Restraint urged after protest deaths in Bangladesh

DHAKA, Bangladesh — At least 150 protesters and a dozen security forces have been killed during street demonstrations in Bangladesh over the past six months, a rights group said Thursday in urging both sides to show restraint and warning of more violence.

Opposition parties and religious and political activists have made multi-pronged challenges against the government this year.

Human Rights Watch documented the killings of at least a dozen members of the security forces and police officers, as well as three members of the ruling Awami League party, since February. Its report also said at least 2,000 people had been injured during the protests.

The report said protesters’ families and witnesses were being intimidated and authorities were making “no meaningful efforts” to hold security forces accountable for deaths. It said the government should appoint an independent commission to investigate and prosecute anyone responsible for “unlawful killings.”

C.Q.K. Mustaq Ahmed, secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, refused to comment on the report immediately. Ahmed is the top bureaucrat of the ministry.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies have organized street protests for months to demand a caretaker government be installed before and during an upcoming election to ensure fairness. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government says it will be fair and that the caretaker option is unconstitutional.

More protests have come from the country’s main Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party, which opposes an ongoing war crimes trial involving the nation’s independence war against Pakistan in 1971. Most of the accused belong to the party, and several verdicts have been delivered against war crimes suspects. Another Islamic group, Hefazat-e-Islam, has taken to the street to demand stricter Islamic laws.

Bangladesh’s next general elections are scheduled to be held by early 2014, and Human Rights Watch warns that it foresees more violence in the coming months.

“With national elections and more war crimes verdicts ahead, street protests are likely to be frequent and the risk of further violence is high,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the government takes firm action to rein in the security forces, there is going to be a lot more blood on the streets before the year is over.”

The group based its report on 95 interviews with victims and their family members, witnesses, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers.

The report said police, the special Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guards Bangladesh opened fire into crowds or beat protesters in a brutal and unlawful manner. In some cases, security forces carried out extrajudicial executions.

It also accused the security forces of using spurious criminal charges to intimidate witnesses and family members of protesters killed by security people.

Adams suggested the government to take immediate steps “to train its forces in crowd control and hold them accountable.”

Meanwhile, the agency urged opposition groups to avoid unlawful attacks, including on law enforcement officers or members of the public with different political views.

“Bangladesh’s reputation is at stake, and all responsible leaders should counsel calm, avoidance of violence, and respect for the law,” Adams said.

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