The Crossfire Controversy in Bangladesh
Dr. Habib Siddiqui
In recent days, following a photo exhibit on “Crossfire” at the Drik Gallery, Dhaka, much noise has been made in the media about human rights violations in Bangladesh. Last Monday an anti-government group even hosted a news conference in the National Press Club, Washington D.C.
Extra-judicial killings are unacceptable anywhere. Having said that let's not be oblivious of the hard facts in our world. Such killings are quite common everywhere and are routinely practiced by most governments to weed out elements within the society that they consider dangerous, who might otherwise escape from a faulty judicial system.
As I write this essay, Los Angeles Police officers fatally shot late Saturday night an unarmed autistic man, Steven Eugene Washington. The officers said that they thought Washington was pulling out a weapon from his waistband area, but he turned out to be unarmed. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Los Angeles Police Department to review its policies following the fatal shooting of an unarmed autistic man.
According to the US State Department's Human Rights Report on Bangladesh, released on Mar 12, the law enforcement officials were responsible for 154 deaths, 129 of which were attributed to 'crossfire' in 2009, representing a 3 per cent increase from the previous year. From published reports, on an average some 255 people get murdered every month in Bangladesh, mostly by terrorists and extortionists. The average monthly numbers for robbery, hijacking and abduction are 49, 78 and 58, respectively. The death count by alleged crossfire comprises only a small fraction of that total number (less than 5%).
The US report on crossfire victims in Bangladesh appears to be based on data compiled by Odhikar, which is often cited by the accusers of human rights violations. The report claims that of the 129 people killed by government forces in 2009, only 21 were allegedly tortured to death. These probably included 5 or 6 BDR Jawans in the aftermath of the BDR massacre. One was a trial prisoner. One may take into account the mood of the country in the aftermath of the BDR carnage, when the interrogators – probably from the armed forces – must have crossed the line. While inexcusable, we saw similar fates with many detainees and innocent victims in the post-9/11 era in the USA and UK prisons. The unnatural death of any individual in a police or military custody is unacceptable. Such cases must be tried and the offenders booked for committing such crimes.
Of the 75 politically affiliated victims, only one was from the opposition BNP and two from the ruling AL, the remainders belonging to extremist organizations or banned groups. They may well be extortionists, miscreants and touts, or violent extremists. I, therefore, fail to find any truth to the accusation of a clear pattern by the government of Bangladesh in targeting any opposition party in the report.
From the identity of those killed in crossfire, it is clear that bulk of them were terrorists, extortionists, robbers, and Pahari (tribal) extremists and Naxalites, and armed gang members. Only 2 were students in a college, 2 were garment workers (died of injuries sustained in a tear gas fired by the police), 2 were villagers, 1 was a UP Chairman, 2 were young men, 1 was a madrasa student, 1 a trader, 1 a day-labor, 1 a freedom-fighter, 1 a C&F agent, 1 a farmer and 1 a shopkeeper. That makes a total of 16 civilian victims. Unfortunately, the report is not clear on how they were killed, under what circumstances, and whether or not they were killed as a result of being kept as hostages by criminal gangs or by deliberate gunshots fired from the government force. It is worth pointing out here that by “crossfire,” Odhikar lumps everything including encounter, shootout, and gunfight (p. 21). Of all those allegedly killed by RAB, only one (Bappi) was called a case of ‘mistaken identity’ (p. 68, Odhikar report).
The Odhikar report mentions about five deaths of ethnic minorities as a result of what it calls ‘repression’ of minorities. First of all, the use of such sensation generating terms in a supposedly objective report is problematic. It only shows that the agenda of the so-called human rights group may not be all that noble or sincere and my include portraying Bangladesh negatively. It is not clear whether those killed belonged to the banned terrorist organization PCJSS, which had resorted to violent activities not only against the non-paharis living in the hilly districts but also against the moderate peace-loving pahari (tribal) groups that had signed peace treaty with the government of Bangladesh. (p. 57)
While extra-judicial killing is inexcusable and should stop, it is worth noting that only a very small fraction (nothing alarming) of those killed in ‘crossfire’ in Bangladesh was innocent. Tired of the spiraling crime and corruption, and a judicial process that is sadly perceived faulty or inadequate to put the violent criminals behind the bar by allowing them to go free on bails in higher courts of the country, the general public has been very supportive of the RAB and police actions against those criminals. With such crossfire, they see one less terrorist, murderer and extortionist like Picchy Hannan, Debashis and Shahjahan, let alone the notorious Bangla Bhai who was arrested and later hanged for terrorism. Crossfire has successfully eliminated the Mafia underworld in places like Italy where the judges were either bought or killed by those killers and hit-men.
Let’s face it: even in some prosperous countries, there are serious judicial loopholes that allow criminals to find high-priced lawyers, buy the judges and go free, while many innocents are executed on mistaken identity.
An objective analysis would show that the accusations of crossfire and deliberate attempt to eliminate opposition party members in Bangladesh are untenable by any count. They are blown out of proportion and are used by certain quarters with hidden agenda to portray a very damning image of Bangladesh and to unduly put pressure on its government.