With new protests planned in the coming days, the Bangladeshi government should ensure that the security forces immediately end their practice of using excessive force against protesters. The government should appoint an independent commission to investigate the deaths of dozens of protesters, including children, since large-scale street protests began in February, and prosecute anyone responsible for unlawful killings and use of force.
Eyewitness accounts obtained by Human Rights Watch demonstrate that police, the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB), and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have shot live ammunition and rubber bullets into unarmed crowds, conducted sweeping arrests, and used other forms of excessive force during and after protests that began in February and continue. The use of lethal force has taken place in multiple locations in the capital, Dhaka, as well as the northern and southern districts of the country.
“Security forces confronted with large groups of demonstrators have opened fire on crowds, often without warning, killing unarmed protesters and bystanders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that this stops, and to replace officials who have failed to properly supervise forces under their control.”
Human Rights Watch also called on opposition parties to condemn and take steps to deter their supporters from carrying out unlawful attacks, including on law enforcement officers or members of the public with different political views. Eight police officers have been killed during protests. The government has blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for the killings.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed family members and obtained medical reports which describe entry and exit wounds consistent with the use of live ammunition. In the majority of the cases documented, protesters were shot in the head, chest or stomach. In at least 6 instances the victims were children.
One witness to the shooting of his unarmed 17-year-old family member described what took place after he was shot while walking back from afternoon prayers:
I saw [him] on the ground with blood coming from his head. I tried to drag his body to the side. It was the first time I had seen a dead body so I was in shock. They were still shooting, so I ran down the road. … When the RAB officers stopped shooting they dragged [him] like a carcass and flung him into the car.
Most of the deaths of protesters occurred in the week after the February 28 verdict by Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentencing Jamaat leader Delwar Hossein Sayeedi to death. Human Rights Watch interviewed eyewitnesses who described protests that broke out in cities and villages around the country. In some cases they said protesters threw bricks and stones at security force barricades and police responded with the use of live fire.
Human Rights Watch also documented the deaths of 8 police officers and 3 Awami League (AL) protesters during the recent violence. On April 11 in Chittagong, district clashes broke out between AL supporters and opposition protesters from the BNP and Jamaat during a recent hartal (strike). Three AL supporters/members, including a 17-year-old, were beaten to death with iron rods as crowds watched. Human Rights Watch has obtained and verified video footage of the incident.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to publicly order the security forces to follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”
“These were usually large demonstrations, sometimes with thousands of people on the street, so it is understandable that the security forces were nervous,” Adams said. “But when security forces fire live rounds into a crowd at head and chest height, they know there are going to be casualties and possibly deaths.The killing of demonstrators and police officers need to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible should be held accountable.”
Although BNP and Jamaat recently postponed their planned May 2 strike after the collapse of a garment factory building which killed hundreds, Hefazat-e-Islam, the conservative Muslim group that draws support from thousands of religious seminaries, has called for a “siege of Dhaka” on May 5 that will likely spur demonstrations throughout the country.An April 6 “long march” drew tens of thousands of Hefazat-e-Islam supporters to Dhaka, while related demonstrations took place around the country.
“Bangladesh is facing some of the most serious political unrest it has seen in decades, and protests are being called on a weekly basis,” Adams said. “Bangladeshi security forces need to be reined in and held accountable for their actions, or the situation could spin out of control.”