"The Police does not shoulder the responsibility of any misdeed committed by an individual", claims the Bangladesh Police Service Association (BPSA), a representative body of the members of the police cadre in the country. The statement was aimed at calming tensions created due to the unfortunate extrajudicial killing of Major (rtd) Rashed Md Khan Sinha in Cox's Bazar by a police team.
It must be noted that till now, none of the members of the BPSA have been named in the Sinha murder case. However, the irony was, on the day the association issued the statement, one of its members, an SP of Rajshahi Range, was sued in Dhaka for the abduction and extortion of a businessman. Besides, some more stories appeared in the media in the last few days alleging police excesses, extortion, corruption and another extrajudicial killing in the same Cox's Bazar district, which appears to be a pattern throughout the country.
The BPSA statement claimed that Bangladesh Police took action against the wrongdoers earlier and that this practice would continue in future. But the facts do not bear out such statements. In fact, this particular mentality—that any wrongdoing should be apportioned on individuals rather than the enabling structures and cohorts—foster more abuses, more corruption and an erosion of public trust. No wonder the opening lines of a decade-old report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Bangladesh police still remains valid and relevant. The report said, "After decades of misuse and neglect, Bangladesh's police are a source of instability and fear rather than a key component of a democratic society. Human rights abuses are endemic and almost all Bangladeshis who interact with the police complain of corruption."
The ICG in that report warned that if the police continue to be used for political ends, the force may be damaged beyond repair at a great cost, not only to Bangladesh's citizens but also to current and future elected governments. Given the role the police has played in crackdowns on opposition and silencing dissent, over-enthusiastically acting like members of the ruling party during elections and extracting impunity from the political masters, one may reasonably assume that we have reached the state that was predicted by the ICG.
The outcry for justice for Sinha is a wakeup call to look beyond one particular crime, and instead identify the institutional faults. It should start from rejecting the notion that all crimes committed by members wearing the badges of a security force have nothing to do with the institution. The recent backlash against institutional racism in policing in the United States has forced politicians and police to review and reform policing. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has resulted in police forces being defunded by quite a few local authorities, which for long ignored the need for change.
Luckily, so far, racism is not that visible in Bangladesh but power and influence have become major factors in policing. In this context, a possible backlash on policing for the few and privileged should not be discounted. Our focus should be now on reforming the police and ensuring justice for all. For too long we have focused on symptoms and not the cause. Justice for Sinha should pave the way for justice for all the victims of extrajudicial killings and abuses.
The most frequent answer the authorities love to utter is that reforms require in-depth study and time. But the fact is that a comprehensive study under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was undertaken and its recommendations, which were submitted in July 2012, remain largely ignored. Among many other findings, its most crucial analysis is that the Police Act 1861 places great emphasis on accountability to the government but less importance on accountability to the law and to the community, which is against democratic principles. The study says that in a democracy, "police have an obligation to be accountable to the law, elected representatives and the community". It clearly states, "notwithstanding the Bangladesh Police's move to establish the Police Internal Oversight body, failure of the 1861 Act to institute some form of independent and external review of police misconduct is a glaring omission".
It is true that the current government, during the early years in its first term, brought in some measures which some people felt were encouraging and positive. The most notable among those were improving pay and provisions, and an apparent attempt to involve communities in policing. But, like any other half-hearted reform initiative, it failed miserably. Community engagement became another tool to make police work for the ruling party, instead of the society. Monthly meetings at police stations with so-called "civil society" representatives became farcical and in some cases, conspiratorial against opponents and rivals of local MPs and leaders of the ruling party.
Without an external oversight mechanism, as the forces of accountability gradually shifted more to the party in power, abuse of power for financial gains became rampant as well. Doubling of salary and other financial incentives did not work to discourage corruption; rather demands and greed reached an unprecedented level.
The impunity issue was best summarised last year by the United Nations Committee on Torture (UNCAT) when it observed, "The Committee is further concerned at reports that there is no independent body authorised to carry out investigations into allegations of torture by officials, so investigations are carried out by officers from the same units or within the same official hierarchy as the alleged perpetrators, resulting in conflicts of interest."
Among many other recommendations, the most important one it made was establishing an investigation mechanism to handle complaints regarding torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials that is independent of law enforcement agencies, including the police hierarchy. It also called for legislations ensuring effective victim and witness protection. The need for such legislation can easily be felt if anyone looks at the abuses and harassment by members of the police force on social media against the co-workers of Sinha. Its recommendations include ensuring an oversight body's monitoring role in the progress of investigations into allegations of torture. We should now make it a priority that these recommendations are fully implemented as soon as possible.
In an extraordinary move, the administrative probe body set up by the government into Sinha's killing is holding a public hearing into the circumstances and issues related to the incident. The hearing may not have any bearing on the criminal investigation and prosecution, but it shows that similar public hearings in all other alleged extrajudicial killings are possible. Therefore, a public enquiry into all alleged extrajudicial killings headed by a Supreme Court judge with judicial powers should be instituted as soon as possible. Establishing a judicial probe does not require any new legislation. We urge the government to establish a judicial commission and make the truth come out. Justice for Sinha should open up the way to justice for others too.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.