In this column and through our reports, commentaries and editorials, we have repeatedly stressed the need for accountability of all public institutions run by taxpayers' money. Of them, the accountability of law enforcement agencies is most important. For, of all the institutions in a modern state, it is only the police force that is assigned lethal weapons legally and empowered by law to kill citizens, of course under clearly laid down conditions. But they have the power to kill. Each and every one of them is a potential 007, licensed to kill. Because they have the power of life and death over us—not to mention the power to detain, question, threaten, enter premises, confiscate, torture, etc.—they need to strictly adhere to the highest standards of their own procedure and their code of conduct.
But what happens if they don't?
Two recent cases—one in the USA and the other here in Bangladesh—have brought police procedures into sharp focus. An assessment of the two events will show how the accountability system in one has set in motion serious efforts at reformation, and how the absence of it in the other has led to perpetuation of the same maladies and worsening of the situation, as impunity has led to greater and more audacious violations of set practices and of the law itself.
In the first instance, in May 2020, a handcuffed George Floyd, 46, was killed by officer Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for over nine minutes, thereby causing asphyxia—lack of oxygen in the brain—that resulted in his death. Last Tuesday, after nine months of the death, with the trial completed, a 12-member jury of six white members and six Black or multiracial ones unanimously found Chauvin guilty of all three counts of second degree murder and manslaughter.
During George Floyd's trial, we saw the presentations of both the prosecution and defence camps with a minute-by-minute description of how the event unfolded—starting from the telephonic complaint by a café employee that Mr. Floyd was trying to pass off a USD 20 counterfeit bill, to the police control room alerting patrol cars to go to the site, to confronting Mr. Floyd and handcuffing him, to attempting to force the accused to the back of a police car, to subsequently putting him down on the pavement, and finally to officer Chauvin pinning him down with his knee on his neck resulting in his death.
The whole case hinged on the question of "use of force". And all the arguments were focused on that one principal question—did the police apply "excessive" or "appropriate" force?—with the prosecution trying to prove the former and the defence the latter. The jury was convinced of the former, and thus found officer Chauvin guilty.
The verdict has been welcomed by most rights bodies. In his reaction, US President Joe Biden said the murder "ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see" systemic racism in the US, which he termed as a "stain on our nation's soul", and promised, "We can't stop here. We're going to deliver real change and reform."
The question for us is, has it taken our blinders off in Bangladesh? Are we willing to work hard to remove our own "stain on the nation's soul"—the stain of systemic corruption and miscarriage of justice due to class, ethnicity, religion, money and political affiliation that has become so commonplace today?
Now, in the second instance, which occurred in Bangladesh, at least five workers were killed and 21 others injured as police fired on demonstrating workers on April 17, 2021 at an under-construction coal-fired power plant of S. Alam Group in Banshkhali, near the port city of Chattogram.
Workers were merely demanding arrear pay—a most basic right—for 1-3 months and also some special time off for Iftar and Sehri purposes. They were also complaining about their appalling living conditions, especially the rudimentary shed where they slept with foul-smelling, uncleaned open drains and inhuman toilet facilities nearby. (A reporter of The Daily Star who visited the site found it impossible to suffer the stench even for a few minutes—workers have to live near it). Demonstration for pay-rights is permitted by our law and the police knew about it as they had helped negotiate with the workers the day before. All media reports confirm that on that fateful day—April 17—the demonstration started peacefully.
Two committees have now been formed: a three-member police committee and another four-member committee led by the district magistrate. Meanwhile, Tk 3 lakh will be paid as compensation for each dead worker and Tk 50,000 for each injured one. So far, no case has been filed on behalf of the five dead workers, nor on behalf of the 21 injured. But sure enough, police have already filed cases of assault on them and for destruction of property. Many of the poor workers—some already injured and may suffer permanent physical ailments and deformities—will now be entangled in a complex legal web which may ruin their lives.
In all likelihood, there will be no case filed on behalf of the dead workers. That is because it is never the "state", but always the families of the dead, who have to initiate the legal proceedings. This they normally desist from doing, for reasons of intimidation, high cost of litigation, etc. On the other side, there is the possibility of one-time financial compensation—as it has happened in this instance—which, for the poor workers' families, means a lot.
Here, too, the crucial question is whether the force used by police was "appropriate". Did the situation call for opening fire? Had all other prior measures, such as tear gas or warning through loudspeakers, been resorted to? Could they have fired in the air before aiming their rifles at the chests of victims? Did they give any warning? If yes, what sort of warning? If no, then why not?
A total of 332 rounds of bullets were fired. There is absolutely no reason for such massive use of lethal firepower. A total of 4,000 workers live within the fenced-off compound. The agitation could not have brought together more than a thousand. We all know how agitating mobs can be easily turned around by firing in the air. There is also a provision in the police code for firing into the ground just ahead of the rioters to frighten them off or at the height of the knee to cause injury, rather than death. None of these procedures were followed. Who will ask these probing questions?
Consider this case in a different setting. Imagine a scene where, say, any one of us is walking alone in a quiet street and is stopped by a police officer carrying a firearm. What is the power dynamics between the two here? We do have our respective constitutional rights but who is the arbiter of those rights at that very moment? Who is to protect common, powerless, poor citizens from such harassment and potential extortion? The stories of people being picked up from their homes in the middle of the night and then being ransomed or beaten to death in custody, in case of a failure to pay, are not unknown. The latest trend is to threaten people of implicating them in a terrorism case unless they do as they are told.
Make no mistake, Bangladesh is not the only country to suffer from such malaise. But we are among those who do not have any reliable system of accountability, oversight or monitoring of the law enforcement agencies.
There have been only three prominent cases in which our police force (RAB is not included in this discussion) were found guilty and given harsh punishment. These cases involved the gang rape and murder in police custody of Yasmin, 18, in August 1995; Shamim Reza Rubel, 24, a BBA student of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), who was tortured to death in DB custody in July 1998; and finally Ishtiaq Hossain Jonny, 28, who was tortured to death in Pallabi police station in February 2014.
In the last case, three policemen—Sub-Inspector Zahidur Rahman, and assistant sub-inspectors Qamruzzaman Mintu and Rashedul Islam—were given life sentences. Judge KM Emrul Kayesh of the Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Judge's Court, while pronouncing the sentence, said, "The highest punishment allowed in this law is life sentence—not death sentence—and that is what I am pronouncing today."
According to case documents, on February 7, 2014, a police team led by Sub-Inspector Zahid picked up Jonny and Rocky from a pre-wedding function and tortured the former for about two and a half hours, after which he lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead. A death after two and a half hours of torture indicates its brutality and beastly nature.
In his judgement, Judge Kayesh further said, "When custodial torture by law enforcers happens, nobody witnesses it except the victim and God. This verdict was possible because Jonny's uncles were also detained and were in the same police station cell. They saw the torture happen." In most cases, there are no witnesses. So it becomes an instance of police's word against the victim family's, and this is how it stays.
By contrasting the two instances of police killings—of George Floyd in the US and Banshkhali workers in Bangladesh—it was not our intention to compare the two legal systems but simply to make the point as to what difference it makes when law enforcement agencies operate under a strict code of ethics and scrutiny by the judiciary, government, parliament, civic bodies and the media, and when such oversight is absent. According to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), from January 2016 to July 2020, a total of 1,426 people died in custody or in "crossfire", a euphemism for extrajudicial killing. Except in one or two cases, none of the above deaths were looked into to unearth the reasons behind and bring the real perpetrators to justice.
Nearly 1,500 citizens were killed, and no institution of the country even batted an eye.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.