Caught between 'crossfire' and 'self-defence'

Home Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal. File photo

The greatest gift that a government can earn for itself is the trust of the general public. And the best way to do so is to be transparent on matters of grave public concern and come clean on any policy failures. Pulling the wool over their eyes does nothing to win public confidence; on the contrary, it results in loss of government credibility.

Regrettably, one finds that to be disturbingly true in the case of our administration. In trying to explain away acts of commission or omission of a state agency which fails to pass legal muster or does not measure up to the moral standards, the narratives, unfortunately, fail to wash with the public because of their opacity. One has to stretch one's credulity to the extreme to make sense of the fables that are dispensed.

The latest example is the statement of the home minister justifying the deaths of nearly 300 alleged drug dealers in crossfire during the anti-yaba operation that commenced in May 2018. And the time period of that figure is only up to January of this year. The home minister wants us to believe that all these deaths are a consequence of fire, resorted to by the various security forces in self-defence.

This is not the first time that he has tried to defend an alleged act that has drawn criticism at home and abroad. And he is not the first minister to do so. Before him, BNP ministers spoke in the same eloquent vein justifying similar acts that are incapable of being legally or morally defended.

The most unfortunate aspect of governance in Bangladesh is that although there have been changes in government from time to time, alternating between the AL and BNP, the bad policies have been steadfastly continued with, that too in a more vigorous manner. Operation Clean Heart was a well-intentioned undertaking—to arrest the rising incidence of crime and lawlessness and recover illegal weapons. It was not surprising that the step was welcomed both at home and abroad, but at the end of it, at least 58 people were dead, allegedly killed by the security forces, and about 10,000 arrested. The High Court had not only declared illegal the actions taken by the army-led joint forces during Operation Clean Heart, it also held the Indemnity Act 2003 illegal and allowed the victims to "file both civil and criminal cases seeking justice against the concerned members of 'the joint forces or law-enforcing agencies' who committed the crimes."

Although the present anti-drug drive does not have a code name, its purpose is very good too—"war on drugs" with the avowed goal of "not sparing anybody" who has trafficked in drugs. Predictably, the drive came under criticism by the opposition party as vehemently as the war on drugs is now being criticised by the main opposition and human rights groups. And the move is being defended as vehemently as was the Clean Heart operation by the then administration—that the drive is the only way to tackle a fast deteriorating state of law and order. And vehemently defended also were the deaths at the hand of the security forces.

It is a sad reflection of a systemic failure that those who represent the people, the parliamentarians being members of a co-equal branch of the government, have seldom addressed matters of public concern, or held the executive answerable for its actions. Unfortunately, the separation between these two has been abridged to such an extent that the former appears to have come to be subsumed under the latter.

If ever one hears critical and discordant notes, it is only when a ruling party cadre has the misfortune of falling victim, as we heard in the case of Arzu Mian, a Chattra League leader, who was killed allegedly in a "gunfight' with Rab in August 2015. And it came from an AL MP who had reportedly claimed, "Arzu was murdered," and said, "the government could not function depending on RAB which was formed during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government."

As for the home minister's recent comments, we have certain reservations. The description of "crossfire" or even "gunfight" depicting most of these incidents is untenable. Crossfire means the termination of fire in one particular point from two or more directions. There is always a third party involved. For example, journalists are caught between crossfire in war. But here we have only the victim and the security agency! And if it is a gunfight or encounter, there must be evidence of that once the other side has been tackled. Furthermore, in many instances, the victims were picked up from home or on their way home, and some of them were in police custody, according to the statement of a victim's family, till one fine morning their bullet-riddled body was found in a paddy field.

Over the last many years, families of victims have come out publicly and described the circumstances of the death or disappearance of their relatives, which contradict the story of the police or the ministry. Surprisingly, there is total reluctance on the part of the administration to give due importance to the versions of the families. Do their entreaties not ring a sympathetic chord in our leaders? As citizens, do they not deserve to be heard? Is everything that the police say a sacrosanct gospel truth that cannot be put through independent scrutiny to determine its veracity? Should the politicians be obligated to the police, who are under their orders, or the people, under whose orders the politicians are where they are?

Disorder must be tackled. Many of the drug dealers are armed too and the security forces are well within their rights to deal with such situations as deemed necessary and to ensure their own protection. Miscreants and criminals survive by breaking the law, resorting to violence and killing people without compunction. But the state agencies cannot deal with these elements replicating the tactics of the criminals without running the risk of reducing themselves to the level of these elements. The law enforcers are supposed to uphold the rule of law and serve justice. Those defending the indefensible acts with verbal subterfuge need to be reminded of what Camus said about distorting facts: "Whoever does violence to truth or its expression eventually mutilates justice, even though he thinks he is serving it."

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

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