Saturday, October 09, 2004

Bangladesh: RAB - No space in Prison - shoot 'em dead!

[The arbitrarily assigned first front that the government has to compete with is the image of the RAB that has emerged as a result of the deaths of suspects in its custody. There hasn't been a lot of hue and cry emanating from the public about the operations of the RAB. But the newspapers and human rights organizations have taken quite an exception to the frequent operations of the battalion which almost invariably end in the death of one or many accused, inevitably dying in 'cross-fire'. This 'unavoidable' death by crossfire will convince the gullible, the village idiot or his like. But if one tries to unearth the implication of 'cross-fire', one would seriously doubt the argument of RAB that it uses in its own defence.]

Take no prisoners

The fear of indictment for extrajudicial killing, or death in custody is thus avoided. We remember that before this spate of 'cross-fire' killings, the RAB was plagued by newspaper reports about death of suspects under their custody. It appears that RAB has chosen the least likely to be criticized method [deaths by cross-fire]. One might liken this to be the unwritten/unofficial motto, 'Take no prisoners', adopted by RAB, writes Omar Husain

April 14, 2004, Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB in short, emerged as another strike force in response to an alarmingly increasing and uncontrollable threat of sophisticatedly armed criminals. Since its inception, 33 criminals [upped to 35 as of October 5] were killed in encounters with the battalion; or, about six a month if one roughly averages the number. Odhikar, a human rights organization in Bangladesh, claims 111 persons in nine months were killed by law enforcers between January 1 and September 30. Odhikar chronicles the details of other criminal activities and quotes the figures of the dead and injured victims of different crimes. It also mentions that the 'human rights situation in the country deteriorated markedly.' One may liken this ill-at-ease situation as the government's first front line of defence.

The second front which opened for the government earlier than the first is about its drive of mass arrest purportedly to contain the run-away criminal elements in the country. The intended comfort zone the government wished to create for itself by doing this covertly was to thwart any opposition move to gather enough people for continuing its pressure on the government. The overt assertion of the government was that the operation was necessary to clean up criminal elements of the country so the public will have peace of mind. However naive or simplistic this may sound, people did not buy it. According to various reports, the number of arrested persons in the dragnet so far is set at 10,000, although the government mathematicians disagree.

The figures play a secondary role vis-a-vis the concerns of the public. The legality of mass arrests and the legality of the methods of the RAB operations are of more importance to the people. Four HR organizations have filed a petition with the court asking for an injunction to stop the mass arrests which the court allowed until October 3 when it will hear the writ. This ensuing battle with the court may be likened to the opening of the third front which the government has to contend with.

The arbitrarily assigned first front that the government has to compete with is the image of the RAB that has emerged as a result of the deaths of suspects in its custody. There hasn't been a lot of hue and cry emanating from the public about the operations of the RAB. But the newspapers and human rights organizations have taken quite an exception to the frequent operations of the battalion which almost invariably end in the death of one or many accused, inevitably dying in 'cross-fire'. This 'unavoidable' death by crossfire will convince the gullible, the village idiot or his like. But if one tries to unearth the implication of 'cross-fire', one would seriously doubt the argument of RAB that it uses in its own defence. Cross-fire is a military term which means 'crossing of lines of fire from two or more points'. It would make this clearer if we say that in order to be a casualty of cross-fire, the victim must be in the middle of the line of fire that is coming from both directions. Now, the question we raise is how or why the RAB would put their prisoner/s in the 'cross fire' zone knowing the danger it poses unless RAB really want the prisoner/s dead! Death by cross-fire is a convenient way to put it as accidental or unavoidable. The fear of indictment for extrajudicial killing, or death in custody is thus avoided. We remember that before this spate of 'cross-fire' killings, the RAB was plagued by newspaper reports about death of suspects under their custody. It appears that RAB has chosen the least likely to be criticized method [deaths by cross-fire]. One might liken this to be the unwritten/unofficial motto, 'Take no prisoners', adopted by RAB!

We don't subscribe to the philosophy of nihilism. We need laws, rules and regulations or even ordinances and statutes. We also believe that an accused person is innocent unless proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. This is again not to imply even tangentially that we advocate release of an arrested suspect. What we unflinchingly believe in is the civil rights of all persons, all citizens. A suspect deserves what is known as the 'due process', and has a right to a fair trial. We are not implying that RAB has the licence to kill but the perception of the results of their operation lead one to believe that they do. And that leaves many askance, and one cannot blame them for that. There is another caveat that the government should be cognizant of. There is a long history in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, and Guatemala of para military outfits [CIA brainchild] which originated as law enforcers but degenerated into what is more popularly known as Death Squads, the Vigilantes. These squads and vigilante groups were used as a political tool by the above mentioned governments to get rid of political foes by execution, and other violent means. We voice our concern fearing that the activities of the RAB, if they go unchecked and unaccountable, could turn this law enforcing agency into a dreaded Death Squad.

