Stop using extrajudicial killing to curb crime

Over the past one and a half decades or so, there has been all sorts of political debate in various countries of the world, condemning extrajudicial killings by the law enforcement agencies. But there is no dilemma or differences within the important establishments of the country about this issue. Even the government-nominated opposition in parliament often demands that persons accused of rape or suspected drug dealers, be finished off in crossfire.

Certain senior leaders of the ruling party have more or less admitted in parliament that such an undeclared policy indeed exists. And now the death of former army officer Sinha Md Rashed Khan, and the police’s far-fetched statements in this regard, had generated anger and speculations, bringing the debate of extrajudicial killings to the fore once again.

The debate has now taken on such serious proportions that, probably for the first time, the army chief and inspector general of police held a joint press conference. At the conference they stated that the incident would not create a rift between the army and the police. They said that investigations were being carried out at the prime minister’s directives. They had confidence in the investigations and said that the persons proven to be guilty would be held responsible, not the institution. The said that both the army and the police were shocked by what they referred to as an “isolated incident.”

Army chief Aziz Ahmed and the police inspector general Benazir Ahmed visited the spot of the incident and held a meeting with the local administration there. Any effort to prevent unrest is positive and they deserve to be given due credit for this initiative. However, there remains questions as to whether this is the best way to curb agitation.

This precedence set by them certainly clarifies a few matters. Most important is that the police version and the explanations always given by the law enforcement agencies concerning the so-called crossfire, is not the ultimate truth and there is need for neutral investigation.

At the press briefing the IGP had said, “I do not agree with the term ‘crossfire’. This is used by NGOs.” Actually human rights activists don’t agree with the term ‘crossfire’ either. They call it ‘extrajudicial killing’.

This matter was also strongly voiced at the 5 August press conference of the retired army officers’ association RAOWA. At the press conference, the RAOWA Club chairman, retired major Khandakar Nurul Afsar, said the negative propensity to curb crime by means of extrajudicial ‘crossfire’ or ‘forced disappearances’ had become more apparent. Lt. Col. (retd) Mahmudur Rahman questioned how a police inspector could decide who was to live and who was to die. Where is the law, the courts, he questioned. Their words echo the cry for justice by the families of hundreds of victims and by those who believe in the rule of law.

The investigations must not stop just at the details revealed about the killing of retired army officer Sinha. The horrific experiences and harassment of Sinha’s co-passenger as well as his associates in the hotel, are no isolated incidents. This is a common trend, a well-used course of action.

The narrative about the sheer number of drugs recovered from a suspected dealer and his associates itself rings hollow. This propensity of controlling crime by such unlawful methods has been going on for so long that this important institution of the state cannot simply finish its liability by putting the blame on an individual or a few persons. The institution is to blame for creating an environment conducive for these persons to abuse their authority and power. Without direct institutional encouragement or indirect indulgence, such a crime could never develop into a propensity.

Direct encouragement is a decision taken on principle regarding an institutional strategy. If the strategy to kill suspects in anti-drug drives without any trial was not approved of on principle, how could the controversial officer-in-charge (OC) of Teknaf police station, Pradip Kumar Das, openly declare that the property of drug traders would be burnt to the ground? Even after videos of this declaration were shown on the media, how come he remained firmly entrenched in his post? He even won accolades and awards as an institutional recognition for his success based on disappearances and killings. On 28 February a French TV channel ran a special report on his ‘incredible talent and success’.

The question is, will we be able to see an end to this unlawful policy through the trial of Major Sinha’s killing?

When the police IG declared that there was no such thing as ‘extrajudicial killing’, it indicates that they are not ready to do away with this strategy. This is their stand on principle.

At the press briefing the IGP had said, “I do not agree with the term ‘crossfire’. This is used by NGOs.”

Actually human rights activists don’t agree with the term ‘crossfire’ either. They call it ‘extrajudicial killing’. It may be recalled that towards the beginning of 2015 when Benazir Ahmed took over as the director general of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), he reacted to critics by saying, “Do they expect us to play ‘ha-du-du’ (kabaddi) rather than use weapons?” A replied was given to his retort in a Prothom Alo article on 15 February 2015, ‘RAB keno ha-du-du khelbe na?’ (‘Why won’t RAB play ha-du-du?), but they were unwilling to listen.

Another manner in which favourable circumstances for such actions are created institutionally is the opposition to having a separate independent organisation for inquiries into allegations against members of the police force, as recommended by the police reforms commission. Members of the police force, from top to bottom, are aware that any allegations brought about against them will be investigated by their own colleagues. They know they will be empathised with and so they to do as they please. And an indirect condoning of such behavior is suspension or temporary withdrawal which does not even amount to an admonition.

The family of the retired major Sinha has filed a murder case and the judicial magistrate has ordered an investigations of the incident. It is not for the media to judge the statements made at an under-trial case, but the investigations must be independently conducted. A case may have been filed, but none of the police men have been suspended or relieved for their duties. They have just been withdrawn from their duties. Yet it is the norm to suspend government employees if any criminal case is filed against them.

The powers of the state are perturbed by Sinha’s killing and steps have been taken to speedily unearth the truth. That is expected under the rule of law. If such activity was displayed in any such past case, then perhaps this unfortunate incident would not have occurred. (According to the UN Committee Against Torture, 2,088 persons were victims of extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh from 2009 to 2019).

The only way to ensure that in future no citizen dies in this matter, whether of the armed forces or a civilian, is to prohibit extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Accountability is needed to implement this prohibition. And the only justified way to ensure this accountability is through a system of independent and neutral investigation, and fair and transparent trial. The question is, will we be able to see an end to this unlawful policy through the trial of Major Sinha’s killing?

Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This article appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir