EXTRAJUDICIAL killings of dissidents and outlaws by states is as old as civilisation. The recent world history is replete with such killings. As Hitler had his Waffen-SS and Gestapo, so had Mussolini his Blackshirts to do the job. In the recent past, the last Shah of Iran had his Savak, and the Pakistani occupation Army in Bangladesh had its al-Badr, al-Shams, and Razakars to abduct, torture, and kill their respective opponents. Various countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia — Indonesia and Cambodia in the recent past, and the Philippines under Marcos and the incumbent president Duterte — have had their death-squads, some state-sponsored, and some totally under non-state actors.
The main premise of this article goes beyond explaining the evil of state-sponsored extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. This piece is about pointing out the inherent dangers lurking behind the so-called ‘effective’ and ‘desirable’ state-sponsored extrajudicial killing of people, including hardcore criminals. The whole thing invariably backfires, and the states that promote and nurture this barbaric method for the sake of restoring law and order become more disorderly than before; and even turn into failing states. Examples abound! Thanks to their nurturing state-sponsored terror, multiple countries have remained dysfunctional for decades. Extrajudicial killing by law-enforcers in the long-run turns members of the killing squads into the Frankenstein’s monsters of the state that promoted and nurtured them.
There is nothing new about state-sponsored death-squads in Bangladesh, especially since the Khaleda Zia Government formally introduced the dreaded Rapid Action Battalion in 2004, presumably to kill hardcore criminals; in violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Bangladesh constitution. Since then, Bangladesh governments — elected and unelected ones — have never ‘looked back’! Although it is difficult to ascertain how many Bangladeshis — political activists, criminals, and innocent victims of personal vendetta — got killed in ‘crossfire’ since the emergence of the RAB, one may estimate multiple thousands of people fell victims to extrajudicial, known and unknown killings. We must not impute the killings exclusively to RAB and police, but also to extortionists, drug dealers, and criminals having links with law-enforcers, local criminal gangs, and politicians (sometimes difficult to distinguish), international mafia, and Islamist terrorist groups.
There is a slight difference between state-sponsored killing in Bangladesh and elsewhere. While the Filipino president Duterte, for example, publicly mentions his employing death-squads to kill drug-dealers — he even brags about his own role in killing drug-dealers by throwing them off flying helicopters — the Bangladesh government has never confessed law-enforcers have ever done any extrajudicial killing since the inception of the RAB, and ever before. It has invented a laughable expression called ‘crossfire’ or ‘gunfight’, as its fig leaf to hide its crime against humanity. It is similar to Indian government’s use of ‘encounter’, to narrate the unbelievable stories about law-enforcers’ armed encounters with criminals, which invariably result only in the deaths of criminals, not any law-enforcer. In short, ‘crossfire’ has become a cruel joke in Bangladesh. So much so, that people and media use the expression in parentheses.
Then again, this does not mean that the so-called ‘crossfire’ was always unpopular among large sections of the population when it was first introduced, with much fanfare in 2004. A large number of Bangladeshis — surprisingly many educated ones — welcomed the killing of hardcore criminals and extortionists like Kala Jahangir and Murgi Milon. So far so good! However, people’s acceptance of ‘crossfire’ as legitimate means of eliminating hardcore criminals also indicates their lack of faith in politicians, judiciary, police, and bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the dire consequences of extrajudicial killings hardly ever dawn on the supporters of ‘crossfire’, until their own people fall victims to such killings.
The brouhaha following the latest killing of Akramul Haque, a local ruling party activist at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar District, by RAB on 27th May, is noteworthy. The widow of the victim publicised the audio tape of her telephone conversation with her late husband moments before his killing (recorded by a device on her phone) [‘Murder it was’, Daily Star, June 1, 2018]. I cite another example of coldblooded murder of an alleged drug dealer by police just to underscore one thing: the ongoing ‘anti-drug operation’ is a fabrication, nothing more than red herrings to divert people’s attention from multiple real issues, socio-economic and political. According to a media report, the police killed the wrong person, while the actual criminal had been in prison on multiple charges, including drug trafficking and murder [‘Cops took my husband from home the day before’, Daily Star, June 3, 2018]. International media and human rights activists also consider the whole operation and extrajudicial killings unwarranted and politically motivated.
