(New York) – Bangladesh’s government should publicly order security forces to avoid using lethal or excessive force when dealing with protesters. The leaders of all political parties, including Jamaat-i-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, should keep supporters from engaging in violence.
The government should set up an independent commission to carry out prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into the violence and hold all those responsible to account.
Security forces appear to have stepped up operations against the opposition in recent days. Jamaat supporters have attacked police posts, government buildings, ruling party activists, and Hindu communities. Media reports say that security forces have killed at least 20 opposition members during clashes and have arrested many more.
“Security forces and opposition militants are engaged in a vicious cycle of attacks that are leading to death, destruction, and fear,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Jamaat and others in the opposition may have legitimate reasons to hold protests, but that is no excuse for the appalling levels of violence by their supporters.”
Killings and injuries escalate
More than 100 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the past two months since the political crisis in Bangladesh began over upcoming elections and the conduct of war crimes trials. On December 14, for example, members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) entered the house of Fayez Ahmed, the 66-year-old deputy head of the Laxmipur district unit of Jamaat. His wife, Marzia Begum, said that they then took him up to the rooftop of the house, shot him in the head, and threw his body onto the ground. A RAB spokesman denied Ahmed had been shot and instead said he fell while trying to escape. RAB has a long history of claiming that detainees died while trying to escape or in crossfire.
The crisis worsened following the December 12 execution of a leader of the Jamaat party, Abdul Qader Mollah, who was found guilty of war crimes during Bangladesh's independence war in 1971.
Jamaat activists allege that many of their colleagues have been wrongfully arrested and mistreated by the police. One man described to Human Rights Watch an incident in Noakhali in southeastern Bangladesh on November 26 in which police seized a Jamaat leader and shot him in the leg before arresting him. This same witness said he was shot in the back as he walked away from police during a demonstration.
The Bangladeshi authorities are obligated to impartially investigate violence by protesters and the unlawful use of force by security forces, and to prosecute those responsible for carrying out or ordering such acts. In the past, the government has taken no action, even in cases of well-documented unlawful killings by the security forces during protests.
Human Rights Watch said the government should publicly order the security forces to follow the UN 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.”
Violence by members of opposition parties
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous serious acts of violence by opposition party members and supporters. For example, a doctor at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the country’s largest burns unit, told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had treated 83 victims of fire bombings, 14 of whom died. More than a dozen patients and their relatives told Human Rights Watch that while many had not seen who had thrown the bombs, others had been able to identify their attackers as opposition supporters.
Members of Jamaat and its youth wing, Shibir, and supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have engaged in countless attacks on security forces and others. Attacks have included throwing homemade grenades and petrol bombs at police, arson attacks to enforce a road blockade, derailing passenger trains, setting fire to the homes and businesses of Hindus and Awami League officials, and throwing grenades into crowded streets. More than 12 ruling party activists have reportedly been killed in one district, Satkhira, known as a stronghold of the Jamaat party.
Children have been killed and injured in the violence, including by picking up stray homemade grenades, Human Rights Watch said.
Opposition parties have organized a series of lengthy general strikes and transport blockades to force the government into reinstating the practice of holding elections scheduled for January 5, 2014, under a neutral “caretaker” administration. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has refused. United Nations-sponsored talks between the two sides have so far failed to resolve the impasse. Many senior opposition politicians have been arrested. With the deadline for submitting papers to stand for election now passed, more than half the seats in parliament will be uncontested.
“Bangladesh security forces and political parties have a long history of turning their members loose for political purposes, seemingly indifferent to the loss of life that results,” Adams said. “Most victims are ordinary citizens who have absolutely no involvement in politics, and political leaders should tell their supporters to stop endangering lives.”
Human Rights Watch Interviews on Recent Violence
Victims of Fire Bombings
Sumi Akhter and her two-year-old daughter, Sanjida, burned to death in Gazipur on December 10. Adam Ali, husband and father, said:
We were going to my home village in Sirajganj to visit my ailing father, who is 90. I am a security guard for a sugar mill and we were able to get a ride with one of the mill’s covered trucks. In Gazipur, the blockaders had put timbers and bricks on the road. Then they threw bricks at the truck to force it to stop. I told them not to throw the petrol bombs. I said, “Please show us some mercy, my family is inside, please don’t throw the bombs.” There were about 15 of them, aged 20 to 25. They saw my children were inside the cab. They shouted swear words at us then threw petrol bombs inside.
I jumped out of one door with two of my children and told my wife to get out of the other. But she was trapped inside along with my 2-year-old. The door was locked and they could not get out. They died in the van. After that I was lying semi-conscious on the ground when some of those men came up to me. “Whatever happened, happened, you have to get over it,” they told me.
