(New York) - The government of India should undertake a speedy, fair, and transparent criminal investigation into fresh allegations of killings, torture, and other abuses by the Border Security Force (BSF) at the border with Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said today. Those against whom there is credible evidence of culpability should be prosecuted as part of an effort to end longstanding impunity for abuses along the border.
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Trigger Happy," documenting extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the BSF. In the past decade, the BSF has killed Indian and Bangladeshi nationals. After the release of the report, Indian authorities assured Bangladeshi officials that these killings would be stopped. The government announced that it would order restraint and encourage the use of rubber bullets instead of more lethal ammunition, steps welcomed by Human Rights Watch.
While the number of deaths due to shooting has substantially decreased in 2011, the Bangladeshi non-governmental organization Odhikar has documented at least 17 alleged killings of Bangladeshis by the border force and other instances of severe abuse since January. Local groups have documented several cases of deaths as a result of severe beatings by the BSF.
"Despite orders from New Delhi to end killings and abuse and to exercise restraint in dealing with people crossing the border, new deaths and other serious abuses are being reported," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "The government has issued some positive new directives, but it needs to prosecute those who commit abuses so the soldiers will understand they can't act with impunity."
MASUM, a Kolkatta-based non-governmental organization that conducts fact-finding in the border areas, reports that while the number of shootings at the border has significantly reduced, BSF soldiers have been brutally beating and torturing suspects. Indian residents in the border area, while expressing relief that the indiscriminate shootings have stopped, have complained about aggressive intimidation and beatings.
In one recent example, MASUM reported to the National Human Rights Commission of India that on July 13, a group of soldiers from the 91st battalion of the border force threatened a local human rights worker, Kanai Mondal, in the village of Char Rajanagar, holding a gun to his head to demand that he take down posters calling for an end to torture. The soldiers also threatened other activists and confiscated posters, MASUM said.
On June 30, BSF forces killed Mizanur Rahman, 25. According to Odhikar, he had slipped into India along with four other cattle rustlers, when border guards intercepted them. The others escaped, but the soldiers allegedly beat Rahman to death and dumped his body into the Saniyazan River.
On June 2, Odhikar documented two cases where BSF soldiers intercepted groups of cattle smugglers. According to Odhikar, Rafiqul Islam, 35, from Satkhira, was badly beaten and then dumped inside Bangladeshi territory, where Bangladesh Border Guards found him and took him to a hospital. In a separate incident, Indian soldiers caught Fazlur Rahman and his accomplices near the Panitor-Gazipur border. While the others escaped, Fazlur was badly beaten and left unconscious inside Bangladesh.
On April 18, 2011, border force soldiers killed Rekatul Islam, 17, as he and his accomplice, Mohammad Shahdat Hossain Odhikar, tried to smuggle cattle across the border. Shahdat said they were stopped by BSF soldiers as they tried to cross the border with 10 cows. Shahdat was injured, but escaped.
On April 9, MASUM reported that Biswanath Soren, an elderly Indian man, was beaten by border force troopers he believes were intoxicated. They brandished their firearms to intimidate him and finally released him, he said. Soren sent a written complaint to the police, but no action has been taken.
"The excessive use of force and the arbitrary beating of people along the border are unjustifiable," Ganguly said. "These abuses call into question India's stated commitments to the rule of law."
Many people routinely move back and forth across India's frontier with Bangladesh to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs. Others engage in petty and serious cross-border crime. The border force is mandated to address illegal activities, especially narcotics smuggling, human trafficking for sex work, and transporting fake currency and explosives. It also works to stop militants planning violent attacks in India's restive northeast.
In many of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, however, the victims were cattle rustlers, farmers, or laborers who said they were hoping to supplement their meager livelihoods by working as couriers in the lucrative but illegal cattle trade that is rampant at the West Bengal border.
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. One victim told Human Rights Watch that the police informed him that the border forces had committed no crime since they were there "to beat the people."
The Indian government needs to do more to ensure accountability for violations committed by the border force soldiers and to ensure compliance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said.
"While the Indian authorities vigorously protest attacks on fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters, they seem unwilling to act against their own border forces when they commit crimes against Bangladeshis," Ganguly said. "As a regional power, India should lead by example in South Asia to end the culture of impunity for security forces."