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Last Saturday night, Adilur Rahman Khan arrived home  in Dhaka after visiting his family over Eid to find a group of men waiting outside his house. Mr. Khan, secretary of the prominent Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar, had been expecting this day might come, but being confronted by members of the Detective Branch, who were there without a warrant late at night, was a surprise.

The police detained Mr. Khan, accusing him of publishing false information about killings by security forces during mass demonstrations by supporters of the extremist Hefazat-e-Islam movement in May. Mr. Khan is now in Dhaka’s central jail awaiting a court hearing later this week.

Mr. Khan’s arrest is yet another dark spot in the continuing struggle over the identity of Bangladesh, one that has already led to major human rights abuses in the name of both Islam and democracy.

This year has seen many mass protests in Bangladesh. With national elections scheduled for early 2014 and no agreement on how they should be conducted, many more demonstrations are likely, and they may well end up killing more people.

Protests in Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh broke out in February after a verdict in a war crimes trial enraged the public. After a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party, was convicted of rape and mass murder but not sentenced to death, huge numbers of protesters took to the streets in what became known as the Shahbagh movement (named after its location in Dhaka), calling for the death penalty for all those convicted of atrocities during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. In February, when another Jamaat leader was sentenced to death by hanging, others affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami protested the guilty verdict, at times resorting to violence.

In May, it all happened again, for ostensibly different but ultimately related reasons. On May 5, tens of thousands of madrassa teachers and students, including many boys under the age of 18, converged on Dhaka from different parts of the country. They were supporters of the previously little-known Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam) movement, which demands a strict adherence to Islamic teachings. Hefazat-e-Islam began its campaign in the aftermath of the Shahbagh movement, accusing some of the Shahbagh organizers of being atheists and insulting Islam. Large numbers of protesters were killed and injured by a heavy-handed police response to these protests.

This month, Human Rights Watch published “Blood on the Streets: The Use of Excessive Force During Bangladesh Protests,” a report documenting the shocking spike in deaths and injuries of civilians at the hands of security forces this year. While in many cases witnesses described how security forces responded to violence in an appropriate fashion, using nonlethal methods to disperse crowds, in many other cases witnesses said the police, the Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guard Bangladesh responded with excessive force.

Many in the Dhaka elite say that Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam represent the kind of religious fundamentalism that challenges the very concept of Bangladesh as an independent and secular state, which broke away from the more religious and authoritarian state of Pakistan in 1971. Many also wished for a separate cultural and linguistic identity. After the May protests, mainstream newspapers like the Daily Star warned against the “degradation of ideals and values that Islam stands for,” and the “odious misrepresentation of religion and denigration of position of women in our society.” Prominent bloggers have complained about religious extremism and the use of religion in politics.

At the heart of the violence threatening Bangladesh now are incidents and ideas related to the nation’s bloodied birth when it seceded from Pakistan. In 1971, the East Pakistan-based Awami League won the national elections. The Pakistani government, led by the military ruler General Yahya Khan, refused to accept the results. On March 26, it began Operation Searchlight, sending troops into East Pakistan to arrest Awami League leaders and put down protests. The army and vigilante groups supporting them, some of them affiliated to Jamaat-e-Islami, embarked on a massive wave of violence, including widespread rape. As many as 10 million people were displaced and fled to neighboring India, carrying tales of unspeakable horror. After nine months of violence, the Indian Army intervened and joined resistance forces to defeat the Pakistani Army. An independent Bangladesh emerged in December 1971, and its successful secession has remained a flashpoint of distrust between India and Pakistan.

In 1973, the Bangladesh Parliament passed the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act. But trials never took place as politics shifted in Bangladesh. In fact, many of those widely believed to have collaborated in the violence won elections or gained political positions. Bringing those responsible for the 1971 war crimes to trial still has considerable popular support.

After sweeping to power, the Awami League government in 2009 set up the International Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those Bangladeshis responsible for the 1971 atrocities. Finding evidence for crimes that occurred several decades ago was always going to be a challenge, but despite repeated calls for amendments to the law to ensure fair trials, the government quickly began putting people on trial, leading to serious due process concerns.

