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2003 Banshkhali carnage: When Islamists in Bangladesh burnt 11 Hindus alive to grab their land

Since a verdict could not be reached in 2013, the case was re-transferred to the trial court. It has been 18 years since the 11 Hindus were burnt to death and justice continues to be denied in Bangladesh.

On the fateful night of November 18, 2003, 11 people belonging to a Hindu family were burnt alive by Islamists in Banshkhali Upazila in the Chittagong district of Bangladesh.

As per reports, the victim Tejendra Lal Sheel lived with his family in Sheelapara in Sadhnopur village of Banshkhali Upazila. Prior to the arson attack, the accused tried to intimidate the victim into giving up his land. When Sheel refused to comply, the attackers set his house on fire. On the orders of one Mokhtar Ahmad, accused Mahbub Rashid shut down the doors and windows of the house. At that point, another accused Rubel carried out the deadly arson that killed 11 people including 6 children.

The victims were identified as Tejendra Lal Sheel (70), Bakul Sheel (60), Anil Sheel (40), Smriti Sheel (32), Rumi Sheel (12), Sonia Sheel (7), Babuti Sheel (17), Prasadi Sheel (17), Annie Sheel (7), Debendra Sheel (72) and 4-day-old Kartik Sheel. The Daily Star had reported how the killing of 4-day-old Karthik sent shockwaves in the local community. “It is too macabre to even think of. Kartik was a joy in the family but wiped out of existence four days after birth. Ever heard of? Ever imagined?” recounted a neighbour.

Trial, Investigation and legal hassles in the Banshkhali massacre

The police initially dubbed the case as that of robbery. “I don’t believe this is a robbery, as eight other houses in the same yard were untouched,” a hairdresser named Nepal, who lived in the same neighbourhood had questioned. Following public outrage, the cops began investigating the matter.

During the investigation, Mahbub had confessed to the involvement of 12 people in the Banshkhali carnage. He narrated, “Of the 12, six including Mokhtar, Dola Meah, Rubel, Akbar, Aminul Haq and me entered the house and six others were on guard outside. As the family members threw acid on us, Rubel ordered us to set the house afire. We followed his orders, shut all the doors and windows and Rubel set fire to the house.”

Later, it came to light that the deadly attack was carried out on the orders of the then ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader Aminur Rahman Chowdhury to encroach over the land owned by Sheel. In January 2011, ASP Hla Ching Pru filed the charge sheet in the case. He added charges of arson, looting and murder against a total of 38 accused. The court framed the charges in April 2012. In May that year, the court began recording the testimonies of the witnesses and passed on the case to Speedy Trial Tribunal in October 2012.

Since a verdict could not be reached in 2013, the case was re-transferred to the trial court. It has been 18 years since the 11 Hindus were burnt to death and justice continues to be denied in Bangladesh. In 2019, the High Court directed that the case be disposed of within 6 months. Even then, the trial court failed to record the testimonies of 50 witnesses. Until 2020, only the testimonies of 22 witnesses were recorded. As of today, only 2 of the accused are behind bars while 17 of them are out on bail. A whopping 19 accused are still on the run from law enforcement authorities.

Delay in justice bolsters courage of radical elements

The Sheel family is now survived by Dr Biman Dheel, who is the son of victim Tejendra Lal. Despite no legal and financial support from the Awami League government, the only surviving member of the family continued to fight the case legally. While speaking about the case, Bimal Sheel lamented, “I hoped I would get justice, but I haven’t got it yet. The situation has come to such a point that no witness is agreeing to testify. Warrants are required for their presence. Even the then OC of Banshkhali Police Station and the ASP who investigated the case have not testified.”

He added, “Newspapers publish reports on the anniversaries. That’s all. No one cares anymore about us. I’ve lost my parents. I have nothing else now.” During this period, he received the support of Rana Dasgupta, the General Secretary of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council in Bangladesh. Dasgupta highlighted how the delay in justice created a ‘culture of impunity’ and encouraged the targeting of religious minorities in Bangladesh.

“The justice seekers won’t consider it justice even if the trial ends now. They lost everything in 2003 and continued to suffer to run the case for so many years. This shows the situation in which the minorities in Bangladesh live in now. This case shows how the culture of impunity exists in attacks on minorities. Communal forces are encouraged by the delay in the trial,” he added.

 

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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