We are deeply troubled by the news that seven suspected Rohingya robbers were killed in an alleged gunfight with Rab in Cox's Bazar's Teknaf on March 2, in what was the highest number of casualties in an encounter in the country in recent times. The justification offered by the law enforcement agencies follows the same narrative as that of other cases of "gun fights"—that the criminals opened fire on them and that they were "forced" to fire shots in retaliation. Rab also claimed to have recovered three pistols, seven one-shot guns,12 bullets and 13 abandoned bullet shells from the spot.
While law enforcement has the right to use their weapons in self-defence, we should not have to remind them that they must do so only under the most extreme cases and when they have run out of all possible options. However, deaths from "gun fights" seem to have become the new normal, with a total of 15 Rohingyas killed by law enforcers in similar encounters since February alone. At least 786 people have been killed in encounters since the government launched its anti-narcotics drive in May 2018. In many cases, the victims were allegedly picked up from their own homes but were later found shot. In other cases, the police could not provide credible evidence that the alleged criminals were armed.
The sheer volume of deaths from encounters—and the impunity with which law enforcers are allowed to get away with these deaths—should give us pause for reflection. Do our law enforcers now believe that "crossfire" is an acceptable alternative to the judicial process? It would hardly be a surprise if they did, given that members of the parliament earlier this year endorsed extrajudicial killings as a preferred means of addressing criminal offences. Their frank admission about the deliberate use of "crossfire" to punish so-called criminals should be read alongside these seven deaths.
We are now on a dangerous path from which there appears to be no point of return. If law enforcers themselves no longer believe in due process, why should citizens of the country have faith in it? We cannot afford to be complacent, and our lawmakers, and law enforcers, must both answer for the impunity enjoyed by law enforcing agencies in meting out extrajudicial measures.