There have been some important developments following the murder of Major Sinha on July 31 in Teknaf. The family was able to file a case without much of a hindrance. The inquest report was made available within a very short time after the body was committed to the Cox's Bazar Sadar Hospital. It contradicted the claims made by the Teknaf police in the First Information Report about the bullet wounds on the victim.
To console the grieving family, the prime minister telephoned the mother of the victim, assuring the latter that an inquiry will be launched and justice will be served. As a follow up to this commitment, a joint enquiry team was immediately formed. Within 24 hours, the team was strengthened by the induction of a senior official as the leader. In a matter of days, the judicial magistrate ordered the incarceration of the alleged perpetrators, the law enforcers involved in the "gunfight". The chiefs of Bangladesh Army and Bangladesh Police jointly visited the site of the fateful occurrence. They announced that they too wanted "a fair enquiry… ensuring exemplary punishment". The chair of a leading human rights organisation hailed this as "a rare example of justice". The media (albeit erroneously) reported this as the first case in the long history of extrajudicial killings in the country in which the family of a victim pointed fingers at the police.
Extrajudicial killings (death by "encounters", "crossfires" or "shootouts in self defence" by the members of law enforcement agencies) have become almost an integral (though not lawful) element of law enforcement in Bangladesh. Family members of more than a couple of thousand victims of extrajudicial killings have alleged that their loved ones were picked up from homes, streets and other public places by persons claiming to be of law enforcement agencies. In not a single occasion was the victim served with any warrant of arrest.
In some instances, the families were told that they were being taken for questioning and would soon be returned; only to be informed later that the accused was killed either when he tried to flee as he was being taken to identify the hideout of his accomplices, caches of arms or drugs, or during an attack launched by his accomplices. In most cases, such encounters occur in the wee hours of the morning when eyewitnesses are found wanting. The other standard narrative is that the victims collapse during interrogation or commit suicide in custody. In many instances, the agencies subsequently deny involvement in detaining them. In other cases, sometimes days later, the decomposed body of the person taken to detention is found in a ditch, roadside, shallow grave or, as in the seven murder case of Narayanganj, floating on the water, as perhaps the River Shitalakshya refused to be an accomplice in the dastardly act.
There are ample examples in which individuals from various walks of life (from pickpockets and petty traders to journalists, political activists and affluent industrialists) have been threatened with extrajudicial killing by errant members of law enforcement agencies if they did not comply with their wishes. While many saved their lives by conceding to such demands, a section who did not or could not, met with dire consequences. It is worrisome that that those in charge of law enforcement are yet to acknowledge the reality that delinquent members of law enforcement agencies are increasingly getting tied up in settling personal vendettas and business disputes of private individuals, which often result in extrajudicial killings.
The failure to produce warrants while detaining a person, hindrances in reporting cases of persons allegedly taken by plainclothesmen or men in uniform, refusal to register cases and earnestly conduct investigations, and mounting challenges to writ petitions demanding investigations in cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, appear to be indicative of the state machinery's complicity in the acts. If these were indeed isolated acts and were carried out by wayward members of law enforcement agencies on their own whim or volition, what precludes the state to launch proper and impartial enquiries into the allegations lodged by the loved ones of the victims?
The claim of the pervasiveness of extrajudicial killings is vindicated when powerful people connected with the ruling party and political establishment mete out threats of crossfire. In one instance not so long ago, even on the floor of the parliament, some lawmakers demanded that "rapists should be put to crossfire". According to Prothom Alo, earlier last month, a ruling party MP candidly stated to the media that he ordered the killing of five "terrorists" in crossfire. All these are signs that "encounters" or "crossfires" have been internalised by some influential quarters as a method of law enforcement.
Article 27 of the Bangladesh Constitution, the supreme law of the land, reads "All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of the law". Article 31 clearly stipulates "To enjoy the protection of the law, and to be treated in accordance with law, and only in accordance with law, is the inalienable right of every citizen… and every other person for the time being within Bangladesh". It also clearly stipulates that "no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with the law". It is pertinent to note that Article 35(3) clearly states that any person accused of criminal offence "shall have a right to a speedy and public trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal established by law". The International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (1966), an instrument ratified by Bangladesh in 2020, stipulates "every human being has the inherent right to life". The Covenant also says that "the right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life".
Despite such explicit constitutional prohibitions and international legal obligations, extrajudicial killings have been a reality under successive governments in independent Bangladesh. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant rise in such killings. Odhikar figures inform that 44 persons were killed in 2001. The figure rose to 355 in 2006, before ebbing to 84 in 2011. It registered an increase to 178 in 2016 before shooting up to a staggering sum of 391 in 2019. Up to June 2020, 158 people have been reported to have fallen victim to "gunfights".
It appears that the government's anti-narcotic drive has a direct correlation with the spike in extrajudicial killings. Transparency International Bangladesh has noted that 287 people had died due to "gunfights" with law enforcers since the anti-narcotic drive began in 2018. So far, no state functionary has been prosecuted. Overzealous and unbridled law enforcers also contribute to the increase in such deaths. Based on police sources, media reports inform that in Teknaf during the 22 month tenure of the Officer in Charge Pradeep Kumar Das, 204 people have died in 144 gunfights. Extrajudicial killings thus far have failed to gain traction in the justice delivery mechanism. Over the past decade, state authorities have not once responded to the higher court's directive to determine whether crossfires or gunfights would be considered as extrajudicial killings. Rather, all three benches of the High Court were dissolved after the beginning of the hearing process of the writ petitions filed in connection with such incidents.
In a joint press conference, the chiefs of the army and police forces have claimed that the Sinha killing was an "isolated incident". It is not clear what the two most senior functionaries of the state security services were alluding to. For common citizens, Sinha's murder was quite in sync with the general aberration in law enforcement and the justice delivery systems of the country.
One hopes that Sinha's family will secure fair justice, as promised. Perhaps time has come for the political leadership to acknowledge the stark reality of the day, in which constitutional provisions pertaining to rights of citizens and also of aliens are being systematically abused. It is also time for those in law enforcement and justice delivery structures to have a fresh look at the state's pledge to its own people and the international community and uphold those in proper stride. The onus also lies on those at the helm of the state not only to reiterate their commitment made in February 2009 for "zero tolerance" with regard to extrajudicial killings but also to deliver on that promise.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest in migration and rights issues.