Al Amin Mollah, a bus driver, suffered serious burns when attacked in Gazipur on December 3. He said:
I was transporting garment workers in my bus. They had just disembarked and I was parking when two people approached and threw the bomb. The bus was moving slowly. They saw me and they threw it. They were aged 25 to 30, wearing normal clothes. It was a small bottle made of metal. It hit me first then it caught fire and this spread onto my helper and across the dashboard. I jumped out, holding the bomb, to save the bus. I lost all hope of surviving. I could not see for three days. My eyes were closed, face swollen, and hair burned.
Hassan Mahbub, 42, a bus driver, suffered serious burns when the bus he was driving was attacked at the Shahbag intersection in central Dhaka on November 28. Four passengers died and others were injured. He said:
I was driving the bus at 70 to 80 kilometers per hour when all of a sudden two [young men] threw a bottle. They were aged 20 to 30. They threw it through the windscreen. The whole bus caught fire. I was hit first. The bottle hit me. I jumped from the bus, which then hit a traffic island. The flames burned my face and arms. I thought I was dying. It was a blockade but the government ordered the bus owners to keep running their buses. The bus owner has come twice to see me and wished me good luck but gave me no money. I don't know if I have even kept my job.
Mohammad Rubel Mia, an auto-rickshaw (CNG) driver from Comilla, suffered serious burns when he was attacked on November 26:
I was driving down the road when all of sudden I came across a picket. Lots of men. I had no idea they were there. I tried to escape but they chased me and they hit the CNG with sticks and I crashed. They then poured petrol into it and lit it. I think they wanted to kill me. No one came to help me. I was burned from the waist down.
Jahanara Begum, CNG passenger, Dhaka, 50, suffered serious burns on December 6. She said:
I was returning from my daughter's house. There were three other passengers. We were in the Lalkothi area, in Old Dhaka. One petrol bomb was thrown into the CNG and the CNG then tipped over. The others got out but I could not escape and the fire caught my sari, my blouse, and my hair.
Monia Begum, 20, CNG passenger from Meherpur in southwestern Bangladesh, suffered serious burns on November 14. She said:
There were not many people in the road. It was at 12:30 p.m. It is a BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] and Jamaat stronghold. I was on my way to my sister-in-law’s house. The hartal [general strike] activists suddenly threw a petrol bomb at the CNG. There were about seven or eight of them. They threw it without warning and then they left.
Kamal Hossain, 35, a tailor near Saderghat in Old Dhaka, suffered serious burns on November 10:
I was on my way home [on a three-wheeler minibus] at 8:30 p.m. I saw a fireball coming towards us and all of a sudden it came inside and I was burned on my arms and legs from my waist down. There was no warning. The vehicle was moving. I couldn’t see if there was a picket. It was in the middle of the 84-hour strike.
Syamol Sardar, 13, a three-wheeler minibus helper in Dhaka was injured on November 10. His father, Aminullah, said:
All the passengers got out apart from two men. They told the driver what they were going to do but not Syamol. Before he could escape they poured petrol onto the vehicle and set fire to it. He pleaded with them, asked them to wait until he had escaped, but they did not listen to him.
Shumi Khatun, 8, bus passenger, suffered serious burns in Gazipur on November 3. Her mother, Rubena said:
She was coming to Dhaka with her grandmother in a bus when it reached Gazipur, she saw fire in the bus and they tried to escape but there were so many people she fell down. When her grandmother came out she couldn’t see her so she went back inside the burning bus to rescue her. She found her crying under a seat. Nobody warned them that they were going to set it on fire.
Abul Kalam and his nephew Shuvo suffered serious burns while both were bus passengers in Dhaka on November 12. Abul said:
All we heard was the word “Fire!” We had no idea where it came from or who set the bus on fire. We all tried to escape and smashed the windows. Eight people on the bus were injured.
Sultan Sardar, CNG driver, in Barisal, witnessed as attack on December 1. He said:
All of a sudden I found the road was blocked by a tree. I tried to go around it by the side but the CNG tipped over. It was dark, around 7 p.m. I don’t know how many people there were but some people poured petrol and then set fire to it. They knew I was there.
Children Injured by Homemade Grenades
Lima, 3, had her hand blown off in Mirpur 14, Dhaka on December 3. Her mother, Sohagi, said:
She was in the road in front of our home and saw an object that looked like a ball. It was wrapped in red tape and she picked it up and it exploded. There was no hartal picket there. We have no idea how it got there. Her right hand was blown off above the wrist. The doctor said it was not possible to do anything.
