On Saturday evening, Mohammed Emdadullah, a student of statistics at the Dhaka College in the Bangladeshi capital, was picked up by the police along with 11 others during a patrol in the city's bustling Mirpur neighborhood. Shortly afterwards, his elder brother Anwarullah received a call from a police officer asking if Mohammed was involved in the opposition, and inquiring about his own occupation. Anwarullah denied that Mohammed was an activist but acknowledged that he himself worked in a bank linked to the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami. The official hung up; attempts to return the call went unanswered.
The next morning Emdadullah was dead, the accidental victim of a shootout, police claimed. He had been hit with three bullets to the chest.
The 22-year-old was a neighborhood leader in the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the opposition 20 parties currently waging protests against the Bangladeshi government. He had been detained in the possession of two-liter water bottles and two petrol bombs, and taken out with officers "in a bid to arrest his cohorts in the area," Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police told the press. But those "cohorts" opened fire, leading to an exchange of shots. Emdadullah was hit by stray bullets and died instantly; his associates managed to flee.
But his family disputes that version of events as a fabrication. "Being confirmed about his identity, police killed him and cooked up the story of a gunfight to cover up the murder," Anrawullah alleged to The Daily Star newspaper.
Emdadullah is one of 11 people who have died in police custody in the past 26 days, ever since the opposition alliance initiated mass protests, crippling Bangladesh with a program of strikes and blockades. All of them were reported killed in "shootouts."
Bangladesh has been convulsed by mass protests and unrest sparked by the January 5 detention of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia and other senior opposition figures, who were planning a large rally to demand fresh elections after last year's disputed vote. 45 people have since died in clashes and arson attacks, while the government has launched a sweeping crackdown, arresting 7000 opposition activists in the first fortnight of protests alone.
The deaths in police custody have been denounced by human rights activists as "extrajudicial killings." And observers fear they will only increase the already deep gulf between the government and the opposition, complicating any solution to the country's present political impasse.
"You will see that the script of the story is usually the same for every single death under custody, with only the characters changing during each incident," Fazlul Haque told VICE News. His brother Nurul Islam was killed in similar circumstances during the early hours of January 28 in the city of Rajshahi while in the custody of the police's Detective Branch (DB).
Nurul Islam, a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Islamia Degree College in Rajshahi, was allegedly a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami. He was picked up by a team of detectives from his printing press at around 9pm on January 27.
"After hearing of his arrest, we went to the DB office around 11:00pm where the officials assured us that they will be placing him in court the next day," recalled Haque. "We even saw my brother who was in good health," he added.
But the next morning, the family was told that Nurul Islam had died during a "shootout."
On January 28, Muhammad Shamsuddin, commissioner of Rajshahi Metropolitan Police (RMP) told the media that a DB team had taken Nurul Islam out to arrest his cohorts and recover firearms.
There, Nurul Islam's accomplices opened fire and hurled several crude bombs while trying to snatch him away from the police, said Shamsuddin. "The DB men opened fire and during the shootout Nurul was hit by bullets. He was declared dead at Rajshahi Medical College Hospital a few hours later," he said.
During the entire episode, two police constables were wounded while a revolver, five bullets and 10 crude bombs were recovered from the scene, according to the RMP. The RMP commissioner also claimed there had been 13 criminal cases pending against Nural, who they said had been leading an armed group of Jamaat-e-Islami's student wing. But his brother denied this, insisting the charges were trumped up.
"The cases were filed under Motihar police station, when my brother did not even live there. He operated his business and resided in (the district of) Malopara. Hence, all the cases filed against him were false," said Haque.
Haque also stressed that Nurul was a lecturer and had his own business. "He never was part of any subversive activities as the police are trying to insinuate," he said.
A week earlier, on January 19, Nuruzzaman Jony, a leader of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, the student wing of the main opposition BNP, was arrested with two others by a team of Detective Branch (DB) officials in Dhaka.
According to Jony's family members, the three were detained after going to the central jail to inquire about Moniruzzaman, Jony's younger brother, who had been arrested the previous weekend over an arson attack on a bus during the ongoing protests.
Immediately after hearing that Jony had himself been detained, Yakub Hossain, his father and owner of an automotive workshop, visited the DB office and those of other law enforcement agencies to look for him. "They all told us that nobody by this name has been arrested," Hossain told VICE News.
The next day, however, Hossain and family members learned that Jony was in the morgue of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. His body had 15 bullet wounds.
Police told the media that Jony was accused in six cases involving the use of explosives and assaults on officers. They said that following his arrest and during interrogations, Jony had confessed to his crimes and given the names of others involved. At 2:30am on January 20, the detectives took Jony with them during a raid to arrest his associates.
DMP Deputy Commissioner Masudur Rahman told reporters that when the DB team reached the spot around 3:00am, they were fired upon, leading to a shootout. "Jony sustained bullet injuries falling in the line of fire," he said.
"My son Jony was involved in politics. But he was not involved in attacks on common people," said Hossain. There has been no trace of Jony's two companions who were arrested with him, Hossain added.
Of the 11 people who died during alleged "shootouts" in police custody, six were opposition activists. The authorities have claimed that the other five were ordinary criminals.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the security forces to act decisively to halt the ongoing violence in Bangladesh.
While addressing an evaluation meeting of senior police officials in Dhaka on January 29, Hasina said, "I'll take the responsibility for whatever happens [due to police action]. But you'll have to ensure the security of the common people. You'll take whatever steps necessary against those responsible for burning and attacking people."
Human rights activist Nur Khan told VICE News that the actions of both the government and opposition were "killing democracy in Bangladesh." "Extrajudicial killings and arson attacks are encouraging a culture of fear that is stifling democracy. There may be no democracy in Bangladesh if this continues," he said.
He also criticised the government for cutting off the electricity and internet to BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia's office on Saturday. Although power was restored after 20 hours, several ruling party leaders including Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan threatened to cut off supplies of gas, water and other utilities to Zia's office unless she called off the ongoing strike and blockade in the country.
"The government needs to be more responsible at taking the first step towards a solution," said Khan.
International human rights groups called for restraint by all sides in the standoff. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia branch, condemned the use of violence by police and by opposition supporters, as well as those who he said were taking advantage of the situation to attack people and property.
"The prime minister and other government officials need to tell law enforcement authorities they must use non-lethal force whenever possible," he told VICE News. "Opposition leaders need to make clear calls to their supporters to stop arson and firebomb attacks. Those responsible for human rights abuses, including law enforcement, must be held legally accountable."
The Bangladeshi government had engaged "in a serious of provocative and illegal actions" towards the opposition, he said, "arresting opposition officials and mistreating Khaleda Zia, including by de facto detaining her and cutting off her electricity, phone and internet."
Political expert Professor Mohammad Shahiduzzaman said he feared that incidents of extrajudicial killings were "alienating the masses." "We can see that the nation is becoming a police state. Historically, such stances never worked. This will push the country toward anarchy," he told VICE News.