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Bangladesh: Violent Autocratic Crackdown Ahead of Elections

Diplomatic Partners Should Raise Alarms in Dhaka and Home Capitals

Police clash with Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporters who are protesting for a fair election, Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 28, 2023. © 2023 Anik Rahman/AP Photo
  • Bangladesh authorities are targeting opposition leaders and supporters ahead of the general elections slated for January 7, 2024.
  • The government is claiming to commit to free and fair elections with diplomatic partners while simultaneously the state authorities are filling prisons with members of the political opposition.
  • The prime minister should call for an immediate end to political and unlawful arrests, and diplomatic partners should make clear that the crackdown will jeopardize economic cooperation.

(Bangkok) – Bangladesh authorities are targeting opposition leaders and supporters ahead of the general elections slated for January 7, 2024, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should impartially investigate all instances of violence, including cases in which each side has blamed the other.

Almost 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested since a planned rally by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on October 28. At least 16 people have been killed during ongoing violence, including 2 police officers. Over 5,500 people have been injured.

“The government is claiming to commit to free and fair elections with diplomatic partners while the state authorities are simultaneously filling prisons with the ruling Awami League’s political opponents,” said Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Diplomatic partners should make clear that the government’s autocratic crackdown will jeopardize future economic cooperation.”

Based on interviews with 13 witnesses and analysis of videos and police reports, Human Rights Watch has found evidence that security forces are responsible for using excessive force, mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in a recent spate of election-related violence.

Following the October 28 violence, the BNP called for a general strike from October 31-November 2, during and after which clashes broke out between police, opposition members, and ruling party supporters. While there has been violence on all sides, in some instances police used excessive force in responding to protests.

Bangladesh authorities accused the opposition of “creating chaos,” and have sealed the BNP party offices describing it as a crime scene.

Senior government leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have fueled ongoing violence through public statements encouraging attacks on opposition protesters. On November 3, she told her Awami League party supporters that if they catch anyone committing arson to “throw [them] into the same fire. The hand that sets fire to anything will have to be burnt … tit for tat. If so, they would learn lessons.”

Videos and witness reports show disturbing evidence of coordination between the police and the Awami League supporters in threatening and targeting opposition party activists. “People are scared to come out of their homes because the police and Awami League activists are in the street,” said a BNP supporter.

A video recorded by a journalist on November 4 in Dhaka showed Awami League activists carrying wooden batons marching behind police in riot gear, chanting slogans including “capture the activists of BNP one by one and slaughter them,” and, “BNP thugs, don't even think about showing up in the streets; we will beat you black and blue.”

Similar scenes were captured in other parts of the country. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage from around 11 p.m. on November 4 in Feni district shows Awami League supporters carrying wooden batons marching alongside police officers in riot gear.

On November 5, following an incident in which BNP activists threw bricks at vehicles in the Tejgaon neighborhood of Dhaka, police and Awami League activists arrived together to search for those responsible. At least one Awami League activist was armed with what appeared to be a metal rod, according to a witness and videos and photos of the incident. “People on the road are scared of being arrested by the police or beaten by the Awami League goons,” the witness said.

While the police should investigate incidents of violence by all sides, their impartiality and ability to uphold the rule of law is undermined when they carry out raids alongside Awami League activists, Human Rights Watch said. While Awami League activists enjoy impunity for their role in the ongoing violence, opposition members are facing widespread – and often arbitrary – arrest.

Bangladesh authorities are carrying out mass arrests of political opposition in a clear attempt to quash the opposition and eliminate competition ahead of the general elections. According to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, about half of its five million members face politically motivated prosecution. “The arrests, they are not leaving anyone behind, from senior level to the ground level,” one activist told Human Rights Watch.

A spokesperson for another opposition group, Amar Bangladesh Party, told Human Rights Watch that many of its supporters are “in hiding due to nightly police raids,” and that prison conditions are “unbearable due to an unprecedented level of overcrowding.” Bangladesh prisons are currently at more than double their capacity. In response to concerns over the recent uptick in detentions, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told the media, “We can keep 90,000 inmates although our prisons are retentive of 42,000 inmates. So we don’t need to increase the capacity of the prisons right now.”