We have received nothing from the government, only the hospital has given us some medicines. Every day we spend 1,500 Taka [US$19.66]. We have to borrow from friends and relatives. The doctors said she might be here for three to four months. She’s in pain most of the time.
Tofazzal Hossain, 10, had his hands damaged in an explosion in Mohakali, Dhaka on November 20. He said:
I was playing with some friends. On the way home I found an object. It looked very nice and I took it to my home. It looked like a ball, wrapped in red tape, like a red tennis ball. When I got home I thought that since it was such a nice object I wanted to see what was inside. When I tried to open it, it exploded.
It made a big hole in my left hand. The index finger was hanging off but it was stitched back on. My right thumb was blown away. Two middle fingers were hanging. The doctors said they could not stitch them back on so cut them off.
One other boy was injured in his left hand, but he’s now ok. There was no hartal picket nearby. We don’t know who left it there.
Caught in Crossfire
Abdul Mazed and his 6-year-old son, Maher, were shot in Rampura, Dhaka on December 7. Mazed said:
I went to the market with my son and we just going back home when suddenly there were two “cocktail” [Bangladeshi term for homemade grenades] explosions. We were scared and ran into a shop. When we got inside I saw that my son was covered in blood and his forehead was bleeding and my head was also bleeding.
We had both been shot by the police. I was hit by 18 shotgun pellets, my son by 12. That evening an inspector came and apologized and said some inexperienced policemen had not realized there was no protest and after the grenade explosions had fired their guns. He gave my son 2000 Taka [US$26.22] and told him to buy some fruit.
Shanto Islam, 12, was shot by police during an opposition protest in Motijheel, central Dhaka, on December 13. He was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital with 71 shotgun pellets in his head and neck. Witnesses said that after the midday prayers, dozens of Jamaat supporters gathered in a busy road, shouted slogans, and set fire to a number of cars, auto-rickshaws and motorbikes. There was a large police presence in the area. Most of the police were armed with shotguns, teargas guns, or rifles.
Shanto’s mother, Asma, said:
He was at his father’s paan stall, but then his father sent him home to have lunch. On his way he got caught in the crossfire. He is not an activist or Shibir supporter. He is a student of Class 4.
Attacks on Homes and Shops
Opresh Pal, a director of a nongovernmental organization, described houses being burned in Satkhira on December 13:
An incident happened the night they executed Quader Mollah, at about 1:30 a.m., 16 houses were burned. Four of them were owned by Hindus, the rest by Muslims so this was not a communal attack, but a political attack. They attacked the people known to be Awami League supporters.
Gopal Bomon, a community leader, described shops being vandalized in Lalmonirhat, on November 27.
In the market there are 40 or 50 shops, about half of which are owned by Hindus. That night 14 were vandalized. Two Hindu shops were spared because they are in the mosque compound. Another was spared because the building’s owner is a Muslim. The problem is that there is a land dispute between the Hindus and a local BNP leader. He lost a court case against them, so we suspect that he was taking advantage of the hartal to target the Hindu community.
A victim who did now want to be identified said:
There was a procession by Jamaat supporters near the BNP headquarters. I was not taking part. I was walking to a hospital. All of a sudden somebody fired at me from a passing CNG. I did not see who they were. I lost consciousness. They were only three or four meters away. I was hit by countless shotgun pellets. I am not a Shibir leader, I am a part-time employee of a Jamaat-owned business. I was not armed. I was carrying a hospital report. I think I was targeted because possibly they thought I was in the procession.
Jamaat Supporters Shot by Law Enforcement Officers
A Shibir activist, 15, from Laksam, Comilla, said he was shot on November 26:
A policeman fired a shotgun at close range. It broke my left leg. I also broke my arm. I was not armed, not throwing anything, but I was taking part in a procession. Someone else was killed during the same procession.
A Shibir activist, 21, from Laksman, Comilla, was shot on November 26:
I was shot in the hip. There is an exit wound on my stomach. It was a bullet, not a shotgun pellet. The police fired without warning during the same demonstration. Ten people were injured, and one killed during a clash. Awami League supporters took part in the clash on the side of the police.
Shibir activist, 24, from Noakhali, was shot on November 26.
First the police came and they arrested our leader, Ishaq Khondaker. I was 50 yards away. I saw them shoot him in the knee right there in the street. Then they arrested him.
We then all moved away, and were sitting peacefully when we saw the police come again. There were 30 to 40 of them. We decided to move away. We were peaceful. The police fired five rounds. The first two hit an electricity pole. The third hit me in my back. They gave no warning. I think they were trying to hit the man next to me, another one of our leaders. The other two rounds hit two others. One was hit in the knee, another in the shoulder.