Ethnic Santal Christians have lunch on Nov. 16, 2016, days after their violent eviction from disputed land in Govindaganj area of northern Gaibandha district of Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Police in northern Bangladesh have pressed charges against 90 people in connection with 2016 attacks largely targeting indigenous Santal Christians, but critics say other alleged key figures should be prosecuted.
The Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) submitted a charge sheet to the Senior Judicial Magistrate's Court in Gaibandha district on July 28.
The accused were charged with inciting or taking part in violence and arson attacks on mostly ethnic Santal Christians as well as some Muslims and Bengali Hindus.
The attacks aimed to drive them from disputed land, particularly around the market town of Govindaganj.
Three Santals were killed, dozens were injured and about 22,000 families were made homeless due to the attacks of November 2016.
The Santals are an ethnic minority group native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Many of them have converted to Christianity from their traditional worship of the supreme deity Marang Buru, also known as Bonga.
Of the 90 accused over the violence, 25 were arrested at different times, but all secured bail, according to police.
Santal activists, as well as a top church official, have rejected the charge sheet as incomplete and biased.
Philimon Baskey, a Catholic and Santal leader, told ucanews.com he believed masterminds behind the violence included a former MP of the ruling Awami League, a sugar mill executive and several policemen.
However, he believed their names did not appear on the charge sheet because they have financial or political influence.
"Ex-MP Abul Kalam Azad was the prime accused in a case filed by Santals after the violence, but he was left out, and also three policemen who set Santal houses on fire," Baskey told ucanews.com.
"We reject this charge sheet."
Within hours after the filing of the charges, hundreds of Santals blocked a major highway at Govindaganj in protest.
Santals were planning to hold a media conference to call for charges to be laid against Azad and the others seen as being implicated.
Father Anthony Sen, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dinajpur Diocese that covers the area, said the case would be a "mockery of justice" if the alleged masterminds were not held to account.
The priest said the Church is providing moral backing for people protesting against the inadequate charge sheet.
He added that there are fears there will be a repeat of other cases of violence against ethnic minorities in northern areas of Bangladesh where those who instigated strife went unpunished.
However, Abdul Hye, a superintendent of the PBI in Gaibandha district, said that investigators could not find strong evidence of involvement in the 2016 violence by ex-MP Azad and the others named by protesters.
Hye said the charges were laid against those who, according to a series of investigations, were actively involved in the violence that resulted in the deaths of the three Santal men.
On Nov. 6-7, a tripartite clash broke out between Santals, workers of the sugar mill and police over the eviction of thousands of people, mostly Santals from the disputed land.
Three Santals were shot dead, dozens were injured and hundreds of shanties were set on fire, forcing thousands to flee to nearby villages.
Santals filed a case over the violence on Nov. 16, 2016, which was later handed over to PBI investigators.
The violence sparked strong public and media outrage, forcing the government to act.
The chief government officer and the officer-in-charge of the local police station were transferred for negligence and three policemen were suspended.