In a rare instance in the long and not-so-glorious history of extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh, justice, it appears, is on its way to being served for the murder of Major (retd) Rashed Sinha. While there's still a long way to go for the case to be actually resolved in court, at least the family can get some solace in the news that seven police personnel accused in the case have been denied bail and sent to jail. Three, including Teknaf police station's Officer-in-Charge (OC) Pradip Kumar Das, Baharchhara police outpost's Inspector Liakat Ali, who shot Sinha, and Sub-Inspector Nanda Dulal Rakkhit have been placed on a seven-day remand, and the cops in custody have been suspended from their duties. The prime minister herself has promised Sinha's grieving mother a fair investigation, justice and financial support, and as per her instruction, a joint probe body, with representatives from the army and police, has begun an independent investigation.
All of this is certainly commendable, but despite the outrage surrounding Sinha's murder, woefully little attention is being paid to the broader issue of extrajudicial killings for which state institutions, and not just individuals, must be held accountable. In fact, there appears to be deliberate manoeuvres by relevant actors to paint this murder as an "isolated incident", which signal that the state is adopting it's preferred policy when it comes to extrajudicial killings: staunch refusal to acknowledge the extent and gravity of the problem and its own complicity in creating the Frankenstein it now wants to put in remand.
The police IGP wants to go so far as to claim that "crossfire" is an NGO invention. And while I am no etymologist, I can't help but point out that the term "crossfire" is actually an invention of our law enforcement agencies. Isn't it they who make up elaborate narratives about how they were caught in "crossfires" and "gunfights" and had no option but to shoot at the victim in question, even though there are very few, if any, records of bullet-hit or injured policemen in these incidents? If the IGP has an issue with the term "crossfire", we are perfectly okay to use the term extrajudicial killings, thank you very much.
Here's another term for him to consider: custodial deaths. According to Ain O Salish Kendra, around 1,000 out of at least 2,850 victims of "shootouts, gunfights or crossfires" since 2004 were killed after their arrest, detention or surrender to the police. Victims' families and/or witnesses say they were picked up from their homes by law enforcers and found dead hours, days, or at times, even weeks later. A recent report by The Daily Star highlights that in many instances police claim that the victim accompanied them on a raid but was caught in the line of fire when, in true Dhaliwood style, armed villains emerged from the shadows and started shooting at them. And true to the genre, our law enforcers seem to be blessed with the superhuman ability of dodging bullets—what else explains why it is always the suspect, and never the cops, who get hit?
Even if we accept our law enforcers' accounts at face value, they still must answer for the deaths of these suspects while in their custody, as per Section 328 (a) of the Police Regulation which reads: "The officer-in-charge of a police station or post shall be responsible for the safe custody of all prisoners brought to the station or post." The Criminal Procedure code also guarantees specific legal rights to citizens when they are in legal custody and provides guidelines on how public officials ought to act when dealing with an accused person. In addition, the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act, 2013 clearly specifies death during an arrest or an interrogation by law enforcement agency in its definition of "custodial death". The existence of these laws would certainty have been comforting had it not been for the fact that no law enforcement member has ever been held responsible for the "mysterious" deaths of Bangladeshi citizens in their custody, and there seems to be no mechanism in place that allows us to hold institutions accountable for their failure to investigate and punish perpetrators.
It doesn't take a political analyst to figure out that had it not been for Sinha's background as a retired army personnel and his service as a member of the Special Security Force tasked with guarding the prime minister, this case would have reached the same fate as that of thousands of so-called crossfire cases over the decade(s). At best, it would be reported and recorded by rights organisations as yet another state violation for which justice and accountability is demanded, but never achieved. Even the high-profile case of Teknaf municipality councillor Akramul Haque has not seen any progress over the past two years, despite promises from the Home Ministry and the National Human Rights Commission that an independent probe would be carried out.
When contacted by The Daily Star, the home minister said the incident happened so long ago that he could hardly comment on it without "looking at the proper documents". He further claimed that he had "no knowledge [about other incidents of extrajudicial killings]" (The Daily Star, August 8, 2020). One would have hoped that as home minister he would be a little more informed and engaged when it comes to grave allegations against his own boys—allegations which have been raised time and again by national and international media and rights organisations, including the Human Rights Committee which made a number of recommendations to the State to strengthen the law, prosecute perpetrators and protect the right to life of persons. But he's a busy man, with a lot on his mind, so here's a recap of the reported numbers of such deaths from the past years to refresh his memory: in this year alone, at least 196 people have been victims of extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths; in 2019, 388 people were killed and in 2018, when the infamous "war on drugs" was launched, at least 466 were killed in such "encounters", according to data compiled by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) from media reports.
The second accused in the Sinha case, Pradip Kumar Das, is himself implicated in at least 161 incidents of extrajudicial killings since he took charge of Teknaf police station just two years ago, and has made multiple public statements endorsing "crossfires" and threatening to set houses of drug addicts and pedlars on fire. That he is ruthless and immoral is no news to anyone familiar with the socio-political terrain of Teknaf. Some media outlets and rights organisations have previously highlighted the highly questionable circumstances under which alleged drug dealers and peddlers were killed in Teknaf, but the state never registered, much less took these allegations seriously. Rather, he was awarded with the Bangladesh Police Medal award in 2019 for his contribution to the force in six incidents where the accused in question were all killed in so-called crossfires. The state can now congratulate itself all it wants for "justice ensured", but simply sending him to remand to appease the masses (read: its most esteemed elite force) will not cleanse the blood off its hands.
It is now apparent from the contradictions in the FIR report, inquest report and sudden disappearance of witnesses to the Sinha murder that the perpetrators tried to cover up the incident by citing its most-quoted excuse: a gunfight. If this tragedy proves anything at all, it is that law enforcement members' justification of trigger-happy responses as "self-defence" cannot be taken-for-granted under any circumstance. Those of us who have followed such cases before know that the official version of most so-called gunfight cases have gaping holes in them which, if scrutinised as carefully as the Sinha case, would reveal some horrific truths about those entrusted with the sacred responsibility of protecting us. Appeals to the state to investigate these deaths through an impartial body have been rejected by successive regimes, and it is this culture of impunity which has emboldened certain law enforcement members to murder in cold blood and now needs to be put on the dock.
"Crossfires" seem to have become increasingly normalised over the years, so much so that it is now espoused openly in the national parliament as a preferred action to due process by MPs in tackling petty crimes or rape. That accused offenders have a right to life and to a fair trial seems to be lost on all concerned, and even the premise of calls for justice for Sinha's murder seems to rest on the fact that he was innocent. But what if he was not? How is this relevant to the discussion about whether or not the state used excessive force against him and robbed him off his rights accorded by the Constitution of Bangladesh and several international human rights treaties to which Bangladesh is a signatory?
Sinha, the son of a freedom fighter and former deputy secretary to the Finance Ministry, arouses our collective sympathy in ways the unnamed, unimportant petty drug dealer, discovered with an umpteenth number of yaba tablets, does not. And while our constitution does not allow us to choose whose lives matter and whose does not, our lawmakers and law enforcers seem to have taken it upon themselves to play judge, jury and executioner, forgetting that in the process, they are the ones making a mockery of the rule of law and eroding the state's moral authority over its populace.
Sushmita S Preetha is a journalist and researcher.