(New York) – The Bangladeshi authorities have failed to make measurable progress in investigating the April 4, 2012 abduction, torture, and killing of prominent labor rights activist Aminul Islam, including allegations of links to state officials, Human Rights Watch said today. International donors and global brands sourcing from Bangladesh should press the government on the need for accountability for Islam’s murder.
“After five years, neither Aminul Islam’s family nor the public know the truth about what happened and who killed him,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities seem to have washed their hands of the entire incident by suggesting that his death was due to a private dispute – without investigating the serious allegations of security forces involvement.”
Following national and international pressure, the Bangladeshi government had pledged a high-level speedy investigation into his murder. But five years on, while police have filed charges against a missing suspect, a former garment worker, there have been no apparent efforts to investigate allegations that members of the Bangladeshi security forces were part of the conspiracy to kill the labor rights activist.
Islam, 39, was a trade union organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a local nongovernment organization that 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.
Human Rights Watch has long called for the authorities to establish an independent body to lead the investigation into Islam’s death, particularly considering Bangladesh’s long history of protecting its security forces from any accountability.
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, with Bangladesh authorities claiming that he is hiding somewhere in India.
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 at the time, “He [Islam] was murdered. His legs had severe torture marks including a hole made by a sharp object. All his toes were broken.”
Islam’s work as a labor organizer for BCWS often brought him into conflict with garment factory managers. Before his disappearance, he reported receiving frequent threats and being under surveillance. BCWS helps garment factory workers form trade unions to ensure decent work and wages, and safe working conditions. However, workers who try to form or join labor unions have told Human Rights Watch that they often face harassment and threats from factory managers. BCWS staff have long faced harassment, including at one point sham criminal charges being filed against BCWS founder Kalpona Akter that carried the death penalty.
Despite reforms to labor laws since the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April 2013, killing and injuring over 1100 garment factory workers, the authorities continue to intimidate workers and labor leaders, with dozens alleging that they are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases after wage strikes in Ashulia, an industrial area outside of Dhaka, on December 2016.
“The Bangladesh government’s failures to protect labor organizers like Aminul Islam should put it in the international spotlight until this case is solved and all the perpetrators are found and brought to justice,” said Robertson. “The government has continually failed to ensure labor rights protections for garment workers, but one way to turn that around would be to set up a credible, independent, and transparent investigation into Islam’s death.”