September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
DHAKA, BANGLADESH – Limon Hossain, a college student with dark brown eyes, was returning home to Chhaturia, a village in Bangladesh, with his family’s cows when he was shot by members of a police unit. The injury caused him to lose his left leg.
Some alleged that the Rapid Action Battalion, RAB, the anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit that is under the command of the Inspector General Police and includes members of several armed force divisions, shot him on purpose. But the RAB maintains that Hossain was caught in crossfire.
Before he was shot in March, Hossain was charged with obstructing the Arms Act and government duty by attempting to murder and injure RAB personnel. Soon after the shooting, Henu Ara Begum, Hossain’s mother, filed a case with the senior judicial magistrate’s court against several RAB personnel, suggesting the battalion shot her son instead of proceeding with the formal charges against him in court.
Mokhlesur Rahman, RAB director general, maintains that Hossain was the accidental victim of a shootout between RAB and criminals.
“Limon is a young boy, not a notorious criminal, but an accused in a criminal case,” he said during a media briefing here. “He just became the victim of the incident.”
Begum says she is scared for her family’s well-being.
“We are scared by the RAB professionals and under pressure to withdraw the case,” Begum says. “Thanks to the National Human Rights Commission and other human rights organization, who are actually safeguarding me and my family to seek justice.”
Citizens here say that RAB personnel have often murdered or disappeared friends and relatives, a charge RAB authorities deny. Still, residents here say they are afraid for their safety. Bangladeshi laws ensure citizens the right to life, a fair trial and humane treatment, but human rights advocates say RAB’s self-regulation avoids all accountability. Other citizens say RAB personnel are entitled to self-defense and that extrajudicial killings are the best method to eliminate notorious criminals. The government says it’s fully committed to stopping extrajudicial killings and ensuring justice.
The RAB was formed in 2004 to fight crime and terrorism in Bangladesh. Since its inception, 472 alleged criminals have been killed in the name of “crossfire” or “encounter” between associates of the criminals and RAB members, according to Odhikar, a human rights organization.
According to a report Odhikar released last month, 49 people were killed extrajudicially between January and July 2011. On average, one person was killed extrajudicially every four days. Odhikar categorizes these deaths under four causes: by crossfire, encounter or gun fight, which killed 37; torture, which claimed the lives of nine; beating, which killed one; and shooting, which also killed one. Among the dead were alleged criminals, political activists, university students, medical personnel and prisoners.
In the wake of the report, some Bangladeshis have come forward to say they witnessed the murders and disappearances of friends and family at the hands of the RAB.
Shariful Islam says he was an eyewitness in the fatal torturing of Mohammad Maniruzzaman Rubel, 28, earlier this year. Islam says police arrested him and Rubel on a charge of stealing a motorcycle and tortured them. He says the one officer beat them both severely with a thick wooden stick while interrogating them about the motorcycle. He says the officer also hung Rubel from his handcuffs and repeatedly struck his legs.
Islam says he was released, but police kept Rubel at the police station. Islam says Rubel died the following morning at Tangail General Hospital in central Bangladesh as a result of injuries suffered during police torture.
Begum Razia Delwar, Rubel’s mother, says her son was innocent and that police officers tortured him to death.
“The police officials are in jail, but I need exemplary punishment,” Delwar says.
The officers are currently in custody in Tangail District Jail on charges brought against them by Rubel’s brother. Police declined to comment on the officers’ innocence or guilt.
Another man, Mohmmad Rafiqul Islam, disappeared earlier this year, according to Odhikar. Two eyewitnesses interviewed by Odhikar say they saw officials handcuff Islam outside his shop and take him to the main street, where armed men wearing RAB uniforms and others in civilian clothes were waiting.
Family members of Islam say they haven’t seen him since and fear for his as well as their own safety.
“I am scared talking with you and other journalists, as [there are] RAB personnel in plain [clothes] and following our activities,” says one relative, who declined to be named for safety reasons.
RAB authorities have denied arresting Islam.
An officer in charge of a police station in Jessore, a district in southwestern Bangladesh, who declined to be named to protect his job, says the RAB’s actions sometimes implicate regular police as well.
“Sometimes RAB bring almost-dead alleged criminals and force us to take the cases, and, after few hours, if that person died, people blame us for torture,” the officer says.
Officials at RAB headquarters in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, declined repeated requests to comment for this story.
Adilur Rahman Khan, Odhikar secretary and Bangladesh Supreme Court lawyer, says that police shouldn’t be above the law.
“RAB was created to abolish the left wing and underground political leaders,” he says. “No security force can enjoy impunity on indiscriminate use of lethal force and doing torture and degrading treatments.”
According to Bangladeshi laws, minimum force should be applied during arrests, and every citizen has the right to a trial. Article 31 of the Bangladesh Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to be treated in accordance with the law. Article 32 ensures every citizen the right to life and personal liberty in accordance with the law.
Articles 33 and 35 accord specific rights to those who are arrested, including the right to know the grounds of arrest, to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner, and to have a speedy and public trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal. The articles also outlaw unauthorized detention, torture, and cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment.
According to the Police Regulation of Bengal, which Bangladeshi police follow, officers should use firearms only in emergencies. The regulation mandates a full executive probe regarding any use of firearms, which must be sent to the government with a copy also submitted to top police leadership.
Yet Khan says RAB doesn’t adhere to outside regulatory requirements.
“All inquiry and investigation against this security force are done by their own investigation in a close[d]-door court, which actually frustrated the impartiality and transparency of the legal system,” he says.
The officer at the Jessore police station agrees and says this jeopardizes the integrity of all Bangladeshi police.
“Sometimes the impunity of this [RAB] security force questioned our transparency and justice system,” the officer says. “Being a part of prosecution, we all are often embarrassed on their atrocity.”
According to a 2010 U.S. State Department report, the RAB committed numerous extrajudicial killings and at times used unwarranted lethal force. The Bangladeshi government didn’t release statistics for total killings by all security personnel or adhere to other follow-up measures.
“The government also did not take comprehensive measures to investigate cases, despite public statements by high-ranking officials that the government would show ‘zero tolerance’ and would fully investigate all extrajudicial killings by security forces,” according to the report. “The number of killings by police and combined security forces also increased.”
According to the report, local media and human rights organizations maintained that no case resulted in criminal punishment, and the few charged and found guilty generally received administrative punishment.
Activists and human rights defenders here say the National Human Rights Commission should conduct independent investigations of law enforcement agencies and should have more power to ask questions and take action.
But others say an officer’s right to self-defense outweighs other laws.
The general criminal law allows citizens to use necessary, proportionate and nondeadly force in self-defense if victims reasonably believe that unlawful force is about to be used against them.
Some people say they even approve of extrajudicial killings. Six out of 10 Bangladeshi citizens randomly interviewed say it’s the best way to get rid of notorious criminals.
Government officials have spoken out against this. Dipu Moni, Bangladesh foreign minister, said last year at a high-level meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council at Geneva that Bangladesh was fully committed to stopping extrajudicial killings. Shafique Ahmed, law minister, echoed her.
“No more crossfire incidents are taking place in the country,” Ahmed said. “It has stopped.”