(New York) – The Bangladeshi government should publicly explain what efforts have been made to investigate the abduction, torture, and killing of the labor rights activist Aminul Islam two years ago, including alleged links to state officials, Human Rights Watch said today. While police have filed charges against a missing suspect, there have been no apparent efforts to investigate allegations that members of Bangladeshi security forces were part of the conspiracy to kill the labor activist.
Islam, 39, was a trade union organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), which supports the rights of factory workers in the garment and seafood industries. He disappeared on April 4, 2012. His body was discovered two days later, almost 100 kilometers from where he was last seen, and showed signs of torture under circumstances that raise concerns of involvement by Bangladeshi security forces.
“After two years and three investigations, neither his family nor the public know the truth about what happened to Aminul Islam,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “All significant leads need to be pursued to solve the killing of this labor leader, including allegations of the involvement of the security forces.”
Given Bangladesh’s long history of impunity in its security forces, the Bangladeshi authorities should establish an independent body to lead the investigation into Islam’s death.
In November 2013 the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) filed charges of murder against a former garment worker, Mustafizur Rahman. Rahman’s whereabouts have been unknown since Islam’s disappearance.
A CID officer contacted by Human Rights Watch said he would not discuss the case as the trial was pending. No date has been set for the trial. Human Rights Watch believes that trials in absentia cast doubt on the credibility of the process itself by compromising the ability of an accused to exercise his or her rights under article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty that binds Bangladesh. The potentially compromised rights include the right to be present during the trial, the right to defend oneself through counsel of the person’s choice, and the right to examine witnesses.
“The government should not think that a trial in absentia will bring closure to this case,” Adams said.
Police photographs of Islam’s body indicated signs of torture. His right leg had injuries under the knee, his toes had been smashed, both knees had coagulated blood, and there were several bruises on the body. The Ghatail police chief, Mahbubul Haq, told journalists: “He [Islam] was murdered. His legs had severe torture marks including a hole made by a sharp object. All his toes were broken.”
In Islam’s work for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), he often came into conflict with garment factory managers. He reported receiving frequent threats and was under surveillance. The BCWS helps garment factory workers form trade unions to ensure proper wages and safe work conditions. However, workers who try to form labor unions have told Human Rights Watch of harassment and threats from factory managers. The BCWS staff have long faced harassment, including at one point sham criminal charges that carried the death penalty.
In 2010, the government revoked the organization’s registration. The same year, National Security Intelligence personnel arbitrarily arrested and tortured Islam.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April 2013, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, and subsequent international pressure to reform labor conditions, Bangladesh allowed the BCWS to function once again. All but one case has now been dropped against it.
“We await the arrest and trial of Mustafizur Rahman with interest, but it will in itself not be enough,” Adams said. “Until the Bangladeshi authorities institute a credible, independent, and transparent investigation to look into Islam’s death, a dark cloud will hang over the Bangladesh garment industry.”