Recently a seminar was held at the CIRDAP auditorium on the occasion of Human Rights Day. Such seminars are invariably very routine and hardly have anything significant to discuss. But a comment made by the law minister in this particular seminar gave it a degree of significance. He said, ‘Extrajudicial killings are a serious obstruction to establishing the rule of law.’ This was a very meaningful statement and can in no way be refuted. However, his next comment was perplexing. He said, ‘If government attention is drawn to anyone involved in such extrajudicial killings, action will be taken against the concerned person.’ Have the deluge of allegations concerning extrajudicial killings not come to government attention? Have there been investigations into any of these incidents other than the Narayanganj seven-murder case?
The sensational Narayanganj seven-murder incident had almost brought the administration to a standstill. It was only at the behest of the Supreme Court that a case was filed and investigations were carried out. It is doubtful whether the case would have come so far had the court not intervened. There is all reason for such doubts. After all, in many cases the accused are caught and arrested. A few days later they are taken in the dark of night to some particular spot and then end up dead, victims of ‘crossfire’. What can be said about that? The accused might even have eventually been sentenced to death, but that can only be done by the court after a fair trial.
The law ministry had made his comment after his attention had been drawn to a report of the human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra. The report said that last November on average one person had been killed per day in ‘gunfights’. In 2016, till November, this number stood at 184. This was 171 in the corresponding period last year. The report also presented data on the forced disappearances as well as killings by religious bigots and killings in anti-militant drivers from January to November 2016. People can certainly be killed during anti-militancy raids and it is the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies to arrest the killers and bring them under the law. But they are not displaying any success in this regard.
Then there is the matter of forced disappearances. Often the missing persons turn up in a devastated state. Or after some days they are shown to be arrested. Some remain missing and it is assumed they have been killed. The government agencies never claim responsibility though it is in the name of these agencies that the persons were picked up in the first place. There is the possibility that some other quarters abducted them in the guise of law enforcers or they go into hiding on their own accord. But even if that were so, it is the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies to investigate such cases and find the facts. Families of the missing persons as well as human rights bodies point to the law enforcement agencies as being responsible for abducting these persons.
Death in custody has become a run-of-the-mill matter and no one bothers to go into the details of these reports. No one even bothers to read beyond the headlines when it comes to border killings by the Indian BSF. It is amazing how extrajudicial killing has become a part of the law enforcement system.
The government can conduct judicial inquiry into at least some of these killings. Even if a limited number of these mysteries are resolved, stern action can be taken against the guilty persons as stated by the law minister. This would act as a deterrent. And then if criminals or their associates were killed in crossfire, then no one would have anything to say.
Extrajudicial killings are not a new phenomenon but those were in limited number. But all this came out in the open with Operation Clean Heart. Impunity was granted and eventually RAB was created. This is a unit of the police but also includes personnel from the army and other institutions. They did good work and are still doing so, but it was then that crossfire increased. Recently it is the police more than RAB that are carrying out such incidents. It should be kept in mind, the law must be applied through legal means.
Many of those killed in crossfire were not shown as arrested, but their families say they had been picked up by the law enforcers. Proper investigations would reveal the truth. As for those who are arrested, it is the law enforcement’s responsibility to ensure their security. Action should also be taken against such negligence of this duty. But the government does nothing in this regard. This gives the law enforcers a free hand and and the devastating consequences of again how uncontrolled power have been witnessed time and again.
Due to politicisation and other factors, there is a lack of control within the law enforcement agencies themselves. This leads to untoward behaviour by some members of these agencies and subsequently to extrajudicial killings. There is also a lack of coordination within the agencies. RAB is not a short-term intervention like Operation Clean Heart. It has been in existence for over a decade now and needs to coordinate with all relevant institutions.
The law minister is a successful lawyer and pays attention to his duties. He was certainly timely in saying that extrajudicial killings were an obstruction to the rule of law. But the law enforcement agencies must have this realisation. Just a cautionary note or perfunctory training in human rights is not enough. The government can carry out judicial inquiry into a few selected cases of extrajudicial killings. Then the pledged stern action can be taken against those proven to be guilty. This will be a cautionary signal to the trigger happy members of the law enforcement.
Why is there need for official complaints to be made to the government in this regard? Investigations can be made into re[ports that appear in the media. Ain O Salish Kendra’s report is enough to draw government attention. What else is to be done to catch the government’s eye?
Ali Imam Majumder: Former cabinet secretary