The Bangladeshi authorities must conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into the death of at least 14 protesters across the country between 26 and 28 March, and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, said 11 human rights organisations in a joint statement today. The organisations also called on the international community to urge Bangladeshi authorities to put an end to the practice of torturing and forcibly disappearing opposition activists.
Between 20 and 26 March 2021, police and members of ruling party Awami League attacked a series of protests across the country organised by different political and civil society groups, beat up and injured hundreds of largely peaceful protesters, according to local media reports.
On 26 March, Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, a non-partisan religious group, announced that it would hold a rally protesting the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh after Friday prayers, primarily from the Baitul Mukarram, the country’s central mosque situated in Dhaka. Video footage of the event suggests that a large group of people, who have been reported by local media as members of ruling party Awami League (AL) and its student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), gathered around the Baitul Mukarram mosque before the start of the Friday prayers. As soon as the prayers ended, the members of AL and BCL launched a violent attack on the worshippers trying to start the protest. The protesters were confined to the mosque premise where, video footage seen by the organisations revealed that the assailants used sticks and firearms to launch the unprovoked attack. Soon after, the police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunitions to disperse the protesters. At least 60 protesters were injured, many with gunshot wounds.
The attack on the demonstrators in Dhaka led to an eruption of protests across the country on 27 and 28 March. Supporters of the Awami League were present in many of these demonstrations, confronting largely peaceful protesters and attacking them. The authorities also deployed the Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) in several places across the country to quell the protests. The BGB and the police not only failed to protect the protesters from the attacks of the ruling party activists but also resorted to unlawful, unnecessary and excessive force themselves, which led to the death of at least 14 protesters in Chattogram and Brahman Baria districts. Hundreds of other protesters were injured, many with gunshot wounds, and dozens were detained.
The use of unnecessary and excessive force by the police followed the same pattern documented in relation to the initial protests just days earlier. On 25 March, more than 40 people were injured in Dhaka after police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd protesting the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the same day, local media reported that BCL members attacked protesters in Dhaka University campus, injuring 20 students.
On 24 March, at least 25 protesters were injured after police baton charged a largely peaceful rally in the north-eastern district of Sylhet organised by the Left Democratic Alliance (LDA). On the same day, police baton-charged and dispersed a peaceful rally organized by several opposition parties in the northern district Rajshahi and arrested at least 10 people.
On 23 March, local media reported that members of the BCL beat protesters participating in a rally organised by Dhaka University’s Progressive Students Alliance, injuring at least 25 students.
In addition to violently cracking down protesters, the authorities have also restricted high speed internet access and blocked access to social media platforms, including Facebook and Messenger, from 26 March evening to 30 March evening without any formal notice, in contravention of the right to freedom of expression and hindering the ability of people to organise protests and report human rights violations.
In the aftermath of the protests, at least five opposition activists were allegedly abducted by members of law enforcement agencies in conditions that may amount to enforced disappearance. On 26 March, Shakil Uzzaman and Mina Al Mamun, the joint-convenors of Bangladesh Chatra Odhikar Parishad, were abducted by men wearing plainclothes from the capital Dhaka’s Savar area—their friends told the organisations that they saw the agents of Rapid Action Battalion picking them up. On 27 March, Nadim Hasan, the joint convenor of Bangladesh Jubo Odhikar Parishad, was last seen in the capital’s Lalbag area when he was approached by police, as his colleagues reported. On 28 March, Md Mazharul Islam, the joint-convenor of Bangladesh Chatra Odhikar Parishad, and Nazm Us Sakib, the Secretary of Bangladesh Chatra Odhikar Parishad – Rajshahi University unit, were abducted from their homes by men wearing plainclothes.
Law enforcement agencies failed to acknowledge their fate and whereabouts, and denied the activists were held in custody. After more than 24 hours of incommunicado detention, Nadim Hasan, Shakil Uzzaman, Mina Al Mamun, and Md Mazharul Islam were presented before the court and charged with violence, while Nazm Us Sakib was freed after more than 80 hours of his disappearance.
Activists who have been detained in the context of the protests have also raised allegations of torture and other ill-treatment while in custody. Nipun Roy Chowdhury was detained by police on 28 March and charged with conspiracy and subversion. She has been placed on three-days police remand. Her family accused agents of RAB of beating her after the arrest and during her detention. Shimul Chowdhury, who was detained on 25 March for organizing a Zeafat—a social event of sacrificing a cow honouring Bangladeshis killed by the Indian Border Security Force—has been released on bail with a broken hand due to alleged torture. Family members of student activists Nazm Us Sakib and Md Mazharul Islam also told the organizations that they have been tortured during their incommunicado detention.
In light of these worrying patterns of abuses against protesters, the undersigned organisations call on the Bangladeshi authorities to conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into the death of protesters, the use of unlawful force by the police and their failure to protect protesters from attacks instigated by ruling party activists. The use of unnecessary and excessive force by law enforcement agencies must end immediately and all those responsible must be identified and brought to justice in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty. The ongoing crackdown and mass arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters must stop and the allegations of torture and enforced disappearances of several protesters must be investigated.
Bangladeshi authorities must respect, protect and fulfil people’s human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been detained solely for protesting peacefully, and drop all charges against them.
The undersigned organisations call on the United Nations and the international community to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to:
- Respect people’s rights to freedom of expression peaceful assembly.
- Exercise restraint while policing demonstrations and avoid the use of unnecessary and excessive force against peaceful protesters.
- End the practice of torturing and forcibly disappearing people participating in protests, and immediately disclose the fate and whereabouts of those who remain in state custody who must be released unless they are immediately produce in a court of law and charged with a recognisable criminal offense.
- Conduct thorough, impartial and independent investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees and bring all those to justice in fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty.
- Stop mass detention of protesters and immediately release those detained unless they can be charged with a recognisable criminal offense.
- Ensure unfettered access to information and lift all restrictions imposed on social media platforms.
- Refrain from shutting down the internet as a means to obstruct peaceful protests.
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM ASIA)
Asian Human Rights Commission Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP)
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Eleos Justice, Monash University
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
World Organisation Against Torture
The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Bangladesh as Repressed.