UN experts write to Bangladesh government over concerns over use of lethal force and arbitrary detentions against peaceful protests

UN letter puts pressure on the Awami League government to justify its alleged repressive activities towards the opposition

UN experts write to Bangladesh government over concerns over use of lethal force and arbitrary detentions against peaceful protests
A man was killed and at least 30 others were injured after a "clash" erupted between police and BNP supporters in front of the party's central office in Nayapaltan. Photo: Habibur Rahman/ZUMA Press Wire

Four UN Special Rapporteurs, along with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, have jointly written to the Bangladesh government asking it to respond to their concerns about the use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests by law enforcement officials in their policing of  demonstrations held by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) between July and December 2022.

“We are deeply concerned by the apparent use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against peaceful protesters across various districts in Bangladesh, including the use of tear gas, live ammunition and birdshot, resulting in injuries of several protesters and the death of at least five individuals,” states the letter which is dated December 27th 2022. “We are also deeply concerned at the allegations that live ammunition may have been used against protesters.”

The Special Rapporteurs are Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, the rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association; Morris Tidball-Binz, the rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Michael Fakhri, the rapporteur on the right to food; and Alice Jill Edwards, the rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Mumba Malila, the Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also signed the letter which has been seen by Netra News.

Excerpt from the top of UN letter sent to the Bangladesh government on December 22nd, 2022

The correspondence, addressed to the Bangladeshi ambassador in Geneva, notes that the UN had not yet “received a response” to a previous letter written in May 2021 which had raised similar concerns over  the use of “excessive force” by law enforcement officers to deal with protests relating to the visit of the Indian prime minister two months earlier which had led to at least 17 people being killed.

This new UN Special Rapporteurs’ letter concerns the response by the government and law enforcement to dozens of protests that took place between July and December 2022, many of which were in response to an increase in food, electricity and fuel prices, and most of which were organised by the opposition BNP. The protests specifically mentioned in the letter include:

— a rally in Bhola on July 26th 2022 which resulted in the deaths of two opposition supporters allegedly caused by police firing;

— a protest in Narayanganj on September 1st 2022 where police shot at demonstrators with live bullets causing the death of one person and gunshot wounds to 20 others;

— a candlelight vigil in Dhaka on September 17th 2022 which was attacked by Awami League supporters resulting in 50 injuries in which the police did not intervene;

— a rally in Munshiganj on September 21st 2022 in which the police fired at protestors allegedly causing the death of one person.

The letter also includes a detailed description of the government and law enforcement response to the build up to BNP’s rally in Dhaka held on December 10th 2022 which included a police operation to arrest different kinds of criminals.  “Between 1 to 10 December, 6,500 activists of the BNP have reportedly been arrested on false charges,” the letter states.

The rapporteurs also highlight the “strong” statements made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the lead up to the planned rally. They state:

“On 8 December, the prime minister directed Awami League supporters and leaders to stay vigilant and “hit back” if attacked. She also said that “the hand that wants to beat us will have to be broken. The hand that wants to torch things must be burnt in that same fire. They must be made to feel the pain of burns”. On 9 December, the prime minister continued her remarks, warning media outlets against “oiling” the BNP, a term used to describe pleasing an entity, and that she will “see to” media outlets who do so. The prime minister also reportedly called on Awami League supporters to come to the streets to stop the BNP.”

The Rapporteurs state that they were not just concerned about excessive force but also arbitrary detentions of political leaders, participants at the meeting and civil society groups.  They state:

“[W]e are troubled by the reported arrests, detentions and legal cases that have been filed against individuals for participating in protests and for being members of the opposition political parties or critical civil society groups, despite reports that the protests were peaceful. We are further troubled by reports that individuals faced physical violence from the authorities while in detention, and were also denied medical treatment, which could possibly amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment…"
“We are further concerned the allegations of arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals, and the use of false charges, including against opposition political leaders and independent civil society groups, in relation to their participation in peaceful protests and their membership in an association.”

The rapporteurs say that, “the reported attacks and use of excessive force against members of opposition political parties and civil society organizations critical of the government may create political tension and have a negative impact on Bangladesh’s ability to hold free and fair elections as scheduled in 2023 [...] These attacks also hamper the ability of individuals to raise human rights concerns, including the economic and social rights issues related to the rise in food and energy prices, creating a chilling effect on civic space.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch told Netra News, that "Bangladeshis have waited a long time to participate in proper elections to choose their candidates. The Awami League government should have the confidence to engage in a fair contest, and all political parties should ensure that there is no violence."

The letter, which will be made public on a UN website 60 days after it was sent, also focuses on a violent attack in October 2022 of a protest organised by the student wing of the ruling Awami League party against a students right organisation, the Chhatra Odhikar Parishad (COP).

“We are especially troubled by reports that police did not intervene to stop the attack and instead arrested COP members who were the reported victims in the incident, some of whom remain in detention” the letter states.●