The police in Bangladesh have taken the role of judge, jury, and executioner, writes Aashish Kiphayet for South Asia Monitor
Two US senators Bob Menendez and Todd Young wrote a bipartisan letter calling on US President Donald Trump administration to impose sanctions on senior commanders of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has reportedly killed more than 400 people extrajudicially since 2015. RAB also said to have alleged involvement with enforced disappearances and torture.
In the letter, which was addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, the Senators expressed “serious concern about the ongoing human rights violations” by the RAB of the Bangladesh police. Eight other senators also signed the letter dated October 27.
Extrajudicial killings a norm in Bangladesh
But surprising news is that extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh has come down following the alleged murder of Major (retired) Sinha Mohammed Rashed Khan by the police in Cox's Bazar on July 31. According to the national rights body, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), last September, after almost eleven and a half years, Bangladesh passed a zero crossfire month. And only one case was reported in August. But from January to July this year, 207 people were killed in so-called gunfights. The highest death toll was in July when 49 people were allegedly killed by RAB. The question in everyone’s mind is why suddenly have these murders dipped?
Experts have said that this happened after Major Sinha's killing as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself intervened. She had assured the mother of the retired Army major, who had served her as a member of the special security force, that a “proper” probe would be carried out into his killing by the police. Immediately after the incident, the authorities withdrew 16 policemen. The Home Ministry also launched an investigation into the killing, forming a high-level committee.
So it can be said that such tragic incidents can be stopped if authorities take proper action and hold officials accountable.
Earlier, the law enforcement agency in Bangladesh had said that such extrajudicial killings are being investigated and that’s why the numbers are showing an increase. But what is worrisome is that such cases are not taken up or reported by the media. People are not even aware that which cases are being investigated. The citizens and the victim’s family have the right to know the details of these investigations.
According to Amnesty International, a UK-based human rights body, more than 388 people were killed by the security forces in alleged extrajudicial executions in 2019 in Bangladesh alone. A national rights body Odhikar has said at least 391 people were killed last year in a similar manner. The number of killings in "gunfights" and in police custody was 466 in 2018. The figure was 155 in 2017 and 178 in 2016.
War on drugs
The highest number of such ‘crossfire deaths’ in Bangladesh happen during police operations against drug dealers. Now the question is, can the distribution and consumption of drugs be stopped by gunfight? Such extrajudicial killings are happening despite the fact that a separate government agency called the Department of Narcotics Control is responsible for the control and spread of drugs in the country. But law enforcement is taking advantage of this agency’s failure to act against alleged drug cartels and is engaging them at will in ‘crossfire.’
The US senator's letter also mentioned the same thing. In the letter, the senators mentioned that the “war on drugs appears to be a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings” and urged the Bangladesh Government to end it and respect the rule of law and human rights.
“..the government has failed to end these abuses and the RAB continues to commit extrajudicial killings with impunity, the letter said.
Role of media
Besides, the Bangladeshi media believes the police version of such ‘crossfire deaths.’ The media needs to be more careful about publishing such news. They also need to double-check the allegations against the victim, the claims made, and who could be the beneficiary for such extrajudicial killing.
The media just reports and endorses the police version and do not realize that such situations cannot be brought under control by conducting such ‘crossfire’. But there is reluctance in Bangladeshi media to publish any other version than that of the police.
Different terms have been used by law enforcement agencies to distract people’s attention from extrajudicial killings, such as deaths during ‘crossfire,’ ‘encounter,’ ‘gunfight’ etc. Whatever the name they may give to such rampant killings, all are extrajudicial murders. The police in Bangladesh have taken the role of judge, jury, and executioner.
Sometimes it looks like cold-blooded murder. Such killings threaten the country's legal system. On June 29, the High Court asked the government to explain why killing without trial in so-called crossfire or encounter should not be declared illegal. It also asked why departmental and criminal actions should not be taken against those who perpetrate such killings in custody and outside.
Kazi Reazul Haque, former chairman of the Human Rights Commission said, after the ‘crossfire death’ of Ekramul Haque, a Teknaf municipality councilor, in May last year, guidelines were made about the "gunfights".
He also said extrajudicial killings should stop. But there is no clarity on what happened to the guidelines and what progress was made in implementing them?
Along with the right guidelines, the active participation of all the important institutions - the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive - needs to be strengthened. What is also needed is that all the constitutional institutions need to be de-politicized. Then there will be no need to do such unconstitutional acts like crossfire and extrajudicial killings.
(The writer is a journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)