(New York) – The Bangladeshi authorities should halt ongoing mass trials, related to the 2009 mutiny by members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), which have been proven repeatedly to violate basic fair trial standards. On October 22 a military court convicted 723 of the 735 accused in the Sadar Battallion of the BDR, after a mass trial which did not meet fair trial standards.
“The atrocities that took place during the mutiny need to be investigated and prosecuted, but the authorities have allowed expediency to trump justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Mass and unfair trials have been staged with little concern for the rights of the accused.”
On February 25-26, 2009, members of the BDR, since renamed the Bangladesh Border Guards, staged a mutiny against their commanding officers, killing 74 and injuring many others. After the mutiny was quelled, the authorities responded with mass arrests of more than 6,000 BDR members from different units around the country. Members of each battalion have been tried together, often several hundred at a time.
The accused in the Sadar Battalion were charged with offenses under the BDR mutiny laws, which include disobeying orders, failure to report to duty, and aiding and abetting the mutineers. The highest sentence for these offenses is seven years, and the lightest is four months. Two of the accused died before the trial was completed, 10 were acquitted, and the remaining 723 were convicted.
“Each accused has the right to a fair trial, meaning there must be specific evidence against him, a lawyer with sufficient time and access to represent him, and an impartial court. None of these basic principles have been met.” said Adams. “It is likely that many of those convicted had nothing to do with the mutiny, causing them and their families massive and unnecessary hardship.”
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous concerns about these trials. In July 2012 Human Rights Watch released a report, “‘The Fear Never Leaves Me’: Torture, Custodial Deaths, and Unfair Trials After the 2009 Mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles,”which provided a detailed account of the mutiny and the response of the authorities. It documented serious abuses by the authorities in the aftermath, including at least 47 custodial deaths and widespread torture of BDR members by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and other security forces. The government has claimed that all deaths in custody were due to natural causes.
Human Rights Watch has documented how mass trials of hundreds of accused left most without adequate counsel, lack of adequate time to prepare a defense, lack of access to the evidence against them, or failure of the prosecution to even inform the accused or their family members of the charges against them.
The Bangladeshi authorities should establish an independent investigative and prosecutorial task force with sufficient expertise, authority, and resources to rigorously investigate allegations of human rights abuses after the mutiny, and to halt the mass trials, Human Rights Watch said.
Instead of responding to the concerns raised in the July report, senior members of the Bangladeshi government dismissed the report, both in meetings with Human Rights Watch and in public statements. Local groups who assisted Human Rights Watch’s research were denounced for working against the national interest. Defense lawyers who had given interviews for the report were verbally abused in the courts. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any efforts by any authorities to investigate the allegations in the report following a pattern of not responding to reports presented to it by human rights organizations documenting human rights abuses.
“The government’s failure to respond to allegations of torture means that security forces such as the Rapid Action Battalion will continue to commit abuses with impunity,” said Adams. “Senior officials’ knee-jerk reaction to simply deny the concerns raised by the report indicates that its aim is convictions without an interest in fair trials or the rights of the accused.”
Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern for the 847 accused who are currently on trial in a specially appointed civilian court established under the Bangladesh Criminal Procedure Code on serious criminal charges such as murder. Some of the charges in this case carry the death penalty as a possible sentence. Defense lawyers have told Human Rights Watch that the dossiers against the accused include statements taken under duress during interrogation and in the absence of counsel.
“The prosecution must really think hard about the implications of mass convictions for those facing the death penalty when the trial process has been so deeply flawed,” said Adams. “Mass unfair trials like these make a mockery of Bangladesh’s judicial process, and are simply an expedient means for political gain, not for justice.”