Banshkhali Power Plant: Questions over rationality of police firing

Police had fired 332 shots and four teargas shells during demonstrations by agitating workers of SS Power I Plant in Gandamara area of Chattogram's Banshkhali upazila on Saturday, which left five workers dead and at least 21 people injured.

Human rights bodies have raised questions about the rationale for police firing. However, police officers claimed that they opened fire to "save lives and properties".

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Speaking to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, a Chattogram district police official said, "Police personnel had fired 270 shotgun bullets, 62 china bullets and four teargas shells to disperse the crowd."

At least six senior police officials told this correspondent that police usually first use rubber bullets to disperse any gathering if it poses a threat to lives and properties in an area. If the situation becomes critical, then police open fire as per rules of Police Regulations, Bengal (PRB).

There was a gap in sharing intelligence between the Chattogram police high command and field-level police personnel which led to the untoward incident, they said.

"According to media reports, the workers' unrest started on Friday morning. But no additional police force was deployed at the project site on Saturday which clearly indicates that there was a gap in sharing intelligence between district police high officials and the local police," said a police officer.

He said law enforcers could have dispersed the crowd by using batons or teargas if additional policemen were deployed. In that case, the casualties would have been much lower.

District police officials said around 50 police personnel used to perform duties at the power plant project in Gandamara.

Asked about the rationale for firing, Nessar Uddin Ahmed, SP (planning and project) at Chattogram Deputy Inspector General's (DIG) Office, said they were yet to record statements of all police personnel who were at the spot.

"You don't judge the situation by PRB rules as police take action based on the prevailing situation at a particular place. Before saying anything clearly, we have to talk with all the sides concerned which would take time," said the SP, also a member of the probe committee formed by the police.

Some workers told the probe body that they heard gunshots, but they did not see directly what happened at that time, Nessar said.

He said they were collecting CCTV footage, still photos, video clips, and related information. "After analysing those and witnesses' statements, we will say what actually happened."

However, workers alleged that police opened fire on them without any warning. None of the protesters were employees of S Alam Group or its Chinese partner Shandong Electric Power Construction Corporation III.

Instead, the joint venture company outsourced labourers from 27 subcontracting firms, workers told The Daily Star.

Chattogram Superintendent of Police SM Rashidul Haque said around 2,500 to 3,000 workers had gathered at the project site and tried to attack the Chinese workers. They even assaulted some fellow workers and police personnel and set some project properties on fire, he added.

"Considering the circumstances, police opened fire to protect Chinese workers and properties, and that led to the causalities," said the SP, who had visited the project site after the incident.

Rashidul said actions will be taken if the investigators find any negligence on the part of police. "We have formed a probe committee and the investigation report will make it clear."

However, police are yet to interrogate Chinese workers in connection with the incident.

The SP said they would talk to the Chinese workers and officials of the project.

Banshkhali UNO Saiduzzaman Chowdhury said around 1,000 Chinese workers are employed in the project

S Alam Group is installing the 1,224 megawatt coal-fired power plant at Pachsim Gandamara of Banshkhali.

SS Power I Plant is a joint venture of six companies of S Alam Group (holding 70 percent of the equity), SEPCOIII Electric Power Construction Corporation, China and HTG Development Group Co Ltd, China, according to the official website of S Alam group.

Police filed a case with Banshkhali Police Station accusing 2,500 unidentified people on charges of attacking law enforcers, while the power plant authorities lodged another case accusing 22 named and 1,040 unnamed people over setting vehicles on fire during the incident.

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