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Home > General > Some thoughts on political violence in Bangladesh | David Bergman

Some thoughts on political violence in Bangladesh | David Bergman

1 February 2014

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New Age (Bangladesh)

WITH the January 5 ‘elections’ unable to provide the government with the requisite political or moral legitimacy to govern the country, Awami league politicians have focused on shoring up their right to govern by pointing to the need to deal with the violence committed by the opposition parties during the pre-election vehicle burning and post-election communal attacks.
This strategy has also had the added benefit of helping the government to justify the joint forces’ operation to remove ‘terrorism’ from the country, which has since the elections resulted in a spate of deaths of opposition leaders and activists.

Although in 2004, the Awami League was itself blamed for burning a bus that killed a dozen people, the governing party is right to criticise the opposition parties for their apparent role in a political pre-election strategy which resulted in the burning to death of at least 25 members of the public. And whilst it is unlikely that the communal attacks on Hindu villages were part of any explicit opposition political strategy, it seems clear that the opposition party members/supporters were involved in many of the attacks — and at the very least both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami can be held responsible for their failure to reign in their supporters from what were pretty foreseeable acts of post-election violence.

That being said, it is also important to recognise the nature of state violence.
New Age reported earlier this week that 215 people were shot to death by law enforcement agencies in 2013 in response to political protests and violent clashes, according to the human rights organisation Ain-o-Salish Kendra based on their analysis of reports in 12 national newspapers.
This is just less than half of all deaths from political violence, which ASK puts it at 507.

Ninety-six additional deaths are the results of direct inter- and intra-political party violence (i.e. fights between the Awami League and the BNP, or within one of the parties). Many, if not most, of the remaining 196 deaths appear to have been the direct result of opposition violence, though the ASK analysis does not provide details of how many of these deaths can be directly blamed on the parties or their supporters.

How should we view the 215 deaths of people, mostly opposition activists but also some members of the public, shot dead by law enforcement agencies?

It should, of course, be noted that the figures 507 and 215 are unlikely to be accurate, since these were simply obtained through a scrutiny of newspaper reports which may contain inaccurate information. In addition, it is unlikely that all deaths have been reported in the newspapers, as many of those injured will have subsequently died, and not all incidents will have been comprehensively covered. In addition, some deaths said to be the result of law enforcement firing may not have been. Nonetheless, at the moment, these figures are the best that we have.

There is, of course, a difference between opposition supporters killing members of the public simply going about their daily lives on the one hand, and the state killing protesters on the other. The police in Bangladesh carry guns and are entitled to use them in self-defence.

Moreover, according to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, when the ‘use of force and firearms is unavoidable’, law enforcement personnel can use firearms as long as they ‘exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved’ and ‘minimise damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.’ The question, of course, is whether proportionate force was used by law enforcement agencies when shooting to the 215 people dead.

There is, for example, no doubt that during the protests against the international crimes tribunals, Jamaat supporters were involved in the murder of policemen and Awami League supporters, and in such situations the police would have been entitled to have used force to prevent the killings.
As stated in a Human Rights Watch report on the use of force in dealing with political protests in Bangladesh, published in August 2013: ‘Between February and April 2013, members of Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat, and other Jamaat supporters reportedly killed three Awami League supporters and more than a dozen members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch received reports that on February 1 in Jessore a police officer was injured in a clash with Shibir activists and died soon after.

‘On February 28 in Gaibandha three police officers were beaten to death by protesters. The following day two police officers were killed in Rangpur. On April 11, one police officer was killed in a clash after police arrested a Jamaat activist for vandalism. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, three supporters of the Awami League were beaten to death at Bhojpur National School on April 13 in Chittagong district. Human Rights Watch researchers received and verified video footage of this incident. The victims who were beaten to death were Faruk Iqbal Bipul, 35; Forkan Ali, 30; and Md Rubel Miah.’

So law enforcers certainly have had on occasion legitimate reasons to use deadly force. However, one only has to read through the same report to appreciate that a large number of the deaths are likely to have been the result of disproportionate use of force.

