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No justice for indigenous Santals one year after violence

Victims still haven't been compensated for forced evacuations and are waiting to be relocated to new homes

No justice for indigenous Santals one year after violence

Indigenous Santal men at a village at Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh on Nov. 17, 2016, more than a week after they were violently evicted from disputed land by police and sugar mill workers. (Photo Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Bangladesh

November 14, 2017

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Bangladeshi indigenous Santals and church officials have expressed frustration over the government's failure to deliver justice one year after violent forced evictions in the north.

Clashes broke out between the Santals, police and Rangpur Sugar Mill workers on Nov. 6, 2016 following a move to evict the minority from a disputed area of land at Govindaganj in northern Gaibandha district. The violence left three Santal men dead and 20 other people injured, including nine policemen.

Thousands of Santals Nov. 6 staged a demonstration in Gaibandha to protest a lack of progress in providing compensation and catching the culprits.

"No progress has been made on legal matters as police have yet to press charges against the culprits. One year after the murder of three people, police have exhumed the body of only one victim for a post-mortem. The government has not compensated anyone," Philemon Baskey, a Santal leader and Catholic, told ucanews.com.

Baskey said no effort had been made to relocate and help those who had been evicted and children could not go to school. "People are still residing in church and school grounds one year on as they have nowhere to go," he said

Violence erupted one year ago as workers from the state-run Rangpur Sugar Mill, accompanied by police and local thugs, evicted 1,600 impoverished families, most of them Catholic, from their land, which they claimed belonged to their forefathers.

Violent clashes, and gunfire and arson attacks on their shanty homes displaced 7,000 people, who took refuge at a local church, school, and with relatives.

Initially, police denied any involvement in the violence. But video footage obtained by the media showed police complicity in arson attacks and shootings, which triggered public outrage.

The outcry forced the government to suspend three police officer and transfer the local police superintendent, deputy commissioner and the chief district government officer.

The victims filed two murder cases against the attackers which are being handled by the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI).

Despite repeated efforts from the church, the authorities have not taken concrete action on justice and compensation for the victims, said Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur, whose diocese covers the area.

"The church has been constantly in touch with the administration and police, but it has yielded no result. As far as I know no victim was compensated, rehabilitated and the legal cases have made no progress at all," Bishop Tudu told ucanews.com.

"It seems we just have to look for the government's mercy on the issue."

Bishop Gervas Rozario, chairman of the Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, said procrastination over the cases indicated how apathetic police and the administration were to solve them. It also showed their favoritism towards the politically and financially powerful sugar mill.

"This negligence is deplorable and unacceptable," Bishop Rozario told ucanews.com.

Goutam Chandra Pal, deputy commissioner in Gaibandha, said the government would eventually relocate and provide support for the victims.

"We are designing programs for their housing, skill training for employment, education for their children and medical facilities. They need to come to us if they have complaints, but they don't come to us," he told ucanews.com.

Gaibandha Superintendent of Police, Anwar Hossain, said the investigations were progressing.  

"Three men were arrested and we are after the suspected attackers who fled. We are collecting evidence and as part of it, the body of a slain Santal was exhumed for a port-mortem on Nov. 8." Hossain told ucanews.com.

He added that more time was needed to complete the investigation.

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