Contextualising the popularity of ‘crossfire’


NewAge, August 4, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

In reality, the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh left the people of Baghmara in a double-bind: they wanted relief from the Sarbahara reign of terror, but eventually found that they had unwittingly sanctioned the creation of another monster whose tactics were the same, though convened under a different banner, writes Mahtab Haider

SHOULD it matter that Mizanur Rahman Tutul was a doctor? Can a man be arrested and killed by the state without a trial? Is it possible to ignore that his alleged killers are the recipients of the highest state honour in Bangladesh, Swadhinata Padak, which they received in March 2006 despite allegedly killing more than 200 people? And now that the number of such killings has crossed the 500 mark, is it time to give them another Swadhinata Padak? Do we wish away that the common torture methods used by these ‘law enforcers’ includes boring holes into victim’s bodies with electric drills or applying electric shocks? Is it easy to ignore the fact that the man who once headed this ‘judge, jury and executioner’ agency is now an adviser to the military-controlled interim government? And can a state agency murder more than 400 citizens, even if they are accused of crimes, and still avoid accountability or punishment?

These are some of the questions that we as a society need to ask ourselves in the wake of the custodial death of Dr Mizanur Rahman Tutul on the night of July 26, within hours of a press conference in which Tutul’s mother told reporters that the Rapid Action Battalion had arrested her son, begging the government to ensure that he was not killed in a ‘crossfire’. Sensitive to the mother’s plea, the government’s handout explaining Tutul’s death the next day avoided the word’s ‘RAB’ and ‘crossfire’, claiming that he had died in police custody, in a ‘shootout incident’. Tutul’s mother had predicted her son’s death, but her semantics were off the mark.

Perhaps former law minister Moudud Ahmed, who was instrumental in setting up RAB, could have instructed her on how she should word such allegations. During his stint as law minister, Moudud told reporters in 2006: ‘Although technically you may call it extrajudicial—I will not say killing—but extrajudicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead on encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it—people are happy.’

Since its creation in March 2004, the Rapid Action Battalion’s notorious ‘crossfire’ — the word commonly used to explain custodial killings — has come to be one of the most feared aspects of public life in Bangladesh, intimidating criminals and ordinary citizens alike. RAB was created by the alliance government led by Khaleda Zia’s BNP, and while the initially announced goal of the agency which seconded personnel from the police, army and navy, was to crack down on organised crime, the trend borne out by the agency’s work over the past four years is disturbing, to say the least.

The rule of law demands that the justice delivery system examine charges or accusations brought against individuals before punishment is awarded by courts of law, as per guidelines set by the parliament. Inherent in this system of trial and punishment are innumerable checks and balances which should prevent abuses of power. What RAB’s record of extrajudicial killings — carried out in the name of crime fighting — has done is make a mockery of the justice delivery system, and essentially provide a state equivalent of vigilantism. There can be little objection to an elite crime fighting force that is equipped with the latest technology in surveillance, tasked to combat types of crime which the traditional state police force have failed to. But if this agency is conceived as an alternative to a police force that is beyond reform, and if it kills detainees because the justice delivery system is failing to deliver justice, the entire internal security superstructure of the state is in risk of collapse. In effect, the state is admitting its failure to protect its citizens by and large, and further destroying public confidence in the rule of law by advocating extrajudicial or vigilante killings as a solution.
 No example illustrates this point better than that of the ‘Bangla Bhai phenomenon’.

It was in April 2004 that the notorious Bangla Bhai and his Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh started their reign of terror in the Baghmara upazila of Rajshahi. In the span of the few months before the JMB had to go underground because of media coverage and public pressure, Bangla Bhai and his militia had executed scores of men publicly, often beating them to death with blunt instruments while making all the residents of a village — sometimes also the victim’s family — watch the spectacle. It has since emerged that the JMB and its sister organisation Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh were largely a creation of the BNP-led alliance government which allegedly provided this militia with the protection it needed from the police and other law enforcers while it carried out its cleansing operations. And who were they cleansing? As has become abundantly clear, Bangla Bhai and his militia were tasked with killing members of the radical left-group Purba Banglar Communist Party, better known across the country as the ‘Sarbahara’.
   Having clearly abandoned the final vestiges of any kind of ideology — left or right — sections of the PBCP have terrorised residents of the country’s eastern belt for much of the past decade, carrying out public executions, gruesome murders and kidnappings for ransom, mostly for financial gain. In areas where the Sarbahara have grown increasingly stronger, the state has often had to beat a retreat, its police force and local administration fearing the leftist ultras as much as the residents do. This terrorisation of public life still continues in many parts of the country, and the local administration and the police often find that they have no choice but to be complicit in their crimes, if they want to live.