The HRW stated in the report summary: ‘In many cases, security forces responded to violence in an appropriate fashion, using non-lethal methods to disperse crowds. Yet in many other cases documented in this report, the police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) responded with excessive force, killing protesters and bystanders. Security forces used rubber bullets and live ammunition improperly or without justification, killing some protesters in chaotic scenes, and executing others in cold blood. Many of the dead were shot in the head and chest, indicating that security forces fired directly into crowds. Others were beaten or hacked to death. At least seven children were killed by security forces.’

The report then goes on to state: ‘The February 28 conviction of Sayedee led to demonstrations in Dhaka and districts around the country by supporters and opponents of the verdict. …. In villages and cities across the country, supporters of Sayedee, a well-known Islamic scholar and politician, took to the streets in protest. In Dhaka, Noakhali, Bogra, Chittagong, Rajganj, and dozens of other locations, hundreds of Jamaat supporters and Sayedee followers joined the protests, some spontaneous, some organised in advance.
‘Eyewitnesses in each location described similar patterns. Protesters gathered in town centres, sometimes moving towards police stations and in some instances Awami League offices. Protesters were usually unarmed but were often seen wielding sticks or carrying rocks and broken bricks. In the majority of locations, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that police initially tried to contain crowds using rubber bullets, tear gas, and other crowd control measures such as bird-shot, which releases dozens of small pellets when fired from shotguns. In many instances, however, this approach was short-lived, with security forces quickly transitioning to use of live bullets and non-lethal weapons fired into the crowd at chest and face height, causing deaths and many serious injuries.’

The report then quotes a 20 year old man whose mother was shot dead in Bogra: ‘Around 7:15 a.m. after prayers, my mother woke me up and asked me to go out to the street with her. There was a women’s procession. I was behind her in the procession and we all went towards the Shananpur local police station. People started throwing bricks and then the police started to open fire. The women were in the front of the procession, they were all sitting down in front of the police station in protest. My mother was among other women sitting.… First they used tear gas, and then they started firing. Everything was chaotic, once the police fired the tear gas, all the people started running in different directions. When they started firing the guns we ran.... For a half hour the shooting continued with pauses.… I saw about four people who died. One was a man, the others women. One of those killed was my mother. Many people were injured.’

It is notable that HRW states that 7 children were killed in the first seven months of 2013 by law enforcement agencies, and therefore, it was not only opposition protesters who killed children in the vehicle bombings, but also law enforcement personnel - and apparently in even larger numbers.
Added to the excessive use of force used by state security agents in response to political protests, there are also incidents of straightforward extra-judicial killings. In an earlier report published in 2011, Human Rights Watch identified nearly 200 deaths from extra-judicial killings, where the victims were detained by law enforcement personnel and killed in what were euphemistically known as ‘crossfire’, in the first two years of the Awami League government.

The human rights organisation ASK has stated that, in 2013, there were 74 extra-judicial killings, and since the beginning of the year there have been reports of at least 14 similar killings, some of which have been investigated by Human Rights Watch.

So, when one hears the government depicting the opposition parties as ‘terrorists’, one ought to keep in mind the state’s use of violence, which is far more extensive than any violence perpetrated by the opposition (and this does not even mention the widespread use of torture and illegal detention). And of course when the BNP was in power, much the same could be said then.

Emphasising state violence is not to diminish in any way the obvious outrage one should have for opposition violence and killings mentioned at the top of this article. However, it does need to be placed in a context.

It is also interesting to see how the media and human rights organisations in Bangladesh deal with the different kinds of violence. Whilst the terrible burning of children and others as a result of opposition violence was quite rightly given front-page treatment by the media, the deaths of children and other members of the public by law enforcement personnel are given far less emphasis.

And whilst the media and wider civil society also quite rightly, has called for the accountability of those who were responsible for the burning of vehicles that caused at least 25 deaths, there is no similar widely made call for investigations and accountability into the deaths from security forces.

David Bergman is editor, special reports at New Age.


The above article from New Age is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use