(New York) – Authorities in India should investigate fresh allegations of human rights violations by the Border Security Force (BSF) along the Bangladesh border and prosecute those found responsible.
Despite assurances to the Bangladesh government and public orders to exercise restraint and end unlawful killings and attacks on suspected smugglers, evidence documented and published by Indian and Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations suggest that the BSF is once again committing abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents.
“The Border Security Force has reverted to its previous tactics of unilaterally punishing suspects, defying orders from Delhi issued last year to exercise restraint and protect the right to life,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the central government is also responsible, since it has failed to hold perpetrators accountable. Justice is the best deterrent against further violations.”
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch released “Trigger Happy, Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border,” which documented nearly 1,000 killings by the BSF over the last decade. In January 2011, the Indian government assured Bangladeshi officials that it would order the BSF to exercise restraint and encourage the use of rubber bullets instead of more lethal ammunition, steps welcomed by Human Rights Watch.
Although BSF attacks decreased significantly over the next year, the new evidence presented suggests that Indian border troops continue to frequently abuse both Bangladeshi citizens and Indian nationals residing in the border area. The recent allegations claim that in order to get around the restrictions on shooting at sight, BSF soldiers have been subjecting suspects to severe beatings and torture, resulting in deaths in custody.
Efforts by local residents and activists to file complaints and secure justice have resulted in threats and intimidation. The National Human Rights Commission has sought responses when allegations are filed, but without adequate witness protection complainants end up risking further abuse.
Large numbers of killings and other abuses have been reported in 2012. Odhikar, a Dhaka-based nongovernmental organization, has documented as many as 13 killings by the BSF since January 2012. Kolkata-based nongovernmental organization Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), has documented five other killings during the same time period, based on statements from witnesses and families of victims.
In one recent example, MASUM reported to the National Human Rights Commission of India that on April 22, 2012, soldiers from the BSF’s 91st battalion chased and shot 21-year-old Babu Seikh in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. According to MASUM, Seikh, along with three of his companions, was walking toward the marshland in the evening when they were chased by BSF soldiers who fired at them without warning. After a bullet hit Seikh, MASUM says that one of his companions saw the soldiers drag an injured Sheik to their camp nearby, where he later died in custody without access to medical attention. In another case, MASUM reported that on January 1, 2012, four Indian teenagers, accosted while smuggling cattle, jumped into a rivulet to avoid punishment. The BSF soldiers allegedly beat them when they tried to come out of the water. All four boys, severely injured because of the beatings, eventually drowned.
In another case, Odhikar reported that Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, a cattle trader who bought cows from India to Bangladesh and lived in West Khodaipur village of Dinajpur district, died on February 14, 2012, due to alleged torture by BSF soldiers. Rahman was caught by BSF soldiers when smuggling cows from India. According to Odhikar, he was then severely beaten near the border at Aboiter in Hili Thana, Gangarampur district in India. He was later taken by his companions to the Upazila Health Complex in Bangladesh for medical help, where he died at around 5:30 a.m. on February 14. The post-mortem report says Rahman died due to injuries to his head. At the time of death his right eye was missing; his right jaw, ear, and gums were crushed; and some brain matter had come out through a deep wound in his upper jaw.
Last year, MASUM released a video showing BSF soldiers brutally beating a Bangladeshi national caught smuggling cattle in West Bengal state. Eight soldiers were suspended but no further information is available regarding their prosecution or punishment.
Human Rights Watch knows of no cases in which BSF soldiers have been prosecuted for violations committed along the India-Bangladesh border. This includes a highly publicized case in which a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl trapped in the wire fencing at the border was shot by the BSF in January 2011.
“While the Indian government claims that it holds its forces accountable, it produces no information to show that this is actually happening,” said Ganguly. “There appears to be complete impunity for BSF soldiers – even in the most egregious cases. Unless the government orders an independent investigation and ensures the prosecutions of those against whom credible evidence is found, such acts of brutality will continue.”
The India-Bangladesh border is heavily populated and very poor, with large numbers of people moving back and forth 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. However, instead of arresting suspects and handing them over to the police for trial, BSF soldiers have taken it upon themselves to punish suspects.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to do more to ensure compliance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Given the failure of the BSF’s internal justice system to prosecute its members for human rights abuses, personnel of all ranks implicated in serious rights abuses should be investigated by civilian authorities and tried in civilian courts. This is particularly important because the BSF is now being deployed in security operations against Maoists in central and eastern India. Considering the widespread tendency to subject local residents at the Bangladesh border to verbal and physical abuse including severe beatings, the government should ensure a transparent system of accountability that will prevent violations in these areas.
The Bangladesh government, after initially failing to address this issue, finally began to call for the protection of its citizens. In March 2011, at a joint border coordination conference, Maj. Gen. Rafiqul Islam, head of the Bangladesh border guards, called on the BSF to respect the right to life and said that individuals “must be treated innocent unless and until he or she is proved to be a criminal or offender.” BSF director-general Raman Srivastava promised “to maintain utmost restraint on the border” and also provide troops “with non-lethal weaponry.”
“It is time for the Indian government to keep its promises to end abuses and hold its forces accountable,” said Ganguly. “At the same time, Bangladeshi government should publicly demand that the Indian government end this scourge of violence along their border.”