The tribunal has handed down six judgments so far. Controversy erupted after the second judgment, issued Feb. 5, found Abdul Qader Mollah, assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. When leaving court, Mr. Mollah flashed a “V for victory” sign to an assembled crowd and the media. Outraged that he appeared unrepentant, and fearful that a future opposition government would release him, many segments of the public called for Mr. Mollah to be hanged. The protests were initially based in the Shahbagh neighborhood of Dhaka but soon expanded, with hundreds of thousands of people demanding the death penalty.

On Feb. 28, the tribunal convicted the vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, of war crimes and sentenced him to death. Demonstrations broke out around the country, organized by both supporters and opponents of the verdicts. The violence resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries that included security forces, bystanders and  protesters like Manzila Begum, a clothes seller, who was killed on March 3 in Bogra. She was shot in the back of the head while trying to flee the violence.

A 17-year-old who had joined a pro-Sayedee demonstration in Ranjpur district on Feb. 28 said the protesters started throwing stones because they could not bear the tear gas. Two officers climbed a raised platform and fired into the crowd. “When they started shooting, two people behind me got shot, one of them near the ear, one in the throat,” the boy said.

Jamaat-e-Islami is a pro-Islamist party, but the Hefazat-e-Islam movement is much more radical. It has campaigned for its “13-point demands,” which include a ban on the public mixing of the men and women and the criminal prosecution of atheists. The May 5 rally in Dhaka was organized to push for the implementation of its demands. Government forces broke up the demonstration early the next morning.

Precisely what happened on May 5 and 6, when security forces dispersed the gathering, has become hugely controversial. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has accused the government forces of killing hundreds of protesters, describing their actions as “genocide.” The leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam said that they feared some 2,500 to 3,000 of their supporters may have been killed. The government, on the other hand, says the security forces conducted a well-planned and disciplined operation designed to minimize casualties.

According to findings by Human Rights Watch, none of these accounts is accurate. While the claims of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party lack credibility and those of Hefazat-e-Islam were overstated, the government’s version is also misleading. Serious human rights abuses were committed by the security forces and in total, based on hospital logs, eyewitness accounts and well-sourced media reports, at least 50 people died on May 5 and 6, including seven members of the security forces. The death toll may be higher, Odhikar said in the report that resulted in Mr. Khan’s arrest.

The demonstrators committed vandalism and arson, attacking security forces with sticks and stones, but victims’ statements suggest that security forces used excessive force, and in some cases fired at close range. A 25-year-old Hefazat-e-Islam volunteer said he was shot from barely a three-meter (10-foot) distance. “I was not armed; I did not a have a stick,” he said. “I was hit 19 times. Now I cannot see anything from my right eye.”

Video footage shows security personnel beating apparently unarmed men. An 18-year-old madrassa student said that he was beaten after he surrendered. “The moment I stepped out, I was struck by rubber bullets on the leg. I started bleeding and I ran away, but I fell down and they beat me with their sticks,” he said.

Since the protests, security forces have initiated sweeps of neighborhoods thought to harbor individuals believed responsible for violence, but they have also focused on others, including Jamaat-e-Islami supporters. While authorities arbitrarily arrested many protesters and supporters, there has been no effort to hold security forces accountable for abuses. Opposition media has been harassed and human rights groups feel at risk, particularly after the arrest of Mr. Khan.

The government appears confused in how to deal with Islamists and their opponents. In an effort to appease religious sentiment, the government arrested four bloggers in April, with the police describing them as “known atheists” and accusing them of “instigating negative elements against Islam.”

A Bangladesh court has recently upheld a petition seeking that Jamaat-e-Islami be banned from participating in national elections scheduled to be held by January 2014, while government supporters want to put the brakes on Hefazat-e-Islam, which they believe will work with opposition parties to destabilize the country. With regular hartals, or strikes, likely by opposition political parties in the run-up to national elections, there is a significant risk that Bangladesh could descend into a vicious cycle of violence and lawlessness.

To avoid this, the government should ensure that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression are upheld. Peaceful protesters and bystanders need to be protected from unlawful use of force. Organizers of demonstrations and political parties should also take steps to minimize the risk of violence. Those responsible for abuses need to be held accountable.

Government accountability is the first step towards stemming the possibility of more blood on the streets. Then a more sober and peaceful discussion about the future of Bangladesh will be possible.

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.


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