The BNP-led alliance evidently bred and nurtured the JMB and Bangla Bhai as a sort of party-sanctioned private militia nourished on an Islamist ideology radical enough that it could counter the Sarbahara on their own terrain using their tactics. Initially, the people of Baghmara, at least, were ecstatic with the JMB’s Sarbahara cleansing campaign. After years, the Sarbahara could no longer kill and maim at will. Far from it, Sarbahara operatives were being picked up in the dead of night by Bangla Bhai and his men, and when they were found the day after, their bodies had been dismembered or their throats slit after relentless beatings. These detainees were often transported in police jeeps to Bangla Bhai’s torture camps, and the district police top brass were often present at public executions. Make no mistake, the local people of Baghmara were initially happy with the JMB and the work they were doing.

As one old man said to me when I visited Baghmara in the wake of the JMB killings, ‘Bangla’s cruelty may have made many forget how cruel the Sarbahara were, killing, raping, setting houses on fire…I won’t forget.’ But in reality, it also left the people of Baghmara in a double-bind: they wanted relief from the Sarbahara reign of terror and eventually found that they had unwittingly sanctioned the creation of another monster whose tactics were the same, though convened under a different banner. Within months, with the Sarbahara beaten back in Baghmara, Bangla Bhai and his militia were also settling private or political disputes for profit and influence. Awami League activists were picked up and tortured. Those locals who failed to pay toll to the JMB were tortured. If a man failed to show up for prayers, or failed to grow an ‘Islamic beard’, his enemies could report him for being a left-radical, and he would be picked up and tortured. This came as a disillusionment for the residents of Baghmara.
   One of the biggest reasons why the JMB’s political masters — the BNP and its allies — had to pull their cover was the spate of media reports that revealed the pogrom they were carrying out, and the extent to which the local administration had aided them. Eventually, the alliance government made a media spectacle of the arrest of Bangla Bhai and Shaikh Abdur Rahman, the chief ideologue, before their trial and execution in 2006.

With a handful of prominent PBCP leaders and numerous more Sarbahara operatives killed in such ‘encounters’ in the four years since the creation of RAB, the battalion is evidently the JMB’s state-sanctioned doppelganger. It is not an insignificant line that separates them. RAB was created legally, with parliamentary approval; the JMB was a private militia. But that makes the battalion’s human rights record all the more terrifying, because the country’s constitution binds every citizen, every government agency, with some fundamental codes of conduct that must stay inviolable. Allowing one security agency to run roughshod on constitutional guarantees cannot make our streets and lives safer; it will eventually have the opposite effect by undermining the rule of law and consequently democracy. Contrasting the JMB killings against those of the RAB contextualises why we cannot allow the latter to carry on its ‘crossfire’.

There is no denying that RAB and ‘crossfire’ both command a great deal of popular support in the country. There are often stories of neighbourhood celebrations after the local ‘mastaan’ falls victim to a RAB arrest and subsequent crossfire. But as with the JMB, these celebrations will likely be short-lived, because as time goes by, governments will almost certainly use this same agency to liquidate political opponents, dissenters, and free thinkers.

In April 2006, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, adviser to then prime minister Khaleda Zia on parliamentary affairs, mockingly warned opposition members to follow the ‘right path’ (siratul mustakim) because they are on RAB’s ‘crossfire’ list. This ‘joke’ might have been funny if it weren’t true for street-level activists of the League. And if the League were to come to power, there is no reason to suspect that they would behave differently. ‘Many people think if the Awami League comes to power again, it will abolish RAB,’ Sheikh Hasina said in March 2006. ‘But we will not do so. Rather, RAB will be given a special assignment to capture corrupt people.’ A report filed by the wire agency AFP in 2005 quotes former foreign minister and BNP top brass Morshed Khan defending the RAB ‘crossfire’ phenomenon with the words, ‘I don’t know of any country in the world where some criminals have not been killed in crossfires’.

When Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed’s military-controlled interim government came to power in 2007, he promised a government that practised accountability, transparency, and decency. Since then a total of 200 persons were killed in various incidents such as crossfire, shootout or gunfight by RAB, the national police and other law enforcement agencies, according to the human rights coalition Odhikar. Against the backdrop of the human rights record displayed by our governments, past and present, the question that we, as citizens, need to ask ourselves is: While it may be in the interests of our repressive governments to kill detainees without charges or trial, is it really in ours to allow it to go on?




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