(New York) – Witnesses have accused the Bangladesh police of unnecessary use of force during political protests on October 28, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Although violence was committed on all sides, the events were part of a continuing police crackdown on the political opposition. At least 11 people, including two police officers, were killed, and hundreds injured during the October 28 events and during ongoing violence that has followed.
The Bangladesh government is ignoring international calls for restraint and its own pledges to hold a peaceful, free, and fair election. National elections are planned for January 2024.
“Many Bangladeshis say they have been fearing an escalation in violence because of the government crackdown on the political opposition in an attempt to subvert participation and voting,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh’s international partners should insist that elections cannot be considered fair when the opposition is targeted, harassed, and behind bars.”
The Awami League-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has arrested thousands of opposition membersincluding Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary-general of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and sealed the party offices. The government has increasingly carried out arbitrary mass arrests over the last year in what appears to be a coordinated effort to stifle the opposition ahead of the elections.
During the clashes on October 28, both Awami League and BNP supporters engaged in violence, injuring hundreds including dozens of journalists. Both parties have denied their involvement. While the authorities blame the BNP for the violence, the BNP has accused the government of infiltrating the gathering to initiate violence and discredit what they said was a peaceful movement. Political party leaders should call on their supporters to campaign peacefully, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on “all political actors to make clear that such violence is unacceptable and to avoid any statements or actions that could constitute incitement to violence.”
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the police excessively shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. The government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials while responding to violent protests.
At least 1,500 opposition members were arrested in the days leading up to the rally and BNP leaders said that the authorities raided party members’ homes. The police also set up checkpoints around Dhaka, the capital, and arrested opposition activists traveling to participate in the October 28 rally.
According to the opposition, nearly 5,000 party leaders and activists have been arrested since similar protests took place in July, while tens of thousands have been accused in hundreds of additional cases. “Prisons are overrun with our party leaders,” BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said at a news conference on October 26.
The mass arrests appear to reflect orders from police officials to systematically arrest and convict opposition members so that they would be disqualified from participating in the national election. Trials are apparently continuing late into the night to ramp up these efforts and, according to the BNP, at least 50 people have already been convicted.
Some detainees have alleged that they were tortured. Shahid Uddin Chowdhury Annie, a BNP leader, told the media that the police beat him while he was detained. Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denied the allegations, saying that Chowdhury had lied about the torture to draw attention from the court.
All allegations of torture and other abuse of detainees should be thoroughly and independently investigated, and those responsible should be held to account, Human Rights Watch said. Only one case of torture has ever led to a conviction under the country’s Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act since it was passed a decade ago, according to media reports.
In September, the European Union notified the Bangladesh government that it would not send a full election observer mission to the polls in January, stating that the decision “reflects the fact that at the present time, it is not sufficiently clear whether the necessary conditions will be met.” In September, the European Parliament also raised the alarm about growing abuses in Bangladesh, putting into question its eligibility for EU trade benefits under the “Everything But Arms” program. Mass arrests targeting the opposition further undermine the conditions for a fair election.
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.”
“International partners should make clear that they will not continue business as usual with Bangladesh as authorities carry out election abuses,” Ganguly said. “They should condemn the mass arrests and targeting of the opposition and lay out consequences for trade and diplomatic ties if Bangladesh fails to backtrack on its abuses.”