(New York) – The government of Bangladesh should order a re-trial of 847 military personnel accused of murder, sexual assault, and other atrocities during the 2009 Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny due to serious violations of fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said today. Bangladeshi authorities should commission a thorough, independent review of both the BDR trials and verdicts, including the impending October 30 verdict which may see the death penalty imposed, and then initiate a more credible inquiry and prosecution process.
“Trying hundreds of people en masse in one giant courtroom, where the accused have little or no access to lawyers is an affront to international legal standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should instead immediately initiate a credible and fair trial to get justice for the mutiny victims and their families.”
The violations of fair trials standards include torture and other abuse while in custody in order to extract confessions and statements. At least 47 suspects have died in custody. In addition, BDR suspects have had limited access to lawyers, and to knowledge of the charges and evidence against them. Human Rights Watch has documented these abuses in both a 57-page report in July 2012, as well as in numerous press releases.
On February 25 and 26, 2009, members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), since renamed the Bangladesh Border Guards, mutinied against their commanding officers at the central Dhaka headquarters in Pilkhana Barracks. The mutiny, believed to be triggered by longstanding grievances among the BDR’s lower ranks, led to the killing of 74 people including 57 army officers. A number of women relatives of the officers suffered sexual assault. While it is crucial that those responsible for the horrifying violence are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch found that the trials in military and civilian courts did not meet international fair trial standards.
The then-newly elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina negotiated a settlement to end the mutiny. However, after the mutineers surrendered, the authorities responded with mass arrests of more than 6,000 BDR personnel. BDR battalion personnel were tried together, often several hundred at a time. Most of these trials were held under the BDR’s own laws, under which the highest sentence is seven years’ imprisonment. However, the authorities prosecuted an additional 847 BDR defendants under Bangladesh’s criminal laws, which could result in death sentences for some of the accused.
Family members of detainees and local media raised serious allegations of torture and custodial deaths. Detainees were subjected to beatings, often on the soles of their feet or palms of their hands, and to electric shocks. Some victims described being hung upside down from the ceiling. Many of those who survived the torture suffered long-term physical ailments, including kidney failure and partial paralysis. Although prosecuting counsel told Human Rights Watch that evidence obtained under torture would not be used at trial, defense counsel said these statements were in fact part of the evidence produced in court against their clients.
Instead of probing the allegations of serious violations of human rights and due process, the government has dismissed the concerns. Human Rights Watch calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to establish an independent task force with sufficient expertise, authority, and resources to rigorously investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute all allegations of unlawful deaths, torture, and mistreatment of suspects in the mutiny.
“Torture is routinely used in Bangladesh, and if the government continues to ignore credible allegations of torture of BDR mutiny suspects, the culture of impunity in the country’s security forces will simply continue,” Adams said. “The government champions its supposed zero tolerance for torture, but in fact does nothing to make this talk reality.”
Human Rights Watch also calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to undertake a thorough review of the entire mutiny trials processes, including those which have already concluded. The possible use of capital punishment in the upcoming verdict against the 847 accused further heightens existing fair trial concerns, particularly if torture was used to obtain evidence.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases as a fundamentally cruel and irreversible punishment.