Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Bangladesh: RAB, Cheetah and Extra-judicial killings

[The Detective Branch of the police has recently launched an 'elite force' of its own - Cheetah. The nomenclature suggests that the force is meant to behave brutally. A force, named after a ferocious animal, is only expected to follow, with its inherent agility, the 'jungle law', which has nothing to do with the civilised idea of punishing a criminal through the process of a fair trial in the court of law. The Cheetah, driven by a kind of animal instinct, has, therefore, 'succeeded' by September 30, within a week of its commencement on September 25, to kill two persons, or crime suspects for that matter. No significant amount of public protest is there against the law enforcers for their extra-legal murders, although the eople hardly buy the cock and bull stories, typically provided by the RAB and the Cheetah, that the 'criminals' died in cross-fire. Nor there is any visible public concern over the series of lynching across the country. In the given circumstances, the government continues to feel quite comfortable in carrying out its programme to restore 'order' without law.]

Restoring order, violating law


"No person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law."
Article 32 of the Constitution of Bangladesh

The government of Khaleda Zia seems to have decided to restore 'order' in the society, especially in terms of minimising violent crimes of non-political nature that have affected the entire population, exposing them to a sense of perpetual uncertainty about lives and property, which are inalienable rights of any modern person across the world.

But while making the efforts to restore order, the government has visibly been ignoring the law, although any government in a modern democracy is obliged to uphold it, primarily for the sake of honouring the 'social contract', the articles of which are being manifested in the Constitution of a given republic; and secondly to make sure that none, be it a member of a law enforcing agency or a member of the general public, gets inspired to deliver 'rough justice' to a perceived offender.

But both the members of the law enforcing agencies and the general public have recently indulged themselves in delivering 'rough justice' to crime suspects, reflecting clearly on the law enforcers? disrespect for rule of law on the one hand the general public's lack of trust in the law enforcers on the other.

The government launched on April 14 this year the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as an 'elite force' to exclusively take care of the glamorous goons, reportedly equipped with sophisticated weaponry and political connections, who have been unleashing reigns of 'criminal terror' in different regions of the country. The RAB, as it appears, really acts rapidly: It has reportedly managed to kill, between June 26 and October 4, as many as 35 persons, most of whom died during the shoot-outs and 'cross-firing', while the rest succumbed to the 'interrogations' by the so-called elite force.

On the other hand 14 persons, reportedly crime suspects, were lynched across the country in the month of September, reports Bangladesh Human Rights Bureau, a human rights NGO. The number reached 17 on October 4, with three fresh victims of lynching in the district of Mymensingh.

However, some of the deaths in RAB custody, especially of those having an appalling record of extraordinary crimes including indiscriminate murders, extortion and other notorious crimes, have caused a significant amount jubilation in the areas concerned. There were different reactions as well. Pervasive gloom loomed large in the Sabujbagh area of Dhaka city when a five-year-old girl, Mayesha, was killed in the RAB shoot-out with an alleged arms peddler on September 2; or before that in Rayerbazar area of the city, when a 65-year-old deed writer, Mohammad Ali, died within two hours of being shot at by the elite force on July 12.

Still, the people at large seem, as it appears from the discussions among themselves in different public places and private parlours, happy over the RAB operations. During such discussions, a few are seen making attempts, timidly though, to argue the point of human rights violation due to the extra-judicial murders by the elite force, but their voices are being subdued by loud counter-arguments of the rest that most of the RAB victims perpetrated, when alive, various heinous crimes, including murders, infringing on the human rights of much a larger number of innocent people. Clearly, many peace loving people refuse to realise that injustice on anyone, be s/he a crime suspect or not, is a threat to justice on everyone.

The present series of murders by RAB reminds many of another infamous spell of extra-legal killings of 'crime suspects': The military, para-military Bangladesh Rifles, police and Ansars 'jointly' killed, under the so-called Operation Clean Heart, as many as 42 persons between October 17, 2002 and January 9, 2003. Although it initially tried to argue that the 'operation' was being carried out legally, the government eventually admitted that it was not. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia later got an Ordinance approved, that subsequently got promulgated by the President on January 10 that year, indemnifying the illegal actions of those involved in Operation Clean Heart.

The murders in question got legal 'legitimacy' with retrospective effect by means of an unjust law. Everything 'legal' is not necessarily 'just'. President George W Bush duly secured the prior approval of the legislature of the United States to invade Iraq. The invasion was therefore legal from the point of view of American law, but it was not 'just', nor would it be ever considered 'just' by any democratic mind. The persecution of Jews that Adolph Hitler carried out in Germany was absolutely legal, but it was absolutely unjust as well.

