Opposition had claimed that 'thousands' had
been killed during the May 5 police crackdown on Hifazat-e Islam activists at
Motijheel's Saapla Chattar during the Dhaka
blockade of the radical group.
But the HRW said in its statement that Bangladesh should set up an independent
commission immediately to investigate deaths and injuries during the
Hifazat-e-Islam-led protests in Dhaka and
The supporters of the radical group were evicted on that night when they overstayed at capital Dhaka’s business district Motijheel and indulged in violence and arson.
The government said there was no alternative other than flushing out the Hifazat activists to prevent further chaos and to ensure public safety following the mayhem at the capital’s Paltan, Baitul Mukarram and surrounding areas.
It also dubbed as ‘false and motivated’ the opposition claims of thousands of people being killed in the 15-minute drive.
The opposition BNP termed the drive as genocide. However, Hefazat leaders without specifying numbers said there were many casualties in the mid-night drive.
The watchdog’s Asia Director Brad Adams in the statement said “the toxic swirl of rumour and rhetoric” surrounding the protest of May 5-6 would “only get worse unless the government acts quickly in a transparent manner”.
“Given the lack of trust between various parties, it is imperative that these answers come from an independent and impartial body,” the statement said justifying its call for independent commission to look into it.
It, however, said that the commission should also investigate violence that killed dozens in February, March, and April after protests and counter-protests broke out after the announcement of verdicts by the country’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
The statement said the exact number of deaths during the May 5-6 protest remained “unclear with figures ranging from the official government figure of 11 deaths to Hefazat’s estimate of thousands”.
“Independent news sources put the figure at approximately 50 dead, with others succumbing to injuries later. The dead include several security personnel,” the statement read.
Adams predicted that Bangladesh would see ‘a plethora of demonstrations’ this year in response to additional verdicts from the ICT and in the run-up to national elections.
“Without an independent investigation, accountability, and improved policing methods, we could see serial bloodbaths,” he said.
He also called on the government to publicly order the security forces to follow the United Nation’s basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials.
“The Bangladeshi government has a responsibility for the victims, whether protesters, bystanders or police, to ensure that an effective investigation is carried out into each death,” Adams said.
They called on opposition parties including the main opposition BNP its ally Jamaat-e-Islam, and independent organisations such as Hifazat, to condemn and take steps to deter their supporters from carrying out unlawful attacks, including on law enforcement officers or members of the public with different political views.
It also expressed concern that Hifazat recruited boys from madrasas to participate in the “siege”.
Many of the boys were unaware of the risks of marching into Dhaka.
Quoting independent journalists it said that after the protests were broken up by security forces, they encountered groups of boys who had never been to Dhaka before and were terrified by the experience of seeing dead bodies and large-scale violence.
“The boys asked journalists for directions to bus stations so they could go home. They were no longer accompanied by adults”.
“Putting children in harm’s way is extremely irresponsible,” Adams said. “Hifazat can’t credibly claim that it didn’t understand the risks, particularly as many of its supporters engaged in attacks on police that were then met with an armed response”.
The HRW also called on the government to ensure media and civil society can ‘independently’ report on the protests.
Referring to the shutdown of the Islamic TV, Diganta TV, Amar Desh newspaper and jail of its editor Mahmdur Rahman, and some bloggers who had expressed ‘atheist sentiments’ in their writings, Admas said, “The government’s claims to be the most open and democratic in Bangladesh’s history are undermined by censorship of critical voices”.
“The government can take reasonable steps to pre-empt incitement to violence, but it is not necessary to close TV stations to do this.”