture, and killings by the security force, without adequate investigation or punishment. The report is based on over 100 interviews with victims, witnesses, human rights defenders, journalists, law- enforcement officials, and Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifles' (BDR) members.
"The border force seems to be out of control, with orders to shoot any suspect," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The border operations ignore the most basic rule of law, the presumption of innocence."
Since both Indians and Bangladeshis have fallen prey to this excessive use of force, both governments need to open a joint independent investigation to turn the situation around, Human Rights Watch said.
Many people routinely move back and forth across this frontier to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs as well as for both petty and serious crime. The border forces are charged with intercepting illegal activities, especially narcotics smuggling, human trafficking for sex work, and transporting fake currency and explosives. They are also charged with restraining militants who are plotting violent attacks.
In many of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the victims were cattle rustlers -farmers or laborers hoping to supplement their meager livelihood as couriers in the lucrative but illegal cattle trade that is rampant at the West Bengal border. Alauddin Biswas, a border resident, described the killing of his nephew who was suspected of cattle rustling by border guards in March 2010:
I went to see the body. It was lying 5 or 6 kilometers away from our house. There were police and politicians. We all saw that the BSF had shot him while he was lying on his back. They had shot him in the forehead and the bullet had pierced through and was lying a few inches inside the ground. If he was running away, he would have been shot in the back. They just killed him...
Over 900 Bangladeshi nationals have been killed by the BSF over the last decade, many of them when they crossed into Indian territory for cattle rustling or other smuggling activities. However, in several cases we also found that Bangladeshi nationals were injured or killed due to indiscriminate firing from across the border. For instance, 13-year-old Abdur Rakib was shot as he was grazing his buffaloes near the border when a soldier opened fire. Another boy, Mohammad Omar Faruq, age 15, was injured.
The Indian government is constructing a fence close to the border to contain the infiltration of economic migrants from Bangladesh, as well as militant groups responsible for attacks on Indian citizens. The resulting limitations on freedom of movement of those wanting to access their own land closer to the border has led to hardship for border residents.
"Residents complain that intimidation, verbal abuse, and beatings are common, with border guards, particularly the BSF, treating everyone as suspects." Ganguly said. "The border force, with a peacetime mission of preventing illegal activity, is acting like it is in a war zone, torturing and killing local residents."
The border force justifies the killings by claiming that suspects were evading arrest, or that it had to fire in self-defense, Human Rights Watch said. But suspicion of a crime or evasion of arrest cannot alone justify the use of lethal force. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials calls upon officials to apply, as far as possible, nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Officials are required to exercise restraint and "act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense." Human Rights Watch found no evidence in any death it documented that the person was engaged in any activity that would justify such an extreme response.
Hundreds of complaints of mistreatment by the border forces have been filed, but no member of the force has been prosecuted. Human Rights Watch found that local police forces rarely register complaints against border security and sometimes encourage the victims to drop their cases, telling them that nothing will come of it. On one occasion, the police informed a victim that the border force had committed no crime, since it was there "to beat the people."
The Bangladesh government should vigorously protect the right to life of its citizens, even those who may be involved in illegal trade, and should call upon the Indian government to exercise restraint.
"Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called upon the Indian government to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations instead of letting its security forces get away with murder," Ganguly said. "The BSF insists that there are internal investigations, but why then is it so unwilling to reveal whether anyone has been punished for these killings."
Testimony From the Report
"The BSF personnel were frustrated because their suspects escaped. They surrounded the boys and without giving any reason, started beating them with rifle butts, kicking and slapping them. There were nine soldiers, and they beat my sons mercilessly. Even as the boys fell down, the BSF men continued to kick them ruthlessly on their chest and other sensitive organs...."
- Krishna Chandra Mondal, father of three boys arbitrarily beaten by the BSF.
"At around 3 a.m. we decided to cross the Indian border. While passing a field we did not notice that some BSF soldiers were hidden there. As soon as the BSF saw us, they started firing without warning. On that night, the BSF shot at least 30 rounds. I had never experienced such firing from the BSF before."
- Nazrul Islam, Bangladeshi, injured by indiscriminate BSF shooting.
"I had taken our three buffaloes for grazing in the field...about 50 yards from the border. It is a common grazing ground and a lot of other boys were feeding their buffaloes in the same field....A young boy was catching fish in the lake.... A BSF soldier was standing at the border and loudly talking to the boy who was catching fish. It seemed that he wanted the boy to give him some free fish.... Soon they started to verbally abusing each other and then the BSF pointed a gun at the boy. The boy ran and the soldier started to shoot. I think maybe about seven to ten rounds were fired... I was hit on the right hip and fell down."
- Mohammad Omar Faruq, 15, injured by BSF shooting recounts the death of 13-year-old Abdur Rakib.