Besides, the rule of law never allows the notion of discrimination against any citizen. 'All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law,' reads Article 27 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. The victims of Operation Clean Heart were denied protection of the law, while the takers of those lives were exempted from being tried and punished for the offence. They were 'legally' placed beyond law, in absolute breach of the concept of the rule of law, which never promises anyone that status.

Meanwhile the police, perhaps sensing government sanction for and the public approval of the illegal acts of murdering crime suspects, decided to 'restore' their image, if at all there was any, and prove that they also can match the 'ability' of the RAB to take care of the hardened criminals. The Detective Branch of the police has recently launched an 'elite force' of its own - Cheetah. The nomenclature suggests that the force is meant to behave brutally. A force, named after a ferocious animal, is only expected to follow, with its inherent agility, the 'jungle law', which has nothing to do with the civilised idea of punishing a criminal through the process of a fair trial in the court of law. The Cheetah, driven by a kind of animal instinct, has, therefore, 'succeeded' by September 30, within a week of its commencement on September 25, to kill two persons, or crime suspects for that matter. No significant amount of public protest is there against the law enforcers for their extra-legal murders, although the eople hardly buy the cock and bull stories, typically provided by the RAB and the Cheetah, that the 'criminals' died in cross-fire. Nor there is any visible public concern over the series of lynching across the country. In the given circumstances, the government continues to feel quite comfortable in carrying out its programme to restore 'order' without law.

The phenomenon is, however, a matter of serious concern, or ought to be taken as a matter of serious concern, for those who dare dream of a democratic society in the country based on a 'just' set of laws and their undistorted application for the sound growth of the society.

Without even questioning the sincerity of the government in its objective to restore order in the society, it should be reminded of the fact of history that no noble objective could ever be achieved by any ignoble means. Operation Clean Heart did not succeed in stopping the violent crimes, despite the government's display of the brutal facade of the repressive state machinery against the crime suspects. The present ones are, perhaps, destined to embrace the same fate, primarily because the drives are being conducted against the alleged criminals, but sparing their political patrons.

Some of the victims of the extra-judicial killings in question were reportedly accused in more than half a dozen murder cases each. One is free to question the government as to how could they afford to move in the society freely, instead of living behind the bars, and continue to commit crimes in broad daylight? The government may or may not answer the question, but the politically conscious sections of the society are well aware of the fact the notorious criminals in question used to enjoy the political patronage of influential political leaders, and they used to remain on bail for years, by bribing or intimidating the magistrates, who are, again, under the direct control of the Executive branch of the State run by the politicians. (Examples are there that the successive governments appointed judges even to the Supreme Court, who earlier served as office-bearers of the political parties concerned, and some of who even contested parliamentary elections on the tickets of those parties! BNP, Awami League, Jatiya Party' no exception.)

It is quite well known to the general public and the public administrators alike as to who are the politicians, belonging to which parties, that provide shelters for the criminals. And here arises the genuine issue of questioning the sincerity of the government in containing violent crimes, when it sanctions illegal murders of the criminals, eventually exempting their political godfathers from being tried.

There is even the vital question, although yet to be raised strongly by the society, as to whether the 'criminals' are being killed to protect their political godfathers, or in other words, to remove witnesses of the bigger crimes committed by the politicians concerned in collaboration with the criminals beyond public eyes. Is it not true that the daughter of 'Pichchi' Hannan, one of the top 23 criminals on the police's list, claimed to the press, after her father was killed in RAB custody on early August 6, that he had disclosed, while on remand, some names of politicians maintaining close contacts with him?

The matter of lynching by the angry mobs is also to be taken seriously. Because such rough justice, although stems from the state's failure to protect the citizens lives and property from the perpetrators of violent crimes, is being delivered in the breach of social contract, which bars the citizens from taking law in their own hands. Such practices, if continued for long, would eventually result in a total anarchy, which would eventually stand in the way of making positive efforts for building a democratic society.

The legal responsibility of the law-enforcing agencies is to arrest the alleged criminals and make sure they are produced before a court of law for trial and punishment, while the obligation of an elected government is to make sure that the law enforcers conduct investigations into the allegations of a crime without fear and favour, submit reports to the court properly so that the criminals cannot escape a genuine trial through the loopholes of the investigation reports, and the court provides the criminals with exemplary punishment without being asked to do otherwise by the politically powerful. The continued practice of this criminal justice delivery system is also bound to put an end to another category of extra-judicial murders, which is lynching. Why should people get maddened enough to beat a crime suspect to death, if the ground for such 'rough' justice is removed -' Sounds like a clich ' Definitely, because these are universal propositions of the rule of law, pronounced hundreds of times a year ' thanks to the rulers' repeated failures to observe the democratic norms.

The writer is executive editor, New Age.

New Age 06/10/2004