The deaths of seven suspected Rohingya robbers in a single incident of so-called crossfire are not normal, even in an environment where such extrajudicial killings have become the new normal. The latest incident of an alleged gunfight with suspected criminals in the Teknaf area in Cox's Bazar involved the elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The sheer scale of these killings in a single operation on March 2 has alarmed most rights' activists, who are fearful of a return to the past when RAB earned global criticism and international organisations like Human Rights Watch called for the disbanding of the force. Following a global outcry, RAB in recent years have seemingly shown some restraint, although crossfire remains a favoured tactic of security forces in the fight against drugs, terrorism and other crimes. But, more worryingly, a new investigation shows that Cox's Bazar accounts for more than one-fourth of all crossfire-deaths in the country, even before these seven deaths.
On February 28, the French national broadcaster, France24, aired an investigative documentary on the fight against drugs in Bangladesh, alleging that it was a "dirty war" and the police were acting with impunity. French24 correspondent Charles Empatz said dealers were killed on sight while the executions looked like "accidental crossfire". The 16-minute-long documentary holds disturbing pictures, eyewitness accounts and expert opinions that invalidate official narratives. It claims that in the last year alone, on an average two people per week have been killed in Cox's Bazar, taking the total death toll to 117.
This journalistic investigation, however, has also shown that handlers or distributors of drugs are largely from the Rohingya community, and one of them told the reporter that lack of economic opportunity inside the camps made them choose the trade. The most worrying part of the said broadcast was the suggestion that the police in Cox's Bazar, and in particular Teknaf, were themselves involved in the illegal trade and allegedly killing rivals. It notes that the rate of extrajudicial killings has risen dramatically since the current Officer-in-Charge of Teknaf took over his office.
The French TV's investigation raises a critical question as to why Teknaf has such a high rate of crossfire incidents. There is no doubt that most of the yaba supplies come from Myanmar via Teknaf, but it is not the only route. Does this mean that drug dealers in Teknaf are armed and in other parts of the country, they are unarmed? Are the members of the security forces in Teknaf more trigger-happy than others in the rest of the country? What is the psychological impact on those involved in repeat incidents?
The France24 documentary reaffirms what rights activists have been claiming for quite some time, that the term "war on drugs" has become a licence to kill and the most favoured tactic of the security forces. Data compiled by rights organisation Odhikar shows at least 466 people were killed in 2018 after the government launched an anti-narcotics drive on May 4 that year. Last year, the figure was 391. On February 27, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in her update at the Human Rights Council (HRC), spoke of "continuing allegations of torture, arbitrary arrests and almost 400 extrajudicial killings last year". It was her first update presented before the half-yearly meeting of the HRC since Bangladesh's election to the 47-member body. Bangladesh, in response, repeated the narrative that the government has a zero tolerance policy on any extrajudicial acts committed by members of the security forces.
Despite such denials by our diplomats at various international forums, recent admissions by lawmakers in parliament of employing crossfire as a policy in curbing the drug trade were well publicised. Those admissions were made when some of the lawmakers belonging to both Treasury and the Opposition benches demanded similar actions to tackle suspected rapists. Even the Awami League MP Tofail Ahmed, who has served all previous cabinets of his party in senior roles, argued for a tougher law to combat rape, saying "if we can take instant actions through "crossfire" on drug-related issues, then why can't we follow the same in case of rapists?" His statement contained suggestions that when he was in the government, the official policy for combating drugs was "instant actions" and those actions were so-called "crossfires"—a claim that neither the home minister nor any other of his cabinet colleagues have countered in the house.
Promotion of the so-called idea of "instant justice" by anyone, be it a lawmaker or law-enforcer, makes one wonder whether they realise that such actions undermine peoples' trust in the justice system. Besides, lack of accountability in such a large number of killings makes allegations of abuse of the process by corrupt officials more plausible. This policy, meanwhile, has spread further fear in the political sphere, as there are instances of victimisation of political opponents. On the other hand, continuance of this controversial practice after two years of its initiation suggests that it has failed as a deterrent to crime.
Impunity of the members of law enforcing agencies has long been a subject of criticism against Bangladesh. Last year, the United Nations Committee on Torture (UNCAT) expressed serious concerns on continued impunity of the law enforcing agencies. It has long been argued that an independent investigation mechanism is essential to end this impunity. Rejecting the current system of so-called internal investigations, the UNCAT in its observation said, "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."
It has recommended that the government should (a) establish 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; (b) expeditiously enact legislation ensuring effective victim and witness protection; (c) ensure that an oversight body monitors the progress of investigations into allegations of torture and ensures strict adherence to the time limits for investigations and trials outlined in the Torture Act; and (d) enhance the training of medical professionals and ensure that medical examinations ordered to assess torture allegations are carried out in accordance with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture (the Istanbul Protocol). Unless the government implements these recommendations, it can neither win the war against drugs, nor ensure the rule of law.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.