In 2020, 195 people were killed across Bangladesh by law enforcement agencies during ‘shoot-outs’ according to data from Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a Dhaka based human rights watchdog. To date, the government has been reluctant to investigate any such killings, however, this changed when police killed retired army officer Major Sinha.
Not only have shoot-outs, encounters and crossfire entered Bangladesh’s human rights lexicon, these synonymous terms for extrajudicial killings have also become very common in public discourse. An extrajudicial killing can be defined as a governmental authority killing a person without judicial proceedings or due legal process. Extrajudicial killings are not a recent phenomenon, as these have been occurring since the British colonial period right up until the days of Pakistan. Although Bangladesh achieved its independence by overthrowing a military-backed regime through democratic elections, in post-independent Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings continued under the government of the day. The first Awami League (AL) government formed a paramilitary force, the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Defence Force) that killed political rivals, most notably Siraj Sikder, leader of the Proletarian Party of East Bengal. Following the restoration of parliamentary democracy in the early 1990s, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and AL governments in turn consolidated their power by politicising law enforcement agencies. In 2001, Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP established the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to tackle the deteriorating security situation at the time. Criticised by rights organisations for severe violations of human rights and the abuse of power, RAB popularised the term ‘the culture of impunity’ in public discourse. Due to the loyalty and obedience shown by law enforcement agencies, the government deliberately overlooked their alleged human rights violations. In a democratic society, public institutions responsible for maintaining law and order must be held accountable when unscrupulously breaking the law; otherwise their actions undermine the democratic process.
Rapid Action Battalion
‘Operation Clean Heart’ was a joint security operation of the army and other law enforcement agencies that took place between October 2002 and January 2003, and was a precursor to RAB. During the operation, around 44 people died in custody, all of whom were classified as terrorists or criminals. Law enforcement officers that participated in the operation were indemnified by the Bangladesh parliament, thus making them complicit in extrajudicial killings. Although law enforcement agencies took the law into their own hands with little government oversight, they did not succeed in controlling crime throughout the country or significantly improve the overall law-and-order situation. In 2004, RAB was formed as an anti-crime and anti-terrorism elite unit of the Bangladeshi police and consisted of officers seconded from the army, navy, and air force because the police force at the time was underfunded, underperforming, and ill equipped. In its early days, RAB had strong popular public support as it began to crack down on criminals, however, this changed in a short space of time as allegations of extrajudicial killings came to the forefront. The chair of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) at the time observed that criminal syndicates as well as powerful politicians and businessmen were sub-contracting corrupt members of RAB for politically motivated detentions, abductions, and enforced disappearances.
Since 2001, extrajudicial killings have become an integral part of the daily life of the people of Bangladesh. The greatest number of such killings occurred in 2005 and 2006, when 377 and 362 people died respectively. In October 2004, while in opposition, the AL demanded that the government disband RAB, arguing that “[t]he RAB cannot be a law enforcing agency. This is a killing force and violator of human rights”. Then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party dismissed the AL claim stating that the elite anti-crime fighting force were preventing AL ‘terrorists’ from unleashing their terror. By the end of the BNP-led government’s tenure, in October 2007, Human Rights Watch accused RAB of being “implicated in the unlawful killings of at least 350 people in custody, and the alleged torture of hundreds more”. In the run up to the 2008 parliamentary elections, the AL in its manifesto pledged that “extrajudicial killings will be stopped” if they were voted into power. The AL returned to power in 2009 under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, however, it did not deliver on its election promise to disband RAB or speak out against its alleged human rights violations. Extrajudicial killings continued and according to an ASK report, in 2009 the death toll stood at 229, in 2010 at 133, in 2011 at 100, in 2012 at 91, and in 2013 at 208. Even though the number of deaths remained high and consistent, any investigations into them were not meaningful, and in a political U-turn, in its 2014 election manifesto the AL dropped its pledge to end extrajudicial killings.
The case of the ‘Narayanganj 7-Murders’ is a prime example where members of a law enforcement agency were hired as contract killers. On the afternoon of 27 April 2014, Nazrul Islam (Councilor, Ward-2) and his aides, Swapan, Tajul, Liton and driver Jahangir were abducted in broad daylight from the Dhaka-Narayanganj link road. Nazrul’s lawyer, Chandan Sarker and his driver Ibrahim, were following Nazrul’s car when the abduction happened and filmed it. Because of that, they too were abducted shortly afterwards in a separate incident. On 28 April, Nazrul’s wife Selina Islam filed an abduction case with Fatullah police station. She claimed local AL leaders, Nur Hossain and Haji Mohammad Yasin, were behind her husband’s abduction, stating that “they have rivalries with my husband. They picked him up. I want my husband back, safe and unhurt”. In an unprecedented move, on 29 April, the Home Ministry recommended the withdrawal of four law enforcement officials from Narayanganj, which included the Commanding Officer of RAB 11. The reason cited by the Ministry was the deteriorating law and order situation. A significant development in the missing persons cases came when a day later six bloated bodies including that of Nazrul and Chandan were found floating in the Shitalakkhya River. On 1 May, the seventh body was found floating in the same river.
