Thursday, February 17, 2005

BANGLADESH: Investigating acts of political terrorism

+ Why did the investigation of August 21 failed to yield any fruitful result? Some clue to this question may be found in the response by the US government to the request for involving FBI. The US government wishes to have a clear term of reference (TOR) for the investigation proposed to be undertaken by them. A key feature of the TOR is required to guarantee full access to evidence and witnesses as may appear relevant in the circumstances of the case. The US government is also reported to have said that “If such terms of reference had been established prior to the involvement of foreign consultants of the August 21 attack, their contribution to the investigation might have been more meaningful” +

17/02/205

Investigating acts of political terrorism
AMM Shawkat Ali

Ever since the carnage of August 21, in which the leader of the opposition miraculously escaped, there has been a continuing debate on bomb blasts and grenade attacks. Even prior to August 21, the media never failed to articulate the views on such incidents. Available information indicate that between March 6, 1999 and January 27, 2005, one hundred and fifty-six people have been killed in major bomb blasts/grenade attacks across the country.

The memories of the deadly grenade attacks are still fresh in public mind. One more to such tragic memory has now been added. The victims now are none other than the former finance minister, SAMS Kibria and four more people. An English daily has commented that in 18 such incidents, only one case ended in charge sheet. The investigations of the rest have made no headway. The time series data on such incidents confirm the impression that many of the incidents are acts of political terrorism. This impression has further been reinforced by the tragic event of January 27.

The media have come out loud and clear about the trend of such dastardly acts of political terrorism. In all earlier cases, the government, which retains the exclusive monopoly of applying the coercive powers of the state, affirmed that it has been doing its best. But the best is yet to be. The editors of various dailies have written on the subject in person, apart from editorials. The trend of acts of political terrorism, in the view of some of them, tends to be directed to eliminate AL leaders and their party men.

Political controversies

In an act of political terrorism, controversies are bound to arise. That should not blind the political-bureaucratic machineries of the state to take objective and unbiased steps that they are legally and morally bound to take interest in ensuring safety and security of all citizens. This is yet to be visible.

Immediately following the August 21 carnage, the worst affected major opposition party demanded an international inquiry or investigation. The government faltered initially to decide but eventually called in Interpol and later an agent of FBI also came. Despite such actions, there does not appear to be any progress in investigation. As the demand for resignation of the government intensifies, coercive powers of the state are liberally used to prevent peaceful processions and rallies. This action only served to make matters worse. If the government could bring the offenders to justice, the opposition would have little or nothing to rally around.

After the tragic occurrence of January 27, the international community has come out in the open. They have issued written statements, which are not limited to the expression of shocks and condemnation. They have demanded thorough and a transparent process of investigation to bring the offenders to justice. This is not a tall order but something that the government is expected to do to set at rest any political controversy. The government may have done well by immediately requesting the aid and professional assistance of Interpol, FBI and the Scotland Yard. But this is just a preliminary step forward. Much more remains to be done.

Access to evidence and witnesses

Why did the investigation of August 21 failed to yield any fruitful result? Some clue to this question may be found in the response by the US government to the request for involving FBI. The US government wishes to have a clear term of reference (TOR) for the investigation proposed to be undertaken by them. A key feature of the TOR is required to guarantee full access to evidence and witnesses as may appear relevant in the circumstances of the case. The US government is also reported to have said that “If such terms of reference had been established prior to the involvement of foreign consultants of the August 21 attack, their contribution to the investigation might have been more meaningful” (The Independent, January 31, 2005).

More questions than answers

The above statement appears to have raised more questions than answers. First, why for the earlier investigation by Interpol and FBI there was no TOR? Second, did these organisations then ask for one? Third, it has been said that with a clearly drawn up TOR, the previous investigation could be more meaningful. What then is the current status? Latest information indicate that the TOR is yet to be finalised. One only hopes that it can be finalised without delay.

Requisites for proper investigation

The spokesman for the US government, as reported in the press, also pointed out the requirements necessary for proper investigation. The statement said that in both the cases of August 21 and January 27, “the potential utility of the FBI assistance was greatly undermined when the crime scene was not properly protected from contamination”.

One then finds two major requirements. First, full access to relevant evidence and witnesses. Second, appropriate protection of the place of occurrence or scene of crime. It is possible to deduce two important conclu-sions. In the earlier case of August 21, the scene of crime was not protected. This was also visible when Interpol team visited the crime scene. It is reasonable to assume that appropriate advice in this regard was given to the government’s investigative agencies. Why did the government fail to learn from the mistakes in case of January 27?

The primary reason for protection of crime scene is to have access to facts before and after commission of crimes. In case of Habiganj, it was found that the place of occurrence was not protected. A team from RAB did visit and collect some particles and that was all. Now the government has constituted an inter-agency committee to investigate the crime.

It is said that the aforesaid committee will, inter alia, find out the reasons and nature of the incident and identify the persons responsible for the attack and make recommendations for legal action against them. There is no denying the fact that the committee is not for ‘investigation’ but for fact finding or probing into the incident. ‘Investigation’ is a legal term used both in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the police regulations. The end result of investigation is either charge sheet or final report (FRT) depending on evidence. The question of recommendation does not arise.

This view finds its support in the second task allotted to the committee. The committee is required to recommend ways for stopping repetition of such incidents. It is useful to recall that the so-called inquiry commission of August 21 incident also had the same as one of its TOR. What did the government do on such recommendations?

The mystery about suspension of police officials

Press reports indicate that the officer in charge (OC) of sadar police station has been placed under suspension and the police super withdrawn. This action has raised misgivings in the minds of the local people. Such actions without a formal departmental inquiry are not taken. It will only adversely affect the morale of the police force as a whole. Till date, there is no evidence that any departmental enquiry was held prior to such decision.

Containing conventional acts of terrorism

In the wake of deteriorating law and order situation, the government first initiated ‘operation clean heart’. Following a good number of custodial deaths, the government withdrew the operation but granted immunity for custodial deaths. This remains a controversial issue. The next step was to put in place a special elite force called RAB. Deaths under custody of RAB are claimed to be deaths in crossfire. This has also become controversial given the regularity and repetition of deaths by crossfire. European Union (EU) ambassadors have expressed concern at this trend of extra-judicial killings.

Dilemma of the government

The dilemma before the government is two-fold. First, establishing its credibility in dealing effectively with political crimes of different dimensions. Second, preventing the acts of conventional as well as political terrorism. These issues are going to be among the major issues for the next general elections. In particular, the issue of political terrorism will assume major importance. This calls for rethinking and reorientation of the current policy that the government appears to pursue.