EXTRAJUDICIAL killing, often sugar-coated as death in ‘gunfight’, has registered a surge even during the COVID-19 emergency, with 37 people having been killed in the first 28 days of July. Rights group Ain O Salish Kendra says that at least 157 people have died in ‘gunfight’ since February, with 21 that month, 30 in March, 15 in April, 27 in May, 27 in June and 37 in July until the 28th. Rights group Odhikar notes an alarming increase in death in ‘gunfight’ beginning with 2018, saying that 466 people were killed in ‘gunfight’ that year, which is the yearly highest in two decades, and 391 people in 2019, with a somewhat decline towards the end of the year. More than 500 of the incidents are said to have involved people suspected of being engaged in the peddling of drug substances, especially since May 2018, when the law enforcement agencies began a drive against trading in drugs. Death in ‘gunfight’, ‘crossfire’, ‘encounter’ or even ‘gangland infighting’ — however government authorities put them — largely bears the strain of extrajudicial killing because of the concomitant narratives that almost always suspects die after being hit with bullets fired by their accomplices during arms and drug recovery or cohort arrest drive.
While a half of the incidents that took place in July has taken place in Cox’s Bazar, which law enforcers think to be a major route for the smuggling of drugs, a video footage that did the rounds on social media is reported to have showed a Teknaf police officer threatening people involved in drug trading of ‘attacks that cannot be traced.’ The police officer is reported to have said that people engaged in the peddling and smuggling of drug substance would be uprooted and their houses, business and other property would be burnt. As the video footage came to be criticised, the police officer in question has said that he did not mean what he said and what he said rather meant that local people who are concerned about drug peddling might attack the houses and business of pedlars and smuggles if illicit activities did not stop. Whatever the police officer meant, this suggests that the train of extrajudicial killing, which not only undermines the rule of law but also weakens the justice dispensation system, continues in an aura of impunity that the government should break with the required political will. Such incidents of ‘gunfight’ that result in the death of suspects are devoid of any legal jurisdiction and are, therefore, unlawful by nature. The government should remember that everyone, crime suspect or criminal, has the right to defend and the approach that the government has taken does not seem to be the right way of justice dispensation.
The government must put in efforts to deter the abuse of and trade in drug substances and hold anyone found guilty of the crimes and standing in breach of the law to account. But it must do all this through adherence to the rule of law. Any justice dispensation devoid of judicial accountability constitutes an affront to the rule of law and weakens the judicial process. The government must, therefore, afford people the indefeasible constitutional right to defend and it must have the political will to do all this.
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