On 17 April 2021, Bangladeshi police clashed with peaceful demonstrators at the Banshkhali Coal Power Plant in Chattogram, killing 7 workers. Friends of the Earth Australia join Friends of the Earth Bangladesh in condemning the use of lethal weapons against peaceful protesters.
The power plant is a joint venture between Bangladeshi industrialists S Alam Group, and Chinese companies SEPCO III Power Construction Corporation and HTG Development Group Company Ltd at Banshkhali Upazila. Power plant workers and villagers had formed a large, peaceful demonstration outside the under-construction Banshkhali Coal Power Plant demanding the payment of unpaid wages, reduced working hours for the holy month of Ramadan, and better working conditions. An altercation at the site led to police firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. Five workers were killed, and dozens more injured, with two more individuals succumbing to injuries in the following days, bringing the death toll to seven. This is the third incident of violence at the Banshkhali Power Plant project in recent years. Previously, similar incidents led to the deaths of four people in 2016, and one person in 2017.
On 28 April, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)/Friends of the Earth Bangladesh held a virtual consultation with workers and local community members to discuss the events leading up to the violence at Banshkhali. The community members described how the project owners in association with law enforcement and local gangs had created a climate of fear in the area. False cases were filed to give law enforcement an excuse to harass and intimidate the community members. In the aftermath of the Banshkhali incident, the project owners and the police filed a case against the demonstrating workers and community members for instigating violence, naming thousands of unnamed workers in the case – a tactic used before as well to give law enforcement license to harass, threaten and intimidate the community.
In response to the killing of the 7 workers, BELA, Association for Land Reform and Development, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Nijera Kori, Safety and Rights Society and Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) – have filed two public interest suits in the High Court of Bangladesh. In the two cases, the demands include:
- The formation of an independent judicial committee to investigate the incidents of the police opening fire at the demonstrators;
- The filing of reports on this incident by the district and police administrations;
- The provision of protection, treatment and appropriate compensation to be disbursed for the families of the deceased workers; and
- The provision of medical treatment for those injured during the incident.
On 4 May, after hearing the statements of the writ petitioners, the Bangladesh High Court, ordered district and police administrations to submit their investigation committee’s report and the report of the Ministry of Labour on labour safety, security, and medical treatment within 45 days to the court. At the same time, S Alam Group was ordered to disburse BDT 500,000 (AUD$7,500) compensation to each deceased worker and bear the full cost of treatment for the injured workers. The administration was also ordered not to harass the workers in the name of the investigation. For the time being, BELA is pleased with this order as it may lead to a judicial inquiry.
Listen to an interview with Real World Radio and Bareesh Hasan Chowdhury, BELA’s research lawyer, regarding this case
A recent police investigation highlighted several reasons for the disagreement between workers, project owners and management, including late payment of wages, demands for reduced work hours during Ramadan, poor sanitation and accommodation facilities, and communication difficulties as well as tension between Chinese and Bangladeshi staff.
Friends of the Earth Australia join Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) in condemning the use of lethal weapons against peaceful protesters. We echo BELA’s call for:
- Protection, treatment, and appropriate compensation for the families of the deceased workers, and the provision of medical treatment for those injured during the incident;
- A permanent end to the construction of the Banshkhali Coal Power Plant and any other new coal power plants;
- An end to government tax exemptions for destructive fossil fuel projects;
- A plan to phase out coal power and an increase in funding to support a nation-wide transition to renewable energy; and
- A fair and just transition plan for all workers, that also upholds gender justice.