The events in Narayanganj shook Bangladesh to the core, especially as details emerged about the savage way the seven men were killed. According to police and autopsy reports, the victims were tied down with ropes, tortured with heavy objects, strangled, had their stomachs cut, and were dumped into the river tied to sacks full of bricks. Family members were only able to identify the decomposing bodies from their clothes and marks unique to the individuals. State Minister of Home Affairs, Asaduzzaman Khan, alleged that since nearly all of the victims had links to the ruling AL, the opposition BNP might have something to do with the recent abductions and murders. The subsequent police investigation ruled out any BNP involvement and in January 2017, justice finally caught up with 35 of the accused, including 25 former RAB personnel. Among the individuals sacked were Lt. Col. Tarek, Lt. Commander Masud Rana, Major Arif Hossain and expelled AL leader Nur Hossain. The court had found the accused guilty of the abduction and murder of seven people as well as of destroying related evidence in April 2014. This raised the question of whether members of a state agency legally bound to protect civilians in Bangladesh in fact acted alone or on behalf of an unknown cabal? Furthermore, who possesses the kind of influence to use a law enforcement agency for criminal purposes? The complicity of RAB in such a despicable crime for potential financial gain turned law enforcers into lawbreakers of the highest order.
Shoot-outs and Custodial Deaths
The individual right to life and personal liberty as fundamental rights are enshrined in the constitution of Bangladesh. Article 27 states, “All citizens are equal before law and are entitle to equal protection of law”. Article 32 asserts, “no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law”. Article 35 (5) as well as Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both mention that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment”. Even though the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act was enacted in 2013 to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture and Inhumane, Cruel or degrading Treatment, only a small number of cases have been filed under the law due to the fear of retaliation by the police. Many times, police are unwilling to acknowledge such complaints and those that end up registering have reported of being threatened on multiple occasions. According to Odikhar, a Bangladesh-based human rights organisation, in 2018, 466 people were unlawfully killed. Police were responsible for 276 deaths and RAB for 136 respectively. The ‘right to life and personal liberty’ are fundamental rights provided by the Bangladesh constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are continuously violated by law enforcement agencies. Bangladesh is a signatory to various UN covenants that enshrine democratic values and human rights, and therefore, should not permit or tolerate extrajudicial killings as this undermines public faith in the country’s judicial system.
As law enforcement agencies started to kill criminals as well as people with doubtful criminal records, official press releases presented clichéd narratives that the deaths of detainees were nothing more than the unfortunate results of shoot-outs. The associates of the detained criminal started a shootout against law enforcement personnel, and under these circumstances law enforcers were forced to resort to using firearms that caused the death of the detainee as they tried to escape. On one hand, without investigating detainee killings, senior law enforcement officials and other state authorities want the public to believe their narrative, particularly the part where only the alleged criminal end up dead while law enforcers usually emerge unscathed. On the other hand, law enforcers believe that the justice system is time-consuming and corrupt and does not hold criminals to account for their crimes. Because the process and the system fails to deliver, law enforcers take the law into their own hands and dispense instant justice, therefore, effectively eliminate the problem. Extrajudicial killings under the pretext of crossfire shootings by law enforcement agencies should not be tolerated as it not only violates human rights law, but also the promotion of the rule of law. To address this lack of accountability, the government must ensure that an independent agency investigates these killings and take administrative, judicial and other measures to bring those responsible to justice. The Bangladeshi public is finding it difficult to keep confidence in the current judicial system due to the high number of extrajudicial killings.
Murder of Major Sinha
On 31 July 2020, Sinha Md. Rashed Khan, a retired army major was shot dead at a police checkpoint in the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf road. Teknaf police filed a case stating it was a ‘shootout’. On 5 August 2020, Sinha’s sister filed a murder case which was later investigated by the RAB. 15 people were accused in the case which included Teknaf police station’s Officer-in-Charge (OC) Pradeep Kumar Das, Baharchhara police outpost’s Inspector Liakat Ali (who shot Sinha), and Sub-Inspector Nanda Dulal Rakkhit. According to an investigation report cited by the prosecution, OC Pradeep was responsible for killing 204 people in so called crossfires, many of them under the guise of the ‘war on drugs’ that began in May 2018. Because of family and public pressure as well as Sinha’s military background, particularly his service in the Special Security Force tasked with protecting the prime minister, his case made it to court. Otherwise he would have been deprived of justice and met the same fate of the thousands of so-called shootout cases over the past two decades. At best, Sinha would have just been a statistic reported and recorded by human rights watchdogs, who without accountability had his right to live violated by a state agency. In contrast with the Sinha case, another high-profile case such as that of Teknaf municipality councillor Akramul Haque, allegedly killed in a shootout by the RAB has seen very little progress over the past four years. This is despite promises from the Home Ministry and the NHRC to set up an independent probe into the allegations by Akramul’s family that he was the victim of an extrajudicial killing by RAB.
