Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s hands are the bloodiest of them all?
THE audio-recorded phone conversation of Akramul Haque’s violent killing rips apart the government’s web of lies, no, no, we’d repeatedly been told, the law-enforcing agencies do not carry out extra-judicial killings, they do not kill the citizens of Bangladesh in cold-blood, deaths occur because of ‘gunfights’ and ‘shootouts’ with hardened criminals who are desperately trying to escape. They shoot at us, we fire back, they get killed.
Akramul’s death, which his wife Ayesha Begum alleges, was ‘totally staged,’ a ‘planned murder’ has stunned the country, for the recording — of his daughters entreating, where are you abbu, when will you come home? of his wife asking, who is this? my husband has done no wrong, please let him go, of his daughter uttering with disbelief, are you crying dad? of Akramul’s heroic reassurances, go to bed my darling, I’ll be back soon — confirms our secret nightmares.
Close family ties. Anxiety, fear, panic. Praying to Allah, don’t let them shoot him, let him be safe, let him come home. Darkness. Gunshots. The finality of death. The banality of state evil.
It has also stunned hundreds of thousands of dedicated grassroots members of the ruling Awami League, but Akramul was so honest, he was so committed, they say dazedly, as they mumble to themselves, if this could happen to him, it could happen to me.
True. It could not only be one of us, it could be you too.
It is systematic, and the system has gone berserk.
THE government declared a ‘war on drugs’ this year.
On May 3, while speaking at the Rapid Action Battalion’s headquarters in Kurmitola, prime minister Sheikh Hasina said, drug addiction is a social menace. It is spreading fast.
‘We’ve been able to achieve a success conducting a drive against extremists. Now it’ll have to be continued against drug abuse.’
‘All those who produce drug[s], sell it, carry it and use it are equally guilty.’
On May 20, prime minister Sheikh Hasina told the newly-elected mayors and councillors of the Khulna City Corporation, ‘You must have seen that operations against drugs have already started. We have delegated special responsibilities to all the law-enforcing agencies, intelligence agencies and RAB. Wherever there are drugs, tough measures will be taken...we are taking stringent measures.’
And yet again, on May 30, prime minister Sheikh Hasina, at a Ganabhaban press conference held after her return from West Bengal, spoke of her determination, ‘When I deal with something, I deal with it with an iron hand.’
‘Intelligence agencies have collected information for a long time. They have worked on those involved...we have put them under surveillance.’
More than 10,000 drug dealers and users have been arrested but newspapers have not covered it properly, said the prime minister. When asked about godfathers, she commented, ‘I don’t know what you are trying to indicate by saying the word ‘godfather.’’ No godfather will be spared. If any innocent person is victimised in the anti-narcotics drive, he will surely be tried. ‘Please show us at least one [such] incident.’
THE countrywide anti-narcotics drive began on May 14, and in Dhaka city, on May 25.
It continues. According to latest official figures, nearly sixteen thousand ‘drug peddlers’ and ‘abusers’ have been arrested, 135 have been killed.
Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan had said the operation would be conducted on the basis of lists prepared by the five law-enforcing agencies, but for reasons unknown each agency began its own drive before a coordinated list could be prepared. Press reports say, this has led to poor results.
Parveen Begum, mother of Rezaul Islam alias Rony of Gazipur, a drug dealer, user, and according to locals, an informer for the Detective Branch, alleges, law-enforcing agencies ‘took the money but killed him.’ Denied by officers-in-charge of both DB Gazipur and Tongi thana (Dhaka Tribune, May 22, 2018).
Bigger fish elude arrest. Residents of Korail bosti say, surprise raids would have yielded results, ‘The police came, they held meetings. Do you think drug dealers will hang around to get arrested?’ An elderly resident of Geneva Camp says, ‘The big drug dealers come in their [fancy] cars. They leave after the work gets done. If you can’t catch ‘em what use is it terrorising people?’ (Prothom Alo, May 30, 2018).
Ukhia-Teknaf is the gateway to yaba smuggling and the name of Abdur Rahman Bodi, Awami League lawmaker from Cox’s Bazar-4 (Ukhia-Teknaf), tops intelligence reports of all five agencies. He is the patron of the colossal trade in yaba which enters through Myanmar, several of his relatives in the yaba trade have been described by the Department of Narcotics Control as ‘yaba godfathers.’
When the home minister was asked why Bodi had not been arrested, he replied, ‘Naam thakle to cholbe na [A mere name isn’t everything]. We need proof.’
Stories spun by the law enforcing agencies have been challenged by family members of other victims too. Eyewitnesses say, Habibur Rahman was picked up by four plain clothed people on May 17, 2018 as he came out of a mosque in Chittagong; but when his family contacted police and RAB, both denied having picked him up. Later, RAB announced that two drug dealers, one of them Habibur, had been killed in a ‘gun battle’ on 17th night. His family held a press conference at the Chittagong Press Club on May 23, they claimed that ‘Habibur was fighting with his rivals over a land dispute with a group of influential people associated with the government and had several trumped up criminal cases against him.’ According to them, another man named Habib Sheikh, allegedly a drugs dealer, should have been the ‘actual suspect.’ But a RAB source had ‘misguided the RAB to save Habib Sheikh.’ RAB allegedly realised after killing Habibur that it had been a case of mistaken identity, that their source Mosharraf Hossain had misguided them. So they went and killed Mosharraf too (ALRC, May 25, 2018).
Press reports cite human rights activists who say, drug lords ‘hardly sell drugs on the streets,’ those arrested are small-time drug pushers or field-level businessman, framing in false drug cases is not unknown (Bangladesh Bank official Golam Rabbi), getting one’s name struck off the list, or a personal enemy’s name added to the list, is ‘big business’ (Dhaka Tribune, June 2, 2018).
