Up to 466 people died in extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh last year – more than twice the number recorded the previous year – amid a new government crackdown on narcotics and poll-time violence, a leading rights group said in its annual report.
The number of victims of extrajudicial killings who allegedly died in gunfights with law enforcers, crossfire incidents and while in police custody set a one-year record for deaths in that category kept by the group, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). It started logging statistics in 2013, according to figures in its report released this week.
“In comparison to previous years, the rate of extra-judicial killings has increased, especially with the introduction of the anti-narcotics drive and subsequent incidents of crossfire,” ASK executive director Sheepa Hafiza told reporters.
The year ended on a violent note as at least 16 people were killed in political violence across Bangladesh in the final 24 hours leading to the Dec. 30 vote that saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina elected to a record fourth term.
The Awami League retained power through a landslide victory marred by allegations of vote-rigging, violence and poll-related intimidation.
The group presented its annual report: “Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh, 2018,” to reporters in Dhaka on Thursday, spelling out how the country saw a huge increase in the number of extrajudicial deaths compared with the 162 reported in 2017.
More than half of the 2018 deaths – 292 – were linked to the government’s anti-drug operation, which began on May 4 and ran the rest of the year, the group said.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal challenged ASK’s findings on extrajudicial deaths.
“We did not kill anyone without trial and there were no deaths in police custody. We did not arrest anyone improperly,” he told BenarNews. “Those who were arrested – we have specific allegations against them.”
He also defended police efforts to eradicate drugs.
“The government declared zero tolerance against drugs. But these ‘drug dealers’ always carry weapons when they move. If they face any obstacle, they will shoot at law enforcers,” Khan said.
“Those who surrender to law enforcement agencies get the chance for fair trial. If they fire at police, the police will shoot back in self-defense, so the allegation of ‘extra-judicial killing’ is not true.”
Digital Security Act
Other issues of concern cited by ASK included violence against minorities and attacks on freedom of expression tied to the 2018 passage of the Digital Security Act.
The act allows police to arrest anyone without a warrant and seize computers, electronic devices or a whole computer system if they suspect online crimes could take place. It incorporates the British-era Official Secrets Act of 1923, which allows for journalists to face the charge of espionage if they reveal government documents.
It was used at the beginning of 2019 to hold Dhaka Tribune reporter Hedayat Hossain Mollah for three days of questioning in connection with his coverage of voting in the Khulna-1 constituency on Dec. 30.
Officials allege that he and another journalist reported “false and fabricated” information about an over count of the number of votes cast by about 22,000, compared with the number of voters registered in the constituency.