(New York) – Bangladesh police indiscriminately fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, and beat opposition party supporters with batons during protests in late July 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. In the days leading up to a major demonstration on July 29, the authorities arrested over 800 leaders and activists of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in what appears to be a systematic effort to target and detain political opponents.
The election-related abuses occurred during a visit by the European Union’s special representative for human rights, Eamon Gilmore, and at the end of the EU’s exploratory mission to assess the conditions for full monitoring during the January 2024 national elections. The United States government has warned that it will restrict visas for any Bangladeshi who undermines “the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
“International observers should view the brutal crackdown on the political opposition as an alarm that elections in Bangladesh will not be democratic,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bangladesh government is making international pledges on holding free and fair elections even as it unleashes autocratic and abusive attacks that clearly contradict those claims.”
BNP leaders say that at least 100 of their supporters were injured during the protests. Videos of clashes between the police and opposition supporters show security forces using excessive force by kicking and hitting people who appear to be unarmed. According to the police, at least 32 officers were also injured after opposition protesters threw stones and attacked police vehicles.
The police said that they had not granted BNP permission for the rally on July 29. However, law enforcement officers are required to respect the right of freedom of assembly and human rights standards on the use of force when dispersing demonstrations, regardless of whether the demonstrations were legally sanctioned.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require the police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force and firearms. The UN guidance on the use of “less-lethal weapons,” say that kinetic impact projectiles like rubber bullets should only be used as a last resort and “with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.” Water cannons “should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury, or widespread destruction of property” and should not be used at short range.
The authorities had also filed cases against over 1,500 named opposition leaders and activists and over 15,000 unnamed people in the weeks leading up to the BNP rally on July 29. The use of criminal complaints against large numbers of “unknown” people is a common abusive practice in Bangladesh, allowing the police to intimidate and threaten virtually anyone with arrest, to repeatedly re-arrest detainees even though they are not the named accused in the cases, and to thwart bail requests.
In previous months, law enforcement officers have used these open cases as warrants to raid the homes of political opposition members in what appears to be overt political harassment and intimidation. According to BNP, over four million cases were filed against their leaders, activists, and supporters and its associate bodies between January 2009 and June 12, 2023.
Opposition members reported that arrests began before the planned July rallies, when police blockaded entrances to the capital city, Dhaka. Media reported that the authorities were checking phones and interrogating anyone entering the city.
The mass arrests appear to reflect leaked minutes from a police meeting that outlined orders to systematically arrest and convict opposition members so that they would be disqualified from participating in the national election. In the leaked minutes, a senior police officer admitted that “[there] is a lot of pressure on the government from outside regarding the elections.”
He said the police should ensure convictions of members of the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, because if “they are punished through trial, no one will be able to raise questions about them internationally.” The minutes include 10 steps to ensure convictions of opposition members.
In many cases, the arrest charges appear baseless. In what have been described as “ghost cases,” some of the accused were either dead, abroad, or hospitalized at the time of their alleged offense.
On July 18, a case was filed against 109 BNP leaders and activists and 500 unnamed people, accusing them of vandalizing the Government Bangla College in Mirpur. However, two of the named accused, Shafiqul Islam Suman and Abdul Jabbar Hawlader, died months ago. The college staff member who filed the case told the media that he had only lodged a complaint about vandalism, but “I didn’t give any names. Police put the names.”
As elections loom, it is urgent for the authorities to instruct the police to adhere to the rules on the use of force under international law and to make clear that those who violate those standards will be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
EU special representative Gilmore stated in a media briefing during his visit to Dhaka that “whenever we look at elections, we just don’t look at what happens on the day of voting. We also look at the pre-election environment, situation of the political parties, political debates, media and what are the arrangements for organizing the elections.”
The EU exploratory mission should seriously consider the widespread abuses during recent protests in preparing their forthcoming report on the conditions for a free and fair election in Bangladesh. Even as State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Shahriar Alam, claimed during a media briefing with Gilmore that “we have renewed our commitment to hold free and fair elections,” the authorities simultaneously were carrying out widespread repression against opposition activists.
The Bangladesh government’s international partners, including the EU, should publicly stress that failure to take concrete and timely action to address the serious abuses ahead of the 2024 election would have a negative impact on trade benefits and other cooperation.
“The ruling Awami League government is acutely aware of the heightened international scrutiny of its rights record,” Ganguly said. “Incapacitating the opposition through mass arbitrary arrests and violent crackdowns will not fool anyone into thinking that the Bangladesh elections are free and fair.”