But the real problem lies elsewhere, says an official of the intelligence department of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. If only drug dealers plied the trade, it would have been easy. The network is just too large.
Bodi left for Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah on June 1. His daughter and son-in-law went away a week earlier, his cousin (a Rakhine, through intermarriage) has reportedly fled to Myanmar. Other family members have left Teknaf.
THE success against Islamic militants is equally questionable.
Law-enforcement agencies in Bangladesh claim a ‘unique pattern of militancy’, says the Asian Legal Resource Centre, in a written submission to the 38th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council on May 25, 2018, cited above. Recently, a two-storied residential house in Moulvibazar, termed ‘militants den,’ was cordoned off for 34 hours by a SWAT team (Special Weapons And Tactics) and a CTTCU team (Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit) of the police. I quote,
‘Later, the police recovered the bodies of seven persons from the house. The Police said that in the afternoon on March 29, the ‘extremists’ might have killed themselves by ‘blowing up suicide vests.’ Among the seven bodies recovered after the ‘Operation Hit Back’, four were children. Of them, one was an infant, one was a two-year old, one was a seven-year old and another was a ten-year old. Two women were also found killed at the scene; of them one was aged about 20-25 and the other woman was 35 years of age. The deceased man was also 35 years old.’
Bangladesh’s uniqueness, says the ALRC, lies in the ‘alleged militants blow[ing] themselves up with their family members including wife and minor children instead of using their ‘suicide vests’ in crowded public places such as railway stations, shopping malls, stadiums or bus terminals.’
MY HUSBAND is innocent, he was not a drug dealer, insisted Ayesha Begum, at a press conference at the Cox’s Bazar Press Club on May 31. Flanked by her daughters, 14 year-old Tahiyat Haque and 11 year-old Nahiyan Haque, on either side, Ayesha presented four audio clips, and demanded a judicial probe into his death.
If Akramul Haque, thrice-elected Teknaf municipality councillor and an Awami League member, was involved in the drug trade, couldn’t he have built a house ‘as a Jubo League president for 12 years in a place like Teknaf?’ Life was hard, we live in a room at my in-laws house, my daughters’ tuition fees have not been paid, but we were happy.
Akram’s elder brother Nazrul Islam explained, Akram had called his family on his own phone, which had Bluetooth on, the whole conversation was recorded.
Ayesha says, a person who claimed to be an ‘officer of a special intelligence agency posted in Teknaf’ had contacted Akram about three weeks ago, he said, he wanted to buy a plot of land along the Marine Drive road. Akram took him to several land owners.
On May 26, the officer rang and insisted that Akram go over to Parjatan Hotel Netong, a senior official had come from Dhaka. Akram left his house at 9 pm. When his daughter called him at 11:13 pm, Akram had said, ‘I am going to Hnila with the major with whom I came here.’
Ayesha alleges, ‘Akram’s name was put on the list of drug dealers as he came under the wrath of an official of an intelligence agency long ago.’ Akram’s funeral prayers were attended by thousands of people, would that have happened if he was a drug trader?
RAB’s press statement claims, Akram’s body was found after a shootout at Noakhalipara between suspected drug traders and a RAB team.
Ranjit Kumar, officer in charge of Teknaf Model police station says, a locally made gun, a pistol, six rounds of bullets and 10,000 Yaba pills were found beside his body.
Their younger daughter Nahiyan fainted while the press conference was being held.
COLLATERAL damage is the term used for civilians killed in military action who were ‘not intentionally targeted.’
Akramul was, but as Michael Boldin writes, the dividing line between ‘terrorist’ and ‘victim’ is thin, forces of power decide who will be labelled under which category.
In the war that the state has unleashed against its people, one drive follows another to meet the needs of the ruling party of the day, which may include eliminating opposition party activists. The state’s functionaries, agencies which conduct shootouts (‘we brought you to power’) may work as assassins for hire, disposing rivals in political or economic disputes.
Limitless power also means enhanced egos, what is perceived to be a snub, suffered long ago in some provincial town may not be forgotten, even if it be from a local ruling party leader.
Akramul was groomed for a month or so, by several, possibly to soothe a senior officer’s hurt ego.
People are not treated as human beings but simply written off, says Boldin, their deaths ‘become incidental to the conquest of some military or political objective.’ They are like ‘fat discarded by the butcher,’ they are ‘simply written off as collateral damage, i.e., rubble.’
Who could have known that a Bluetooth device could cause so much damage?
Rocking the boat severely enough for ten stalwart supporters of the regime to sign a statement condemning ‘killings’ described as gunfights. These are not ‘acceptable in a democratic state and civilised society.’ They demanded a judicial inquiry.
Toned down by the National Human Rights Commission chair Kazi Reazul Hoque who has slavishly said, an ‘inquiry by an executive magistrate’ would suffice.
THE law minister Anisul Huq, bespectacled and forever earnest-looking, has a tough time, minimising acts of state terror by putting forth a humane face.
On Human Rights Day last December, he urged journalists to focus on the Rohingya issue, ‘prime minister has accommodated seven lakh Rohingyas...I urge [you] to highlight those things’ instead of extrajudicial killings.
But crisis was broiling even before Akramul’s audio clips had surfaced. A delegation of the Awami League’s international affairs sub-committee recently briefed foreign diplomats in Dhaka, the latter were requested not to compare the government’s crackdown with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly ‘war on drugs.’
I find it difficult to look at the photograph for long, Akramul’s words haunt me, as they will far more, far longer, his adoring daughters, ‘Go to bed my darling, I’ll be back soon.’
He never will.
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