Interestingly, only after a ruling party activist got killed in ‘crossfire’, party leaders, including the home minister, and Awami League general secretary, have started registering their concern at the methods of the killing process. However, they did not question the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing. The home minister said a magistrate would investigate the killing to take necessary action against the killers, and the General Secretary felt ‘one or two mistakes might take place in big operations like the anti-drug drive’. Meanwhile, in two weeks since the government started its war against drug-lords and peddlers on 15th May, the RAB, police, and presumably their civilian associates have killed 130 people in the most controversial and unacceptable manner.
By 2nd June, the RAB and police have arrested more than 15,000 people in their so-called anti-drug operation. While very well-known, politically influential drug lords have remained unscathed, or have managed to flee the country, ordinary people are being ‘crossfired’ in the most unacceptable manner. It is noteworthy that some leading media outlets and the Transparency International of Bangladesh have demanded judicial probe into the killings, and some lawmakers have also asked for caution in drives against drug-dealers in the country [New Age, June 1 & 2, 2018]. Meanwhile, cross sections of Bangladeshis, including human rights activists, pro-government intellectuals, and ruling party leaders have started questioning the methods of such killings. Some of them have even questioned the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing. However, too little, too late!
There are several examples of law-enforcers’ and soldiers’ turning into indiscriminate killers in Bangladesh. Two heads of state, multiple politicians, thousands of civilians, hundreds of military officers and troops have already fell victims to organised or disorganised death squads since Liberation. Fifty-seven army officers, including a major-general, got killed at the hands of their own troops (of the now defunct Bangladesh Rifles or BDR) on February 25 or 26 in 2009 alone.
In the backdrop of the almost uninterrupted process of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh since 2004, I am afraid, the promoters and mentors of these killing squads are simply playing with fire. They do not know where they are pushing the country into! If the ongoing extrajudicial killing process of actual drug dealers, suspects, and totally innocent people goes on for an indefinite period, the country would definitely head toward disaster, possibly toward a long-drawn period of anarchy. Since the absence of law amounts to anarchy, the expression ‘extrajudicial killing’ is self-explanatory indeed!
As terror begets terror, so individuals and groups in the fringe also make a foray out of ideological or purely criminal motivations. The upshot is the emergence of multiple autonomous and unrestrained non-state terror outfits or death-squads from among the disgruntled people to fight each other and extort and kill civilians. In the long-run, they even pose an existential threat to the state itself. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria fall in this category of states. Bangladesh has lessons to learn from the examples of countries that became dysfunctional due to extrajudicial killings by law-enforcers, which eventually led to the mushroom growth of privately run death-squads.
It is sad but true, sections of the state-sponsored killing squads in Bangladesh have already gone out of control and working as mercenaries of various underground groups linked with international terrorist groups, drug mafia, and criminal networks. International and social media networks, from time to time, provide documentary evidences of non-state killer gangs killing of unarmed civilians in Bangladesh with active support from RAB troops and officers. On several occasions RAB officers are directly involved in killing and extortion of civilians. The infamous Seven Murder Case at Narayanganj was one of them. In 2014, twenty-seven RAB troops, including three officers, were involved in the abduction and killing at Narayanganj [‘Narayanganj seven-murder verdict due Jan 16’ Dhaka Tribune, 30 November 2016].
The binary between state- and non-state actors in selective and indiscriminate killing is intricate. State-sponsored ones have the potential to become non-state death-squads or terrorist-insurgent outfits, which often vie for controlling or even capturing state machinery. The Afghan Taliban is a glaring example in this regard. Both state- and non-state death-squads or terror outfits have three-pronged agendas a) to intimidate their rivals (state machinery and people at large); b) to overpower them or neutralise them; and c) to extort and plunder from public and private sectors. Both of these killing squads could either be ideology-driven or extortion and plunder are their main motivations. While the state-actors are under the control of civil and military authorities of the state, non-state actors are autonomous and unrestrained, hence more dangerous and least predictable. Last but not least, as mentioned above, state-sponsored terror and extrajudicial killings lead to non-state death-squads, who often collaborate with local and international crime syndicates, drug mafia, and terrorist networks.
Dr Taj Hashmi is a retired professor of history and security studies. His publications include Global Jihad and America (SAGE 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); and Ouponibeshik Bangla (Papyrus, Kolkata 1985).
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