Some of those arrested have been allegedly beaten and tortured in custody. One woman told Human Rights Watch that her brother was “tortured with electric shocks, and I noticed one of his fingers on his left hand was bandaged.” A BNP activist said that his brother, who has a heart condition, was picked up by police on October 30, held in incommunicado detention for 10 days, and beaten in custody despite his pleas about health concerns.

Foreign governments should insist that the authorities maintain their international obligations to uphold human rights. Bangladesh is the main beneficiary of the EU’s “Everything But Arms” trade program, and the Bangladesh government has expressed its intention to apply for the Generalised Scheme of Preferences+ arrangement, which would extend reduced trade tariffs on key exports including garments. The government's abuses put into question its eligibility for either program, both of which are conditioned on certain human and labor rights standards. The European Parliament has most recently raised concerns, as have EU officials in a recent visit to the country.

“A free election is impossible when the government stifles free expression and systematically incapacitates the opposition, critics, and activists through arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, harassment, and intimidation,” Bleckner said. “Instead of stoking violence and jailing her critics, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should call for an immediate end to arbitrary political arrests and make clear that enforced disappearances, torture, and killings by security forces will not be tolerated.”

For additional details and the government’s response to foreign governments, please see below.

Concerns from Foreign Governments

Several foreign governments have repeatedly called for free and fair elections in Bangladesh and should insist that the authorities maintain their international obligations to uphold human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Any action that undermines the democratic elections process – including violence, preventing people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, and internet access – calls into question the ability to conduct free and fair elections,” said US Ambassador Peter Haas on October 31. The United States has said it will “impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” The US could also consider additional sanctions against those with command responsibility for the abuses being carried out now.

In early November, Awami League leaders repeatedly threatened to beat or kill Haas. Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader condemned the threats and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged party members not to threaten foreign diplomats in Bangladesh. However, on November 13, a court dismissed a case against a group of Awami League members who had threatened the ambassador and on that same day media reports allege that another Awami League leader said that Haas should be “butchered.”

Three UN experts, on November 14, said they were “deeply disturbed by the sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests, and allegations of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure.” They also expressed alarm at the threats to media freedom.

Violence During a rally on October 28

BNP has said that protests on October 28 began peacefully. To prevent the march, Bangladesh authorities carried out mass arrests and blockaded the capital. Still, tens of thousands turned up at the rally. “I joined the procession because democracy has been absent,” one activist told Human Rights Watch.

According to multiple witnesses, at around 1 p.m., the police used sound grenades and fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters at Nightingale intersection in Dhaka, nearby the BNP headquarters. The Bangladesh government stated that law enforcement was responding to violent threats while BNP officials insist that the attack was unprovoked. “Today’s rally continued for hours in a perfectly disciplined and peaceful manner until all of a sudden the lobbing of tear gas shells started,” a senior BNP leader, Abdul Moyeen Khan, told Reuters.

Videos and evidence from witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that police kicked, beat, and dragged protesters on the ground. Police shot rubber bullets indiscriminately into the crowd. Multiple witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described seeing protesters with rubber bullet injuries to the head.

One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch, “I saw two young boys being carried back from the front of the protest who were bleeding from the head and just beneath the throat,” About 10 minutes later he saw three more protesters being carried back from the front of the crowd. “They had many rubber bullet wounds on their body: shoulder, back, and forehead” he said. A former police officer who was also there said that the injuries he saw were consistent with rubber bullet wounds. “There were injuries on their heads, forehead, neck,” he said.

Protesters described being hemmed in by the police, who were firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. “They were firing from both sides of the road so that people were trapped,” a witness told Human Rights Watch. “People were hiding in garages. People had to save their lives, they had to run.”

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require the police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force. The UN guidance on the use of “less-lethal weapons,” say that kinetic impact projectiles like rubber bullets should only be used as a last resort and “with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.”

