BANGLADESH: UN Rights Chief needs to act to address excessive use of force leading to extrajudicial killings and torture amidst mass arrests

The Bangladesh Government continues using dis-proportionate lethal force and brutal crackdowns on dissidents. The authorities have been using the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the excuses for denying the rights of liberties and livelihoods to the people.

The Bangladesh Government, in its signature style, chose to crackdown on protesters for staging two peaceful protests. They were aimed against India’s apartheid politician and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to celebrate Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of independence.

The Police and the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), were jointly attacked in the peaceful protests organized by the leftist students’ group, the Progressive Student Alliance. They were protesting India’s apartheid politician Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Student, Youth and Labor Rights Council, led by the immediate past Vice-President (VP) of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union (DUCSU), Nurul Haque Nur, became the target of the ruling party goons and the Police for the anti-Modi protests. Dozens of leaders of Bangladesh Chhatra Odhikar Parishad and its associate organization Bangladesh Jubo Odhikar Parishad were abducted by plain clothes men. The abducted leaders remained disappeared since the plain clothes men picked them up. After hours and days of incommunicado detention, followed by criticism on social media platforms by online activists, the Law-Enforcement Agencies had made this claim: the abducted activists were shown arrested, allegedly, in fabricated criminal cases. Many of the cases are registered against the detainees under the Digital Security Act-2018 (DSA).

The Police and the BCL also launched an attack on the the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque on 26 March 2021. The gravity of disproportionate use of force becomes apparent as the Police fired over 1100 bullets including 827 rubber bullets, 310 lead bullets, and 93 tear gas shells in less than three hours at the Mosque. The people were confined inside the mosque after their Friday mid-day prayers. The reports of the Police and BCL’s joint attacks on the anti-Modi protesters at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque triggered instant protests in many parts of the country. At Hathazari of Chottogram, Police gunshots killed at least four people because the students of the Hathazari Madrasa protested, surrounding the local Police station and throwing bricks at the Hathazari Police.

Protests erupted in the Brahmmanbaria district following the Police-BCL attacks at Baitul Mukarram Mosque on 26 March. The Police and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) used live ammunition against the protesters leading to extra-judicial killings of at least 15 people. Most of the victims were identified as poor, working-class people. In the anti-Modi protests at least 19 persons were killed between 26 and 28 March in Bangladesh, according to the documented information the Asian Human Rights Commission has received from human rights defenders of the country.

The Government of Bangladesh has imposed a county-wide ‘lockdown’ from 14 April using the excuse of containing the spread of COVID-19 without providing necessary supports for millions of extremely poor people. The Government left donated, life-saving medical equipments abandoned at its airport for nearly a year. And, it has not improved its healthcare infrastructures to address the pandemic while using the lock-down to unleash a crackdown against the dissidents.

Dissidents are being detained en masse for participating in, and organizing, the anti-Modi protests across Bangladesh. Human rights documentation confirms that at least 660 people were detained until 25 April, since Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. The detainees include the leaders of Bangladesh Chhatra Odhikar Parishad, Bangladesh Jubo Odhikar Parishad, Progressive Students Alliance, and Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh. Most of the detainees were abducted by men in plain clothes and remained disappeared for certain period of time. Following social media exposures of the abductions and disappearances, formal acknowledgments from the Rapid Action Battalion and the Police came about the arrests of the detainees. The leaders of Hefajat-e-Islam are mostly shown arrested and remanded under criminal cases registered in 2013.

All the detainees of the anti-Modi protests have allegedly been brutally tortured in custody. The Police tortured Akhtar Hossain, Bangladesh Chhatra Odhikar Parishad’s Dhaka University unit’s President, in custody. In press conferences the victims’ families demanded unconditional release of the detainees.

The most worrying aspect of the ongoing mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, and fabrication of criminal cases is that Bangladesh’s justice mechanisms systematically deny access to justice for the victims. The pro-government judiciary sends the detainees to remand allowing law-enforcement agencies to use torture in custody. There is no resort to afford remedies for the gross violation of human rights under the incumbent government. This reality also establishes the fact that the law-enforcement agencies are not accountable for the disproportionate use of brute force while they curb the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the country.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to focus on the present crackdown along with the deplorable human rights situation prevailing in Bangladesh. The OHCHR needs to exercise its mandate to collect evidence of the systemic denial of access to justice in the embedded pattern of gross violation of rights in that country with blanket impunity. The International Community needs to explore avenues to apply effective universal, and other appropriate mechanisms, to hold the Bangladeshi perpetrators accountable in the given context.