An alarming rise in the number of killings of political activists in Bangladesh since disputed parliamentary polls has left grassroots campaigners across the country fearing for their lives.
Labelling the arrests and subsequent deaths of activists “extrajudicial killings”, opposition leaders have blamed the government for targeting opposition activists. Several ruling party activists have also been killed over the past two months. Human rights groups fear that the crisis is likely to become even worse in coming months, if the government does not take drastic steps to bring the killers to justice.
Robiul Islam was arrested on January 27. “Police sources had later informed that, following a tip-off, a team of the joint forces [the police and paramilitary agencies] had conducted a raid,” said Saifur Rahman, a journalist based in Jessore. “After they were allegedly attacked by opposition activists, a gunfight ensued between the two sides, during which Robiul was shot.” The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) activist died a few hours later, at a nearby health facility. The police alleged that Islam was involved in the killing of Chaitanya Kumar Mandal, a local ruling party leader, a day earlier.
While the names and locations change, the story remains the same across the country, as police and security forces claim those who have been shot dead in custody over the past month had themselves been involved in killings. On January 30, Touhidul Islam, one of the BNP’s district party leaders, was also killed in a similar “gunfight” after he was arrested in Sonaimuri.
In its January 2014 monthly report, Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights group, counted more than 30 extra-judicial killings, “allegedly conducted by RAB [Rapid Action Battalion], police, BGB [the paramilitary Border Guard] and joint forces” – in that one month alone. The report also said that 26 of those killed were either activists or leaders of the BNP or Jamaat, the country’s largest Islamist party.
Atiqur Rahman, a joint secretary of Bangladesh Chhatra Dal – the student wing of the BNP – was one of those killed last month. After being accused of attacking Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor’s motorcade in December, 26-year-old Rahman had gone into hiding in Tangail, in the centre of the country.
“On the night of January 13, at least six people who claimed to be members of the detective branch of the police stormed into my house and picked up Atiqur and Mohidul Islam [Rahman’s cousin and Jamaat activist],” said Babul Khan, a relative who was sheltering Rahman. Although Rahman’s corpse was reportedly recovered by police on January 20 near the Saidpur bypass road, the family say his cousin Mohidul is still missing.
Some 302 BNP leaders and activists – and its 18 allies – have been either murdered or “disappeared” between December 26 and January 27, said Khaleda Zia, BNP chairperson, on February 4. Some 29,262 opposition supporters were arrested across the country during the same period, she said.
“Security forces and ruling party activists were behind the killings and forced disappearance,” said Zia, a two-time former prime minister.
“According to the information collected at BNP headquarters, in one month, 242 opposition leaders and activists were killed and 60 were victims of enforced disappearances,” Zia told reporters.
The fear of arrests and extrajudicial killings has gripped political campaigners.
“Naturally, there is a confusion and fear especially among our grassroots activists,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the BNP’s joint general secretary, told Al Jazeera.
He said the pervasive trend of extrajudicial killings and attacks, allegedly pushed by “the dictatorial government”, was dampening the spirit of party workers and leaders. “But it is also enforcing their collective belief and will to fuel the movement against such oppressions,” he added.
Attack on ruling party activists
The murders have not been confined to opposition activists, however. Since January 6, the day after Bangladesh’s widely discredited general election, at least nine ruling party officials have been murdered, mostly in attacks by opposition supporters, local media reports.
The latest victim was 30-year-old Mahbubur Rahman Rana, who was attacked by four or five men on January 23 at Dhaka’s Moghbazar intersection. Witnesses said the attackers wore helmets and swooped on Rana when he was trying to start his motorbike at the busy junction at around 6:30pm.
After shooting and stabbing Rana, the assailants fled the scene. Rana was declared dead by doctors after being rushed to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
On January 17, Fazlur Rahman, a local government chairman and an executive member of Natore district’s Awami League, was killed in an attack in the district’s Singra area.
Relatives of those killed worry that the people being arrested for the murders of their loved ones are likely to be innocent.
“The police have recently informed me that some of the miscreants who killed my husband have been arrested,” said Shamsun Nahar, a resident of Satkhira in Bangladesh’s south-west. Abu Raihan, Nahar’s husband and a ruling party activist, was beaten to death by a mob of masked men on November 21.
“I think the people arrested were not involved during the murder,” she added.
Ruling party MP and State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told Al Jazeera that perpetrators would be brought to justice. “The police are doing everything to arrest the murderers of the nine ruling party activists,” he said.
When asked about the deaths of opposition activists, he replied: “There is no extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh.”
“The deaths [of opposition activists and leaders] are due to exchanges of fire between the law enforcers and the criminals. They are armed criminals. When the police go to arrest them or raid their hideouts, they open fire on the police who fire back. That is how the criminals die. As far as I know, they are all criminals, accused in numerous cases.”
Human rights groups fear the worst for Bangladesh’s politics if the killings of political activists continue.
“The rate of killings have increased at an alarming rate,” said Nur Khan, director of investigations at Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation in Dhaka.
ASK noted 33 extrajudicial killings during January. Last year, they recorded more than 200 extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh.
“The targets are mostly opposition activists and leaders,” said Khan. “If the opposition is not allowed to practice their democratic rights to protest, they will eventually look for other alternatives.
“If political killings continue, the rise of armed religious political parties will be inevitable in Bangladesh.”
Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh’s government to bring a halt to the deaths.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the repeated use of “the same story” – that of a detainee somehow being shot when taken to the scene of an alleged crime – was “ridiculous”.
“These stories are even less believable when the victim is a politically unpopular person,” he said. “The authorities simply have no credibility when they make these claims.”
Under successive governments, Bangladesh has a long and well-documented record of extrajudicial killings through alleged “crossfire”, Adams told Al Jazeera: “[The] BNP, the caretaker government and Awami League have all used security forces against political opponents.”
He stressed that law enforcement agencies “should operate on a professional basis, free of political pressures”.
“As long as this continues, the public in Bangladesh will have little confidence in law enforcement agencies.”