(New York) - The Bangladeshi government should immediately stop the mass trials of the alleged mutineers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) to ensure fair trials, Human Rights Watch said today. Those responsible for killing 74 people during the February 2009 mutiny by the border guard unit should be held accountable, but in trials in military and civilian courts that meet international fair trial standards.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the mass trial completed on June 27, 2011, in which 666 members of the 24th Border Guards Battalion were tried before the BDR tribunal, a military court. All but nine were found guilty and sentenced to terms ranging from four months to seven years in prison.
"It is impossible to try hundreds of people at the same time and expect anything resembling a fair trial," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The massacre shocked Bangladesh, but each of the accused should only be found guilty if the government provides specific evidence against them."
On February 25 and 26, 2009, members of the Bangladesh Rifles, since renamed the Bangladesh Border Guards, staged a mutiny against their commanding officers, killing more than 70 people and subjecting others to sexual violence. Under pressure from the army, which had urged the government to use overwhelming force against the BDR compound in a heavily populated area of the capital, Dhaka, the authorities responded with mass arrests of more than 6,000 members of the unit.
The accused have been held and prosecuted in violation of Bangladesh's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Many were detained without charge for several months. The government has not produced individualized evidence against each detainee. All 6,000 accused face trials before special BDR tribunals created after the massacre. Some 847 of the accused also face charges under the Bangladesh Criminal Code, some of which carry the death penalty. Human rights groups documented the deaths of some of the accused in custody, including as a result of torture, in the first few months after the mutiny.
The detainees' lack of access to counsel remains a serious concern, Human Rights Watch said. From the time they were arrested in February 2009 until December 2010, the accused in the mutiny cases were not allowed to consult with their lawyers. Since then, they have been allowed a 20-minute consultation at the beginning and end of each court day and a 30-minute consultation in between.
Many of the accused in both the military and civilian cases have no legal counsel, in some cases for financial reasons and in others for lack of information. Lawyers involved in the cases have complained to Human Rights Watch that it is impossible to provide an effective defense to each accused with so many clients and so little time to talk to each accused.
The possible use of capital punishment in the upcoming criminal trial of the 847 accused heightens fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch said. According to the prosecutor's office, some defendants share their lawyers with as many as 12 others in the same case. In addition to the concerns about time for consultations, the potential for conflict of interest is significant, as evidence that could prove one person's innocence could indicate another's guilt. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases as a fundamentally cruel and irreversible punishment.
"The BDR mutiny was ugly and brutal, but the current approach appears to be a witch hunt against a group rather than an attempt to identify the individuals responsible for specific crimes," Adams said. "The government should rethink its approach to make sure the masterminds and perpetrators of serious offenses are brought to fair trial, but end the prosecutions of the rank-and-file who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."