On 31 January 2022, a landmark verdict sentenced two high-ranking former police officers to death and six others – including three former police officers to life imprisonment for staging the shootout death of Major Sinha. The Cox’s Bazar court concluded that Teknaf police committed a ‘pure and simple murder’. For the government, the verdict came at a bad time, especially with global scrutiny from aid partners and US sanctions on RAB over alleged human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings. This was the first time any law enforcement officers have been prosecuted for staging a shootout. Moreover, this is also the first judicial acknowledgement of how a shootout is fabricated, thus exposing the farce and implying that shootout incidents are premeditated. So far, there has been no official apology from the Home Ministry and there have been no indications for internal investigations or judicial enquiries being conducted into other shootout cases involving former OC Pradeep and his cohorts. Sinha, the son of a freedom fighter and a bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry may have provoked the collective public consciousness and sympathy, but the verdict is also a painful reminder that countless other and less prominent victims have not received justice. While the Bangladeshi constitution equally guarantees the right to life, certain elected officials and law enforcement agents take it upon themselves to act as judge, jury, and executioner. This mockery of the rule of law by the government not only erodes its authority over its citizens, but also breeds contempt for the law. The government cannot and must not commit crimes to secure convictions of criminals.
United States Sanctions on RAB
On 12 December 2021, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on RAB as well as seven of its current and former officials for their involvement in serious human rights abuses, political abductions, and hundreds of extrajudicial killings. The US Treasury Department in a statement said, “Widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse in Bangladesh by RAB — as part of the Bangladeshi government’s war on drugs — threaten US national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh”. The statement came on the last day of Joe Biden’s high profile virtual Summit for Democracy organised for 111 invited countries, which did not include Bangladesh. The sanctions were announced on International Human Rights Day and were included in a statement that included China, North Korea, and Myanmar. The move created quite a stir in Bangladesh and took the government by surprise, which expressed its discontent over the unilateral action taken by the US by summoning the US Ambassador in Bangladesh. Although experts believe the sanctions and travel ban on RAB officials will send a clear message to the Bangladesh government that it needs to significantly improve its human rights record, the government itself was quick to denounce the allegations as ‘outlandish’ and ‘regrettable’. According to Michael Kugelman, from the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, “any sanctions are significant, and especially when they target a key security institution like RAB. The fact that they were announced on International Human Rights Day is also significant”.
While there has been a decrease in the number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since the sanctions (except for two in April), this is unlikely to bolster the public image of RAB. RAB are banned from engaging in any financial transactions with US companies or individuals and from owning any property in the country. Seven current and former high-ranking RAB officials are also banned from entering the US. Even though both countries officially played down the impact of the sanctions on their relationship, lifting them are a priority for image-conscious Bangladesh. Instead of ignoring or covering up crimes and failures of its law enforcement agencies, the Bangladesh government needs to find a solution to this problem and hold accountable those that have broken the law, in particular law enforcement agency personnel. The ban, far from affirming the rule of law, validates the claims of widespread state violence and torture. More recently, Bangladesh has shown some positive signs by setting up a human rights cell which sends periodic human rights reports. Although sanctions are dictating the current narrative, upcoming negotiations between the US and Bangladesh are likely to focus on issues of security, democracy as well as labour and human rights. This foreign policy approach focus on democracy and human rights is most likely an effort to counter growing Chinese influence.
Public perception of law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, has been at an all-time low in Bangladesh following the murder of Major Sinha. Although the landmark Sinha case ensured that the perpetrators were convicted through the law they were supposed to uphold, it remains to be seen if this is the exception to the rule, and whether future cases will see their day in court. For the government, it has to uphold the rule of law by identifying and bringing all ‘uniformed professional killers’ to trial. If not, unprosecuted killings by law enforcers under the guise of ‘shootout’ will continue to undermine the criminal justice system and stain the social conscience. Despite repeated demands from human rights bodies, civil society groups, and national and international media to end the impunity of extrajudicial killings, the government has yet to acknowledge complicity of law enforcement agencies in unlawful deaths, let alone take action against them. Law enforcement agencies cannot operate with impunity above the law, otherwise, the victim’s right to life as per the Bangladesh constitution becomes a farce. The narratives offered by law enforcement agencies to the media in their defence are not justifiably plausible and contain contradictions that the Home Ministry can no longer ignore. The government must act decisively to put a stop to such incidents and introduce systemic change through independently investigating all instances of custodial deaths.
It is an open secret that what is happening in the name of ‘shootout’ and ‘crossfire’ is well known to policymakers and the political leadership who deliberately look the other way. With the proliferation of custodial deaths, these incidents are damaging Bangladesh’s image regarding human rights as the country runs the risk of being labelled lawless where individual right to life and due legal process can no longer be guaranteed. Even the worst kind of offender should be entitled to go through the due process of the law within a democratic society governed by the rule of law. Policymakers need to reconsider the existing framework related to the interrogation of suspects as well as the accused, because at present it is arbitrary as a process and random in its effects. As law enforcement activity deals with people from different socio-economic backgrounds ranging from the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless, it should be based on principles of purpose and values. The government and policymakers need to ensure that the misadventures of particular law enforcement agencies and officials are transparent with accountability to the laws they have been given the responsibility to uphold instead of having a licence to kill.