Dhaka, Bangladesh – Allegations of murder, torture and forced disappearances are being levelled at Bangladesh’s government in a case under review by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
With violence escalating around the widely criticised January 5 election, European human rights group the International Coalition for Freedoms of Rights (IFCR) filed the case against the government on February 4.
The organisation said it was unclear how many people were killed in election-related violence, adding it was the responsibility of the ICC to investigate, since Bangladesh’s Awami League-led government has refused to do so.
The crimes were committed as part of a widespread or systematic act, thereby constituting crimes against humanity.
The application to the ICC comes after the United States last month withdrew a training programme for the country’s notorious paramilitary force known as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been implicated, along with other security forces, in extrajudicial killings.
“Individual members and units of the Rapid Action Battalion are ineligible for US training and assistance as a result of gross violation of human rights which have been committed by RAB members,“ Jon F Donilowiez, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Dhaka, wrote in a letter to Bangladeshi officials.
The director general of the security force, Colonel Ziaul Ahsan, brushed aside the announcement. “The RAB members are competent mentally and physically and foreign training and assistance are, therefore, not required for the force,“ Ziaul told Bangladesh’s New Age newspaper.
The US State Department recently issued its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 report, which also takes the government to task. Citing information from the media and local human rights organisations, the report found 146 deaths occurred during raids, arrests and other law enforcement operations. In 2012, an estimated 70 extrajudicial killings were carried out, it said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in January that security forces claimed those killed were caught in the crossfire during shootouts. The rights group said, however, that was a euphemism for what appears to be the killing of people already in detention.
Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan denounced the US State Department’s findings last week. “Its report on Bangladesh’s human rights situation is not based on facts. The US secretary of state [John Kerry] was not provided with accurate information.
“This government doesn’t believe in the politics of killing and forced disappearance,“ Khan said.
The lawsuit was sent to International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on February 4. The International Coalition for Freedoms of Rights told Al Jazeera the ICC had issued a receipt, and Bensouda will review it before deciding whether to proceed with a formal investigation.
|Bangladeshi security personnel have been accused of abuses [AP]|
It noted that Bangladesh has been a party to the Rome Statute as of March 23, 2010, and therefore, the ICC has jurisdiction to try those alleged to have committed international crimes.
Other than accusations of unlawful killings by security forces, the filing said that torture of anti-government protesters was carried out using “heated metal rods”. Electric shocks and stress positions for lengthy periods were also allegedly used.
While violence surrounding the election is the focus of the application, the rights group has also provided evidence of alleged crimes committed by various law enforcement agencies since the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina first assumed power following a landslide victory.
“It is clear that since the current Awami League government first came to power in 2009 there have been hundreds of deaths,” the court filing said.
Lord Carlile, QC, is a war-crimes analyst and vice-chair of the UK parliament’s committee on Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. He said the application warranted an investigation.
“The allegations made to the ICC are compelling, and with deep regret, I have formed the view that Bangladesh and senior government figures there should now be brought before the international criminal jurisdiction,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We would wish for the responsible Bangladesh government officials be punished by long periods of imprisonment under international law.”
A request to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment was denied. No response was received from the ICC after asking for an update on the case.
Shooting the messenger?
British lawyer Toby Cadman filed the application on behalf of the International Coalition for Freedoms of Rights (ICFR), which has been described in Bangladesh’s media as “an Islamic rights group”.
The ICFR was formed in November 2013 in response to the military takeover of the Islamist-led government in Egypt.
The climate of impunity has to end and that can only happen through a strong independent investigation.
Sajeeb Wazed Joy is the prime minister’s son and a government official. He accused Cadman of “filing false charges against the government at the International Criminal Court on behalf of BNP-Jamaat terrorists who were pouring petrol on bystanders and setting them on fire”, in an official Facebook post on February 16.
Cadman, however, defended his involvement in the case. “Whilst I work on cases in relation to Bangladesh, Syria and Egypt, I am neither Muslim nor am I politically affiliated to any group… The ICC case is not about sectarianism… It is about a state’s abuse of power,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that the filing lists victims from all groups demonstrates that it is not the product of any one political party. It is an independent legal filing to ensure that the current government stops its current campaign of using the police, courts and security forces to fight a dirty war against any form of opposition to its rule.”
According to Dhaka-based human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra, more than 30 extrajudicial killings have occurred in Bangladesh since January alone.
Tejshree Thapa from Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera the alleged abuses were tarnishing Bangladesh’s image internationally.
“There needs to be an independent, credible investigation into all the election and protest-related violence, which claimed many lives last year, and for which there has yet to be any accountability. There are serious allegations made by the various sides to the tensions in Bangladesh,” said Thapa.
“The climate of impunity has to end – and that can only happen through a strong independent investigation.”
Due to security considerations, we are not naming our correspondent in Bangladesh at this time.