(New York) – The Bangladeshi authorities should immediately set up an independent commission to investigate the large numbers of deaths and injuries during the Hefazat-e-Islaam-led protests in Dhaka and elsewhere on May 5-6, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today.
The commission should also investigate violence that killed dozens in February, March, and April after protests and counter-protests broke out after the announcement of verdicts by the country’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
The exact number of deaths during the May 5-6 protest remains unclear, with figures ranging from the official government figure of 11 deaths to Hefazat’s estimate of thousands. Independent news sources put the figure at approximately 50 dead, with others succumbing to injuries later. The dead include several security personnel.
“Bangladesh will see a plethora of demonstrations this year in response to additional verdicts from the ICT and in the run-up to national elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Without an independent investigation, accountability, and improved policing methods, we could see serial bloodbaths.”
Human Rights Watch said that political tensions are likely to increase as more war crimes verdicts are handed down at the ICT and as elections scheduled for late 2013 or early 2014 approach. Opposition parties, including Hefazat, have already announced several protests scheduled over the next week. A flashpoint could be the reaction to the May 9 death penalty handed down by the ICT against Mohamed Kamaruzzaman, a leading official of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Past war crimes verdicts have been a catalyst for protests and violence throughout Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch called on opposition parties such as the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jammat-e-Islami Party, as well as independent organizations such as Hefazat, 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.
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.”
Section 22 of the Basic Principles states that: “Governments and law enforcement agencies shall establish effective reporting and review procedures for all incidents…Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that an effective review process is available and that independent administrative or prosecutorial authorities are in a position to exercise jurisdiction in appropriate circumstances. In cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities responsible for administrative review and judicial control.” Section 23 states that, “Persons affected by the use of force and firearms or their legal representatives shall have access to an independent process, including a judicial process. In the event of the death of such persons, this provision shall apply to their dependants accordingly.”
“The Bangladeshi government has a responsibility to victims, whether protesters, bystanders or police, to ensure that an effective investigation is carried out into each death,” Adams said.
Hefazat, the conservative Muslim group that draws support from thousands of religious seminaries, led a “siege of Dhaka” on May 5, with demonstrations taking place in other parts of the country. Human Rights Watch said that claims of “genocide” by Hefazat and other opposition parties are unfounded and have only served to heighten tensions.
“The toxic swirl of rumor and rhetoric surrounding the protest of May 5-6 will only get worse unless the government acts quickly in a transparent manner,” Adams said. “Given the lack of trust between various parties, it is imperative that these answers come from an independent and impartial body.”
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Hefazat recruited boys from madrassahs to participate in the “siege.” Many of the boys were unaware of the risks of marching into Dhaka. Independent journalists told Human Rights Watch that after the protests were broken up by security forces, they encountered groups of boys who had never been to Dhaka before and were terrified by the experience of seeing dead bodies and large-scale violence. The boys asked journalists for directions to bus stations so they could go home. They were no longer accompanied by adults.
“Putting children in harm’s way is extremely irresponsible,” Adams said. “Hefazat can’t credibly claim that it didn’t understand the risks, particularly as many of its supporters engaged in attacks on police that were then met with an armed response.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure media and civil society are able to independently report on the protests. Two television stations that support opposition political parties, Islamic TV and Diganta TV, were taken off the air by the government on the night of May 5-6 and remain off the air at the time of writing. The stations were reporting live from the site of the protests. In April, the government shut down opposition newspaper Amar Desh and jailed its editor, Mahmdur Rahman, and other journalists. The government has also jailed some bloggers who had expressed atheist sentiments in their writings.
“The government’s claims to be the most open and democratic in Bangladesh’s history are undermined by censorship of critical voices,” Adams said. “The government can take reasonable steps to pre-empt incitement to violence, but it is not necessary to close TV stations to do this.”