Editorial, NewAge, June 25, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh
Defying widespread public outrage, home ministry directives and sacrosanct principles of the rule of law, extrajudicial killings at the hands of law-enforcement agencies continue unabated, as reported in Tuesday’s New Age. According to the New Age tally, the number of deaths by ‘crossfire’ – the common term for encounter killings – since the military-controlled interim government assumed power last year is 169. According to the human rights group Odhikar, the total number of extrajudicial killings, including death by torture and custodial deaths, stands at a staggering 225 since January 12 last year. Human rights groups have repeatedly pointed out that the greatest burden of culpability in extrajudicial killings continues to fall on the Rapid Action Battalion notorious for ‘crossfire’ deaths which it routinely claims happened when their detainee led them into an ambush in which they were fired upon. Since its creation in 2004, more than six hundred people have died at the hands of the battalion, most of them explained away as accidental ‘crossfire’ deaths, with the phenomenon seeing a resurgence in the interim government’s regime. To date, not one of those deaths have been investigated through a public enquiry, and those responsible for these deaths have enjoyed a kind of impunity that has no place in the security apparatus of a civilised nation state.
In fact, it would appear that the elite force’s impunity now extends to the home adviser’s office. On January 29 this year, the home adviser, MA Matin, reportedly flagged the issue of extrajudicial deaths in a meeting he chaired, instructing the highest officials within the police and the battalion to ensure that ‘such incidents do not take place further’. Those instructions seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Between January and June 20 this year there have been more than 35 such extrajudicial killings, therefore defying an order by the highest executive authority in the home ministry. These figures are a damning indictment of a government that assumed power last year promising to restore ‘decency’ and ‘accountability’ to governance. We see a telling sign of the increasing impunity of the Rapid Action Battalion — and consequently security forces in general — in the RAB director general’s response to the news that such killings by his forces are on the rise. ‘The number of crossfire deaths increased when the law and order deteriorated but I am sure that the figure is not higher than earlier,’ the RAB chief told New Age on Monday, effectively admitting his force’s culpability.
Extrajudicial killing, be it during an elected government or an unelected regime, is unacceptable. We are aware that deaths in custody also took place during the tenure of the previous governments. The government, which hardly lets pass any opportunity to castigate the previous elected governments, has seemingly retained one of the ills that blighted the terms of its elected predecessors. Worse even, under a state of emergency, the people do not even have the right to move the court against extrajudicial killings, a right that they had under the previous governments. Therefore, while the government should adopt a hard-line stance on the issue of custodial deaths at its highest level, it should also withdraw the state of emergency immediately so that the checks and balances in the rule of law can once again be restored.