On the second front which the government will have to contend with, let us begin by saying that the law of the country must be applied where it is imperative. A government has the right to arrest, detain or jail suspects if it feels that by not doing so, it may jeopardise and compromise the security of the country. Let us not forget that the United States had enacted some laws, ordinances, statutes in the aftermath of 9/11 which has raised a lot of questions of their constitutionality and of violation of human rights. Fingerprinting, photographing, interrogating, sequestering of Muslims living in America, or visitors from mostly Muslim countries, became a routine. The prisoners at US Guantanamo Bay were denied any rights whatsoever. Soon after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour, all Japanese living in the US as citizens were summarily corralled into concentration camps. The government?s rationale for its action prevailed. The examples are cited to show that governments often overreact and regret later.

In this case of 'mass arrests' by the BNP+ government citing different penal and non-penal codes as a defence of its action gives the perception of using excessive and unnecessary 'force'. If the government action cane be defended, it can be, but very remotely and weakly. The government reasoned that it was arresting only those who had the potential for causing anarchy, and in the process, there might have been some innocent people who were subsequently released after questioning. In other words, 'collateral' arrests and confinement are part of the game. What cannot be defended of the government is its utter flouting of a High Court order way back in April 2004 when this spate of arrests first commenced. The fateful 30th April deadline for the fall of the government was after all a 'dud'. The leadership of the Awami League realized that they have shoved their own feet in their mouths and since then had been timorously quiet until the incident of 8/21. The incident had an immediate knee-jerk reaction and the

AL seemed to have got another chance to issue another ultimatum. The party, throwing caution to the winds, to use a clich, immediately blamed the BNP for the assassination attempt. Fuelled by others who believed the same, the assassination theory blasted off the launching pad like a rocket. The AL found a new lease on its life and announced boldly of a 3rd October 'grand rally' where it will announce the modus operandi for the fall of the government. The knee-jerk reaction is not an exclusive phenomenon of the AL. The BNP also similarly reacted. It resorted to another spate of country-wide arrest in the name of national security. It invoked Section 54 of the penal code and additionally fortified its strategy by enforcing section 86 of the DMP ordinance. In cases where none of these two 'weapons' could be used, the government resorted to fabricated charges of various criminal acts and resumed its dragnet. This time, the High Court issued an injunction asking the government to desist from arresting people en masse, and also asked it to show cause why Section 86 of the DMP will not be held as unconstitutional. The government appears to have relented and had the mass arrests put on hold.

The much ballyhooed grand rally of the AL came and went on October 3, 'not in a bang' as many expected, but 'in a whimper'. The AL rejected the Law Commission report, it demanded the answers of 8/21 from the BNP and the armed forces, announced its 'oust government programme. The results will be served to the public in episodes, much like those of the weekly TV soap operas.

The third and last front that the government will face off is with the court. This will be as equally tough as the other two fronts, maybe even tougher. The confrontation between the government and the court has become a usual fare. Neglecting or even disobeying the court's directives has become fashionable for the government. One can recall the contempt of court citation served on the secretary of the Home Department in the recent past. In other previous cases, high ranking police personnel were summoned by the court and those too were ignored. The battle between the judiciary and the executive branches of the government is all too familiar. We may pose a very naive and innocuous question here. If the government itself shows contempt and disregard for laws that it has to uphold, then how can it expect obedience from its citizenry?

Frequently, the government appeals for public support, assistance from its citizens, support for its many development programs, yet when the public wants something in return such as ensuring their basic needs of safety, security, a corruption free bureaucracy and the police, a godfather-free ministry, a cadre-free educational institution, it turns its face the other way!

In order for the BNP to be a viable democratic government, it has to take a very serious look at its own democratic practices. Merely cutting ribbons or unveiling a plaque, hours of speeches/propaganda, hundreds of photo-ops are not going to put it on the map. Both the government and the combined opposition parties have to learn and relearn the art of negotiation. They have to shed their attitude of 'I win, you lose,' otherwise, we have a long haul ahead of us.


The writer is associate editor, New Age

New Age 09/10/2004