Multiple witnesses described hearing loud sound grenades. “The sound was intolerable,” one witness said. The UN Basic Principles on Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials warns that “There is a clear risk of acoustic weapons being indiscriminate in their effects, targeting sections of the crowd instead of focusing on individuals within it. This increases the risk that uninvolved persons may be affected.”

While it is impossible to determine the decibels of the sound grenades used on October 28 after the fact, acoustic weapons used at closed range, at loud volume, and/or for excessive lengths of time can lead to serious health risks including eardrum rupture, loss of balance, and even deafness. The UN guidance indicates that such use at a decibel output “likely to cause permanent hearing damage, would be unlawful.”

Mass Arrests and Abuses in Custody

Those arrested include leaders of the opposition party, activists, and government critics. According to the BNP and media reports, opposition party leaders arrested since mid-October include BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir; Joint Secretary General Khairul Kabir Khokon; Vice Chairman Altaf Hossain Chowdhury; media coordinator Zahir Uddin Swapon; standing committee members Mirza Abbas and Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury; and the Dhaka Metropolitan North BNP Secretary Aminul Haque. Opposition members said they have faced dozens of trumped-up cases at a time.

In many cases, the charges appear baseless. Some of the accused were either dead, abroad, or hospitalized at the time of their alleged offense, described colloquially as “ghost cases.” According to Benar News, for example, a police report says that a BNP activist, Nasir Rahman, was charged with vandalism, attacking police, and throwing Molotov cocktails during the October 28 rally, despite the fact that Rahman had died three years earlier.

“I would only say to the plaintiff of the case that, if possible, go ahead and arrest my husband from his grave,” Rina Akter, Rahman’s widow, was quoted as saying by Benar News.

Human Rights Watch spoke with one BNP activist who was charged in a case related to the violence on October 28 while he was outside of the country. “How can I be charged with sabotage or created nuisance in Bangladesh when I was not in the country at the time?” he said.

Many members of the BNP and other opposition groups have gone into hiding for fear of arbitrary arrest or enforced disappearance. As one opposition member said: “We are always on run. We never know when police will raid our living place to arrest us or harass our families.”

“Our meetings and demos are routinely disturbed by law enforcement agencies,” Asaduzzaman Fuaad, spokesperson for the Amar Bangladesh Party, told Human Rights Watch. “Police are routinely demanding bribes from the family members of our activists, otherwise threatening them with arrest on any political cases.”

Many of those arrested were allegedly forcibly disappeared by law enforcement as they have said they were held in unlawful detention for days or weeks, before they were produced in court. When asked, authorities refused to reveal their whereabouts.

One witness said that his housemate was picked up by police and then brought to the apartment they shared in handcuffs by two plain-clothes police officers claiming to be from the Detective Branch at around 11 p.m. on November 6. He said that the officers came to confiscate his friend’s passport and the clothes he had been wearing at the October 28 rally as evidence that his friend had allegedly vandalized vehicles during the rally.

The police returned at 4 a.m. with his friend and another friend in handcuffs, the witness said. He said that the officers interrogated the two men about the whereabouts of other BNP activists, and slapped and kicked them while in handcuffs. The police then took the two men away and held them in incommunicado detention. The men were not produced in court until November 14.

One woman said her brother was also picked up by plain-clothes police claiming to be from the Detective Branch early in the morning on November 7, but police did not admit to his arrest until November 14. My parents are already sick,” she said. “Since they heard about my brother’s disappearance, their son, they cry all day.”

Another woman said that her brother, a local BNP leader, was picked up from a relative’s house on November 4 by plain-clothes police claiming to be from the Detective Branch, but the police denied his arrest until November 9. CCTV footage from the apartment building where he lived shows him being taken in handcuffs by six people in civilian clothes at about 5:45 p.m. on November 4.

The woman said that when she finally saw her brother at the court, he told her that the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police had tortured him. She said “he was tortured with electric shocks, and I noticed one of his fingers on his left hand was bandaged, he was trying to hide it from me. He was not talking that much, but there were some other activists there at the court along with him as well who also shared that my brother was tortured, and he was interrogated about the whereabouts of some senior leaders and his own elder brother who is also leader of BNP’s youth unit.”

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