Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bangladesh security forces accused of extra-judicial killings, illegal arrests

Human Rights Watch accused Bangladesh security forces of a series of unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests under a state of emergency and called on authorities to halt the abuses.

The New York-based group called on officials to investigate the deaths and bring those responsible to justice, warning that the country's international image would suffer if nothing was done.

Quoting local rights groups, it said "security forces are implicated in a spate of extrajudicial killings since a state of emergency was declared in the country on January 11" to end weeks of political unrest.

"The killings have been attributed to members of the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force," it added.

Bangladesh's leading human rights group, the Law and Mediation Center, has said at least five people have been killed in army custody and 22,000 arrested since then.

"A state of emergency cannot justify killings by the security forces," Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said in the statement.

"The government should put a quick stop to these abuses."

The arrests follow a nationwide crackdown on criminals and "corruptionists" designed to pave the way for free and fair elections.

"It's a terrible situation. We have asked the government to stop it or at least follow transparency and due legal process in these arbitrary arrests," said Sultana Kamal, executive director of the Law and Mediation Center.

Another human rights group, Odhikar, said as many as 19 people were killed in the first ten days of the emergency.

Odhikar said the deaths were either in custody from torture or in what the security forces attributed to "crossfire" with "criminals" during arrest.

The state of emergency was imposed at the same time as elections scheduled for January 22 were postponed after months of political unrest and violence on the streets.

Bangladesh is now being governed by a caretaker government which is widely seen as backed by the military.

Killings in custody have been a major human rights issue in Bangladesh. During the last large-scale military deployment in 2002, at least 50 people reportedly died in army custody in unclear circumstances.

No military personnel are known to have been held criminally responsible for any of the deaths.

The Human Rights Watch called for an independent inquiry into allegations of extrajudicial killings.

"The government's first step must be to issue a direct order not to kill suspects in custody," Adams said, and urged the government to investigate the deaths and follow due legal process to make arrests.

"The government should then aggressively investigate and hold all those who violated the law accountable, or its reputation inside Bangladesh and abroad will suffer," he said.

"Arrests must be carried out in accordance with the law and due process, not by rounding up huge numbers of people who may or may not have broken the law," he added.

Human Rights Watch said deaths in custody could damage Bangladesh's global image as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping forces.

"Extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh's security forces put the country's reputation as a respectable contributor to UN peacekeeping forces at risk," Adams said.

As of January 1, Bangladesh was contributing 9,681 military and police to UN peacekeeping operations, numbers second only to Pakistan. #

Reports: Agency French Press (AFP), Dhaka, Fri Jan 26, 2007

Reuters add from Dhaka:
Bangladesh's interim administration said on 25 January it was investigating allegations that nearly 20 people among hundreds arrested recently for criminal activities or in connection with pre-election violence had died in police custody. The Daily Star newspaper, quoting a human rights group, said on Wednesday that at least 19 people had been killed in custody in last 10 days.

Police say around 3,000 people -- including activists and lower officials of major political parties -- have been arrested in the last week alone.

They have admitted a number of "criminals" linked to political parties have died in custody, but blame the deaths on natural causes such as heart failure or say they were shot during escape attempts.

"Several died in custody due to heart failure or when they came in crossfire," said a police officer who asked not to be named.

Stung by the criticism, the interim administration has promised an investigation.

"The administration has taken the custodial deaths seriously and is investigating the incidents," Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, adviser in-charge of the Foreign Affairs ministry told a news conference.

The interim government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, took charge on Jan. 12 tasked with reforming the electoral system and holding national polls as soon as possible. #