No ‘crossfire’ deaths since US sanctions

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No "gunfight" took place in the country between law enforcers and criminals since December 10 last when the United States imposed human rights-related sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and seven of its top officials.

Before December 10, killing of people in "shootouts" had become a regular occurrence, data of human rights organisation and media reports show.

Hours before the imposition of the sanction, a suspected "robber" was killed in a "gunfight" between Rab and "a gang of robbers" in Barguna's Patharghata upazila. Just four days before, two more suspected "robbers" were killed in another such "shootout" with the elite force in Bhola.

Three accused in the Cumilla ward councillor murder case, were killed in two "gunfights" between police and criminals early on November 30 and December 2 last year.

Human rights defenders say the pause in such killings shows that continuing killing in the name of "gunfight" or stopping it solely depends on law enforcers.

The government and law enforcers often claimed that such killings took place after criminals opened fire first. But in reality, the law enforcers "staged" such incidents, they said.

Similar break in "gunfights" was seen after the killing of Major (retd) Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan in Cox's Bazar on July 31, 2020. Except one in Sylhet on August 2 that year, not a single "shootout" was reported in the country for over five months afterwards.

However, 184 people were killed in "shootouts" in the first seven months in 2020, according to the tally of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).

Following the killing of Sinha, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement on August 6, 2020 said the then army chief and the inspector general of police gave necessary instructions to their respective forces so that no "such incident" occurs again in future.

Last year, 51 people were killed in "gunfights" between law enforcers and criminals, shows ASK data.

Speaking to The Daily Star on Sunday, noted rights activist Nur Khan said these are extrajudicial killings. Incidents of "shootout" or "gunfight" didn't occur at all as claimed by law enforcers, he added.

"If 'shootout' existed at all, it would have continued even after the imposition of US sanctions or after the killing of Major Sinha. After the sanctions, we saw one was tortured to death in Rab custody. It's quite evident that if the government wishes, it can either stop or continue extrajudicial killings."

Such extrajudicial killings increase, decrease or stop in special situations or times, the rights activist said, adding that the number of arrests grows during or before elections and the number of enforced disappearance goes up during political movements.

"When a special situation arises or when people get angry, such shootouts stop. That's why it seems that extrajudicial killings can be a strategy of the rulers to create an atmosphere of fear so that people can't protest any offences or wrongdoings," said Nur Khan.

Human rights bodies say extrajudicial killings had begun in early 2002 in the name of "Operation Clean Heart". There had been a spate of "gunfights" between law enforcers and criminals since 2004.

According to rights organisation Odhikar, at least 3,135 people were killed in "gunfights" between law enforcement and security agencies and criminals from January 2001 to September last year.

The number of people killed in "gunfights" increased in 2018 compared to the previous two years after a countrywide anti-narcotics drive began.

The Awami League in its 2008 election manifesto stated that "extrajudicial killings" will be stopped if it is voted to power.

After the party came to power, the then government in February 2009 informed the UN Human Rights Commission that Bangladesh adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for extrajudicial killings, torture, and deaths in custody. But "gunfights" took place throughout that year, except in March.

Asked about the pause in "shootout", Rab Director (legal and media wing) Commander Khandaker Al Moin yesterday said occurrence of "gunfights" does not depend on any special situation or time; rather it depends on the circumstances of a drive when criminals open fire first.

"The constitution and law of Bangladesh have permitted us to open fire in self-defence. It's not a matter of human rights. We might have not come under attack in the last one month. This proves that it's not a routine issue that gunfights would take place five-seven times every day. We only open fire when we come under attack," he claimed.

The USA on December 10 imposed human rights-related sanctions on Rab and seven current and former top officials of the agency, including Benazir Ahmed, now inspector general of police.

The State Department in a separate release said they barred two Rab officials including Benazir, former director general of Rab, from entering the US for their involvement in a gross violation of human rights, namely the May 2018 extrajudicial killing of a Teknaf municipal councillor.

The killing of Teknaf Ward councillor Ekramul Haque on May 26, 2018 caused a huge outcry in the country after a phone call during the "gunfight" was leaked.


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