THE figures are unbelievable. But even more unbelievable is the response (or the lack of it) by the officials and the government. However, the real tragedy is that there has been no serious outcry from the people in general against, what is clearly the most flagrant, dangerous and nation-destroying abuse of power by the very people entrusted to dispense justice and establish the rule of law.
Day after day people are being killed by law enforcers (shall we still call them so?) and day after day we are being taken for 'fools' and fed with the same story (one is forced to feel that press releases are mere photocopies of each other with just the changes in identities and addresses) about criminals opening fire on them and they having to fire in “self defense.”
Common sense dictates that as criminals open fire first (according to the press releases) then the likelihood of Rab or police personnel getting hurt (though we do not wish them so) should be reasonably high. Yet, defying all logic, common sense, experience and science of probability only the criminals die in all the shootouts, with rare exceptions of happenings otherwise.
In a rare display of responsibility by our otherwise shamefully silent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), it had undertaken an investigation of so-called “shootout” killing of Rajab Ali on February 16 by the local police at Kashabpur in Khulna. The investigation found police claims to be false and termed the incident as “extra-judicial killing.” We await an official response to this NHRC finding.
Take the more recent case of Wasim Mia and his associate Sangram Chowdhury. This paper has investigated the police story and has found numerous anomalies that convince us that the case merits independent investigation. We believe that it calls for another investigation by NHRC as enough grounds exist to suspect that the police version cannot be accepted as it now exists.
Juxtapose the HRC findings on 46 people killed in the first 48 days of this year, and on the 208 killed during last year and then we can clearly see the extent of the calamity we have at hand.
In Bangladesh, we are used to high death figures due to natural calamities and capsizing of overloaded launches and big boats during holiday seasons. However, these death figures are of people who died in so-called gun fights or “shoot outs” between criminals and Rab or police. And these are people whose deaths have been explained away in the same “photocopy” press releases that said nothing of what really happened.
Our present prime minister's love for the constitution has now become legendary. She told the whole world, including the voters of Bangladesh, that she had to hold a nearly voter-less election (20% turn out by official count) without the biggest opposition party simply to follow the constitution, which she had changed earlier to suit herself.
Well, what about other provisions of the constitution. Isn't it her duty to implement them too? Let us recall some of those constitutional provisions. Article 27 of our constitution says, “All citizens are equal before the law and have equal rights to protection of law.” According to Article 31, “To enjoy the protection of law, and to be treated in accordance with the law, and only in accordance with the law, is the inalienable right of every citizen.... ” Article 32 asserts, “No person shall be deprived of life and personal liberty save in accordance with law.”
Since 2004 till date a total of 2,111 persons have been killed through what has been called “crossfire.” The highest numbers killed were in 2005 and 2006, during the last tenure of the BNP-Jamaat government, when the figures reached the figures of 377 and 362 respectively.
As can be expected, the then opposition Awami League waxed eloquent about such extra-judicial killings and Sheikh Hasina pledged to do away with them if she returned to power. Well, she did return to power but the extrajudicial killings never stopped. In 2009 the number was 229. To her credit, the figures for such deaths declined to 99 in 2012 but regrettably shot up last year to 208.
Why have our successive governments -- both BNP and AL -- allowed gross violations of human rights and such a fundamental violation of our constitution to take place? The unofficial reason is the lack of faith in the judicial system. Law enforcers believe that our justice system is so time consuming, cumbersome and corrupt that criminals never get punished for their crimes. Why follow a process that does not deliver? Answer, take “the law in own hands” and dispense instant “justice,” and thereby effectively “eliminate” the problem.
This “logic” received a boost when Rab very successfully contained the threat of “extremist violence.” There is no question that Rab did a creditable job in countering the threat from local and internationally sponsored terrorists like those who set off the 500 simultaneous bombs, and the likes of Bangla Bhai. Sadly, we have to admit that, howsoever perverse, there is some sort of 'uninformed' public support behind the killing of the well known criminals by the law enforcers, again reflecting a lack of confidence in our legal justice system.
There is also the twisted logic at work that such 'elimination' of criminals helps to rid society of undesirable elements and hence it is 'justified,' as the end result is for the good of society.
These reasons are not, never were and nor will ever be, an option for a country that wants to be governed by “law” and a government that believes in the “rule of law.” Here lies the significance, the enormity and the complexity of our present challenge.
We want to say in the clearest and sternest of terms that the present spate “extrajudicial killings” in the name of “shootouts” or “crossfire” must be stopped. We are running the risk of being termed as a lawless country where right to life and due process of law can no longer be guaranteed. We have reasons to believe that what is happening in the name of “shootouts” and “crossfire” is very well known to the decision makers and the political leadership, and they are deliberately looking the other way. This is self damaging politics at its worst.
We must remember that member states of the United Nations system can now be held accountable for unlawful killings within and Bangladesh may suffer unforeseen consequences if we allow such abuses of the law to continue.
More importantly, we as a nation, as a political entity, as a people firmly believing in democracy and rights, and as country that is a signatory to many of the UN covenants enshrining the highest values of 21st century civilisation, cannot and should not permit such “extrajudicial killings” for the sake of our own values and closely held principles, emanating from our own struggle for freedom and justice.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.