Cross-fire killings: Ruling coterie rueful of its Frankenstein?

Sadeq Khan

For nearly a decade now, rights activists have been crying out loud about extra-judicial killings, custodial deaths and forced disappearances. Plain clothes policemen have been picking up from homes and from the streets targeted citizens whose detention and disappearance are officially denied, some turning up as corpses floating in the river or rotting by the roadside, others never found.

‘Odhikar’ and other human rights bodies in this country have been regularly reporting on custodial and “cross-fire” killings, on abductions leading to death or disappearance of persons ‘wanted’ by police for ‘interrogation’, and on ruling party abuse of state power to ‘terrorise’ and silence rivals in politics as well as suppress public resistance to extortion regimes of ruling party godfathers.
The US State Department’s annual report on Human Rights violations around the world regularly recounted such reports. The ruling coterie of the incumbent despotic regime never cared. The victims are often eminent opposition activists and leaders of the mainstream centrist politics, and sometimes old-guard “class-war” enthusiasts of the left whose negligible but virtuous following in any pocket of influence might be considered a nuisance by the ruling party rising star in the area. The former category of victims could provoke a hue and cry, and if their friends and relations were persistent and had resource backing, could obtain some redress in tracing the victim, dead or alive, filing police case (court case if the police refused to record f.i.r.) and pursuing the judicial process. Judicial rebuke would result in some administrative penal measures of no consequence.

‘Cross-fires’ & diplomatic etiquette
Sometimes “cross-fire” victims who were maimed but spared of life, like child victim Lemon who lost his leg, could obtain some form of compensation. In general, the magistracy and the judiciary let alone complaints of such unnatural deaths and disappearances, tied up in red tape. The police, if “pestered” by complainants in such cases, invariably choose to divert the course of investigation or prosecution to fictitious channels. Therefore, justice delayed results in justice denied.
In case of the latter left-leaning category of victims, genuine words of sympathy are spelt out from mouth to mouth locally, or sometimes beyond in the civil society and the media, but thereafter simply forgotten. Interestingly, suspects of Islamic extremism, purportedly for the suppression of whom unbridled police powers and immunity were given for real or fake ‘encounters’, appear to be spared of ‘cross-fire’ treatment or custodial deaths, even if they may be ‘tortured’ in interrogation and detained sine die under one pretext or another pending trial. Presumably the police and the magistracy take into account the collective capacity of extremist suspects to inflict “personalised” injuries, choosing soft amongst “tyrants” in the police and magistracy or their family members, in reprisal.
Sections of the media and Human Rights organisations at home and abroad have been relentless in exposing these blood-soaked dark rituals of the police raj in Bangladesh. The US State Department in its annual report on Human Rights violations around the world have been regularly reproducing lurid narratives of such extra-legal police actions. The parliament, the Executive or the Judiciary in Bangladesh never paid any heed.
Foreign dignitaries visiting Dhaka were sometimes drawn by the media to comment on such cases. Some one or the other from the ruling hierarchy would immediately jump in protest by issuing orchestrated press statements to the effect that the visitors’ comments were undue interference in our internal affairs and violation of diplomatic etiquette.

Cross-fire boomerang
Suddenly, this state of affairs appears to have changed over the last couple of weeks. The visiting British Minister of State for International Development Desmond Swayne in a press conference on 25 August commented on “extra-judicial killings” in Bangladesh, calling them “intolerable” and asking for “perpetrators” to be brought to justice: “Bangladesh is a democracy, and it’s essential that democratic values should be preserved and maintained. That means you can’t tolerate extrajudicial killings. “So, it’s for the government and police to ensure those crimes are investigated.”
It was music in the ears of a number of ruling party bigwigs. Reason: The Police Power Frankenstein of their creation has struck a boomerang on their own men. A sensational 7-murder in Narayanganj with mercenary use of RAB police personnel in a fake RAB police operation, resulting from inner-party conflict over turfs and interests of the “elected” Dons of Crime in that city, had created lot of furore and even prosecution of “some” of the “mercenary” law-enforcers involved. But the judicial process did not go very far and procrastination continues to shield in jail or out of jail the “perpetrators” who are closely connected with the ruling party hierarchy. But recent killings in “cross-fire” one after another of Awami League “terrors” retained by powerful leaders of the ruling coterie has shaken up the Executive and the Judiciary alike. According to the media reports, four leaders and activists of the ruling Awami League and its associate bodies died in “shootouts” with the police and RAB between August 18 and August 21. One of the latest incidents has been taken up by a member of the dynastic leadership of the ruling party. Result: Three Rapid Action Battalion officials were prosecuted on August 23 on charge of killing Chhatra League leader Arzu Miah in the name of ‘gunfight’ at Hazaribagh on early August 18.

Its within legal limits: IGP
Metropolitan Magistrate Shahriar Mahmud Adnan posted for August 25 its order in the case filed by elder brother of the ruling Awami League-backed student organisation leader Masud Rana against RAB-2 commanding officer colonel Masud Rana, its deputy assistant director Shahinur Rahman, inspector Wahid and informant Ratan. Masud told the court that the battalion officials abducted and killed Arzu, former president of the Hazaribagh thana Chhatra League in a pre-planned way near Hazaribagh Park between August 17 afternoon and early hours on August 18 in the name of gunfight.
The case was lodged after local Awami League lawmaker Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh on several occasions blamed the battalion for the abduction and murder of Arzu and demanded punishment of those involved in it.
Arzu was the prime accused of the killing of teenage boy Raja, who was tortured to death by Arzu and his associates on August 17. Sixteen year-old Raja was reportedly picked up by Arzu and his associates from his house in Hazaribagh accusing the teenage boy of stealing Arzu’s mobile phone set.
Battalion director (legal and media wing) Mufti Mahmood Khan at a briefing on August 18 claimed that the battalion arrested Arzu at about midnight on August 17. Miscreants tried to snatch him from battalion custody at Boraikhal of Hazaribagh at about  3:30am on August 18, when the battalion men conducted operation along with Arzu to arrest his cohorts. Arzu sustained bullet injuries when the ‘miscreants’ engaged the battalion in a gunfight’ Arzu was rushed to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries at about 5:30 am.
The Inspector general of police defended ‘gunfights’ by law enforcers and asserted that the incidents fell within legal limits: “Police opened fire fearing risk of life when they were attacked. They have the right to protect their lives. It took place in a legal context. We are accountable for this sort of death and face executive inquiry. Criminals have no particular political party. They are engaged in criminal activities for personal gain taking shelter from different parties. We treat them as criminals and take action.”

Losing grip
On August 25, a judicial enquiry has been ordered by the Metropolitan Magistrate in the case filed against the three RAB officials. Meanwhile top leaders of the ruling coalition are continuing to hammer on the culture of “cross-fire” killings by the police, and are also engaged in a blame game castigating one another by direct or oblique references to their past disloyalties to the dynastic core of the ruling coterie.
Evidently, the all-powerful PMO is losing grip over events, or the top echelons of the ruling coterie, including dynastic heir lings, are not in tune with what is in the mind of the Prime Minister and her office.

Source: Weekly Holiday

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