HOW can we further our police investigation? ‘Unless a disappeared can appear as a witness to her own disappearance,’ says the conclusion of the police super’s investigation report of the Kalpana Chakma disappearance case.
It has been 22 years since the abduction of Kalpana Chakma, the organising secretary of Hill Women’s Federation. She was picked up from her village in Lallyaghona, Baghaichari of Rangamati district on June 11, 1996 by a group of armed men and has not been found since. On June 12, 1996, Kalpana Chakma’s elder brother Kalindi Kumar Chakma, a witness, filed an abduction case against three named and 10-12 unnamed under section 364 (abduction with intention of wrongful confinement and murder). Baghaichari thana omitted all named accused. After 14 and a half years the chief investigation officer at Baghaichari submitted the first complete investigation report. This report bypassed the testimony of direct witnesses and stated that no conclusive evidence was found of Kalpana Chakma’s abduction. In the process of conducting the case, the investigation officer was changed about 39 times. On September 7, 2017, the 39th investigation officer submitted his report saying that as the victim could not be located during the investigation, it was not possible to present her in court. It also said that reports stating rumours regarding Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance (was in hiding, had gone elsewhere) were baseless, she had been abducted but since she herself is witness to her abduction, no progress can be made until her return. The prosecutor appealed for the court to close the case until new evidence emerged. Kalpana’s brother filed a no-confidence petition on November 28, 2016. The date of hearing of the no-confidence petition was shifted 10 times. The court ordered the prosecution to produce videotape made by judicial inquiry commission and news reports published in Bengali dailies Bhorer Kagoj and Sangbad on June 23, 1996 and June 24, 1996. No hearing has taken place since.
The case described above has received the attention of both national and international circles and one would have hoped that it could have been an exemplar of justice for Bangladesh. Instead it is not only showing signs of becoming an exemplar of impunity but also a risk factor for paving the way for further atrocity crimes.
Usually impunity is conceived at the systemic or institutional level of laws and jurisprudence through which a particular crime or act of violence goes unpunished. But it can also be located at different layers: the individual, community and societal level, where the very nature of violence lends themselves to a silencing process, or at the minimum, a reluctance to address them head on. At the more familial or pedagogic level, impunity is also moulded through the systematic privileging of gender inequalities such as the privileging of the male child or the normalisation of domestic violence.
The last layer of impunity is particularly relevant for the prevention of gender-based atrocity crimes. Atrocity crimes according to the former UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon are not ‘spontaneous or isolated events; they are processes with histories, precursors and triggering factors, which combined enable their commission.’
The relevant ‘risk factors’ in general and gender based atrocity crimes in particular are:
1. Armed conflict and other forms of crisis or instability
2. Gender discrimination and inequality and weak protection of physical integrity and rights of women
3. Identity-based discrimination and extremists or supremacist ideologies
4. Record of impunity for human rights violations, particularly sexual and gender based violence
5. Weak/unaccountable laws and institutions to protect against sexual and gender based violence
6. Marginalisation and absence of women in atrocity prevention
The above ‘risk factors’ are already showing signs of surfacing not only in the Chittagong Hill Tracts but also in the rest of Bangladesh. Some current reports bear this out. According to a research conducted from 2011 to 2018 by Naripokkho, in eight years, 4372 cases of sexual violence were committed and only five perpetrators punished. The fact that this has been a persistent trend and has been disturbingly affecting other ‘soft targets’ is carried out by another report by a child rights organisation Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum which said that at least 346 children have been subjected to rape, including 38 gang rapes, between the months of January 1 to May 14, 2019 only. Of the 346 children, 22 have physical disabilities, 18 were killed after being raped and 10 committed suicide. The report also said that 156 children were either abducted or went missing over the period and 15 of the abducted were later found dead.
Another risk factor for atrocity crimes in general which is becoming pervasive are enforced disappearances. According to estimates of a rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, at least 340 abductions were reported in the five years to November, 2017 including 53 in 2013, 88 in 2014, 55 in 2015 and 91 in 2016. Up until November in 2017, at least 54 people were subjected to enforced disappearances.
Such staggering figures leave us in no doubt that such incidents are not spontaneous or isolated events as the government often declares it to be but are symptomatic of systemic or governance failures rooted in the politico-legal and social structures of the state that resists redress and reifies impunity. As such, enforced disappearance or disappearances/abductions not accounted for or responsibilities of the state left unaccounted in such incidents may very well lead to it being characterised as a mass atrocity crime. One of the latest cases of disappearance that of Michael Chakma, illustrates how this can be.
Michael Chakma is an organiser of United People Democratic Front, a regional organisation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and also the general secretary of the labour front called, United Workers Democratic Front. He was declared missing by relatives and friends from April 9, 2019, his last call being from a spot near Kanchpur, on the road from Narayanganj to Dhaka as he was making his way towards Dhaka after organising a meeting in Narayanganj. His friends and relatives fearing abduction went to the relevant police station which was Sonargaon to lodge a complaint on April 16, 2019. Then the harassment started. According to the members of Michael’s organisation, the police denied to have taken any complaints from them and instead told them to look at different places, even insinuating that there are many complaints lodged against Michael in various police stations. Is this the behaviour that one would expect from police officials who at the cost of the tax payers money are delegated to look after the security of life and property of the citizens of Bangladesh?
Michael Chakma’s disappearance is not an isolated incident. Many such disappearances/abductions have taken place, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the past and are happening even now. The precursors, the histories are there. But Michael’s disappearance is perhaps the first to take place of an ethnic labour leader in the jurisdiction of the Division of Dhaka. This is worrying. The Chittagong Hill Tracts even after 22 years of the signing of the Accord has not only yet to achieve the peace and stability envisioned for the people residing there, it is increasingly being pulled backwards by the absence of transparent and accountable institutions of governance thus leading to triggering moments of violence that keep threatening the peace and stability of the region. Is this form of (mis) governance to be the rule of the day for the rest of the nation? If peace and justice does not come to the Hills, can it ever come to the plains? The Chittagong Hill Tracts, after all, is an integral part of Bangladesh.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord which is founded on the principles of devolution has won much endearment in the hearts of people around the world not least in the UN circles. It is for this Accord that prime minister Sheikh Hasina had won the UNESCO Houphet-Boigny Peace Prize in 1998. Should such an achievement go to waste merely because we choose to deal with issues with a securitising lens rather than a democratic one? Contesting impunity and preventing mass atrocities whether in the form of addressing gender-based atrocity crimes or enforced disappearances and abductions should form the foundation of policies of the Bangladesh state. Only can this ensure true development.
Meghna Guhathakurta is a researcher, activist and honorary member of National Human Rights Commission Bangladesh.