Human rights experts in South Asia are alarmed by the acquittal last week of constable Amiya Ghosh by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) in the retrial of the Felani Khatun murder case.

The killing of the 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl more than four years ago by Indian border guards at the India-Bangladesh border sparked widespread outrage after a photograph showing Felani Khatun’s dead body hanging on a barbed wire fence was published internationally.

While Felani’s parents in Bangladesh have rejected the verdict by the BSF’s General Security Forces Court in Cooch Behar,  Amnesty India has decided to challenge the acquittal of the BSF man in the Indian Supreme Court.

Other human rights advocates are very concerned that the acquittal will send the wrong message to BSF soldiers guarding the over 2,000-kilometer long India-Bangladesh border, where border violence has been a serious issues over the past three decades.

Felani Khatun was shot dead on Jan. 7, 2011 while trying to cross the India-Bangladesh border to Bangladesh with her maternal uncle and father.

Members of the poor Bangladeshi family were living in New Delhi illegally. Felani herself had been working as a housemaid in the Indian capital.

As Felani’s marriage had been fixed in Bangladesh, the family decided to move back to Banarvita village in Kurigram district of the country. Without proper travel documents, they had no option but to cross the border illegally.

Snagged in wire

On the dawn of January 7, 2011, Felani’s father and uncle managed to crossed the barbed-wire fence of the border by using a ladder. But Felani’s clothes were entangled in the wire and as she struggled to free herself, she was shot.

Eyewitnesses had informed the media that the teenage girl was still alive while dangling on the barbed wire for nearly an hour.

Even after she breathed her last, her dead body was left dangling for the next four hours.

Felani Khatun's body on border fence
Felani Khatun’s body on border fence

Later, BSF personnel took her body down from the fence. They then tied her hands and arms to a pole, much like an animal, and carried her off, eye witnesses said. Felani’s body was handed over to Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel the next day.

The photograph of Felani’s bullet-ridden body hanging from the barbed wire was published in the global media, after which there was a unanimous call for justice.

Global pressure drove India to launch a probe in August 2013.

Felani's body

BSF found 181 Battalion Constable Amiya Ghosh responsible for Felani’s murder with his 5.56mm Insas rifle. After Amiya confessed to the crime, he was charged under Section 304 (unintentional killing) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 146 of the BSF Act.

The trial began at a BSF court on August 13, 2013, according to some media. But on September 6 that year, the same court cleared Ghosh of the murder charge.

This again led to ire from the victim’s family and rights activists of both countries. After Bangladesh expressed their dissatisfaction with the trial, a retrial was ordered.

Finally, on July 2, 2015, a special West Bengal Court of BSF upheld its previous verdict after hearing the revision trial.

Family still suffers

Nurul Islam, Felani’s father, rejected the verdict. “I did not get justice for my daughter,” he told Asia Times last week.

He pointed out that ever since losing Felani, his wife Jahanara Begum has not been the same. “We are still suffering without her (Felani),” said the father of two daughters and three sons excluding Felani.

Human rights groups are doing their best to get Islam and his family their justice.

On July 8, Amnesty India declared that it will file a motion with the Indian Supreme Court to challenge Ghosh’s acquittal. Sushanto Sarker, secretary of Amnesty India, said that the organization will file a petition as public interest litigation with the apex court on July 13.

Sarker said, “We are taking it to the honorable justice of the Supreme Court on humanitarian grounds. So hopefully, our efforts will be fruitful.”

ASM Nasiruddin Elan, Director of Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar pointed out that the acquittal of the BSF man can send the wrong message to Indian border guards. “If the verdict remains the way it is now, then we would have to say that Bangladeshis at the border areas are unsafe,” he told Asia Times. He is very concerned that this verdict may encourage more border violence.

More deaths

Killings at the border are continuing. Most recently, on the evening of July 5, a Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) team recovered the body of  Rubel Hossain, 23, from the Ichhamati river near the Bangladesh-India border in Debhata upazila of Satkhira. Hossain’s family claimed that he died due to torture by BSF personnel.

Rubel Hossain, along with his companions Kawsar Ali and Asadul, from Harhadda village had gone to work in a brick field. As they were crossing the Ichhamati back to Bangladesh, BSF arrested Kawsar.

Later, a BSF patrol team chased Rubel in the river and ran him over with their speedboat, severely injuring him. Later, they picked him up on their boat and tortured him, before dumping him back in the river, causing him to die, according to local BGB  sources.

According to Odhikar, such deaths are not uncommon at the border as at least 23 Bangladeshis have reportedly died at the India-Bangladesh border at the hands of BSF personnel from January till June 2015. Also, during this time, at least 35 Bangladeshis were injured in similar border violence while 17 Bangladeshis were allegedly abducted by BSF.

According to Odhikar, between 2000-2014, some 1,035 Bangladeshis were killed by BSF, 919 were tortured, and 1,274 persons were abducted.

Most poor Bangladeshis living in the border areas try to make quick money by smuggling cattle from across the border. They are shot at by BSF while trying to cross the border.

“But there have been numerous cases during the past few years where Indian citizens and BSF personnel have crossed the border to Bangladesh and committed atrocities like killing, abduction etc,” said Elan.

When contacted by Asia Times, human rights activist Kirity Roy, who is also the secretary of West Bengal-based Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), questioned the Felani murder case retrial procedure.

Roy wrote in an email, “We want to reaffirm our position on trying of security force personnel in regular courts of law (in open court, not a secret court so as to ambush justice) while an offense was committed by their men against one armed civilian, which does not fall under their official duty.”

He added that the BSF is infamous for human rights violations, as they regularly indulge in torture and extra judicial killings of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens at the eastern frontier.  “We have made hundreds of complaints of extrajudicial killings, torture and rape by BSF personnel to human rights institutions and interestingly, these were the incidents reported from very few police station areas; not representing the whole reality of nearly 2,000 kilometer border.” He also pointed out that majority of the victims of BSF are Indian citizenry and “not the so-called Bangladeshi intruders.”

Felani Khatun and siblings
Felani Khatun and siblings

He pointed out that there has been a slight decrease in the border violence since the March 2011 meeting between BGB chief Rafiqul Islam with his BSF counterpart Raman Srivastava, two months after the Felani murder. At the meeting, the BSF decided not to use lethal weapon at border areas.  “But we can see them violating their own norm since 2011,” said Roy.

Roy hoped to “attract the legal system of India for recourse.” “We want the impunity to stop,” he said.

With more such right activists in South Asia speaking against the Felani retrial verdict, Felani’s father Nurul Islam is still clinging on to the hope that his family will get the justice for Felani’s murder.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka, Bangladesh based freelance journalist and the editor of  Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, a leading English daily in Bangladesh.

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