Last Friday, Rahima Khatun, a 35- year- old woman, was shot in the head during a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) operation in a slum near the central Bangladesh district of Narsingdi. As the RAB were arresting her husband, Rahima objected. Seconds later, she was severely injured by a bullet fired from a RAB weapon. Hardly a week goes by without civilians being shot during RAB operations. These incidents are rarely investigated by an independent and impartial body. Since it was created in 2004 , the RAB has been implicated in the extrajudicial execution of around 700 people. There have also been reports of torture and the excessive use of force. Despite these persistent allegations, none of the RAB’s personnel are known to have been brought to justice. Now in intensive care at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Rahima Khatun is under constant guard by the RAB. The only official explanation of the incident so far is from the RAB who told me that Rahima had tried to snatch the gun from RAB personnel when it fired accidentally. So far, the government has not ordered an inquiry into the shooting. On 23 March, college student Limon Hossain was shot in the leg by the RAB in Jhalakathi. His injuries were so severe that four days later his leg had to be amputated. Limon Hossain’s family, like the families of many other victims, said that the RAB had no reason to shoot at him, and that they must be brought to justice. At a press conference immediately after the shooting the RAB Director General admitted that “Limon Hossain was not a notorious criminal but rather a victim of a shoot-out between the RAB and criminals.” This statement seemed to indicate that the RAB had realized that a blanket denial of its human rights violations was no longer convincing lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders. However, this hope was short lived. Later, RAB officials said that the shooting had been justified and that Limon was a member of a criminal gang, which had opened fire on the RAB first. They said the RAB had responded and in the process Limon was hit. They said he was shot during an “encounter” . Government officials, including the Home Minister, endorsed the findings of the RAB even though a separate government inquiry was still underway. The government’s inquiry, which was submitted to the Home Ministry yesterday, concluded that neither Limon, nor his family were involved in criminal activity. Will the government now accept the findings of their own inquiry and retract the government’s endorsement of the RAB claim? The RAB has frequently portrayed hundreds of victims such as Limon Hossain, to have been shot at in an “ encounter” or from a “crossfire” bullet or in a “shootout”. They have used these phrases to shield themselves from being held accountable for their conduct. But evidence gathered by human rights defenders shows that in most cases, victims had actually been detained by the RAB and then reported to have “died” in “crossfire”. In Limon’s case, police bias in favour of the RAB was clear from the start. While they accepted the RAB claim and began an investigation against Limon’s alleged terrorist activities, they persistently rejected to file the complaint made to the police by Limon’ s mother. She complained that the RAB personnel who shot Limon deliberately ignored her plea to take him to hospital immediately. Had they done so, his leg might not have needed amputation. Limon’s mother said that her son was not a criminal and that the RAB had shot at him without reason when he had simply gone to the fields to bring the family’s’ cattle back home. With police firmly refusing to accept her complaint, Limon’s mother sought and received a court order on 26 April, which obliged the police to register her complaint. There has been no news that police has begun this investigation, and whether the RAB officers involved have been questioned. Bangladeshi human rights defenders believe the investigation is not likely to begin and if it does, police conclusion will simply back the RAB claim, and Limon Hossain is not likely to get justice. It is high time the government of Bangladesh brings an end to the climate of impunity that allows the RAB to shoot at people whom it later portrays as criminals. RAB personnel must be held accountable for the hundreds of killings, and for the injuries they have inflicted on hundreds more victims, like Limon Hossain and Rahima Khatun. Only a thorough, independent and impartial investigation can ensure that the victims and their families receive justice.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
THE prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is apparently at pains to ‘justify’ what is essentially a unilateral decision to have the provision for election-time non-party caretaker government scrapped from the constitution. On Tuesday, according to a report front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, Hasina urged the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, not to rally for retention of the provision, keeping in mind the political crisis after January 11 and the activities of the military-controlled interim regime during its two-year tenure. ‘Your own people—Iajuddin Ahmed, Fakhruddin Ahmed and Moeen U Ahmed—were in power… they did not spare you, rather sent you to jail,’ she said. The change in approach was, in a way, inevitable after her previous line of argument—that the decision is in compliance with the Supreme Court verdict on the 13 th amendment to the constitution— had apparently failed to generate positive response even from the ruling Awami League’s traditional political allies. Needless to say, the attempt at justifying her decision to have the caretaker government provision repealed was a non- starter for at least two reasons. First, while the Supreme Court did declare the 13 th amendment void, it did suggest retention of the caretaker government provision for two more general elections. Second, the sudden eagerness of the prime minister to comply with the court’s verdict was dubious, to say the least; after all, her government has thus far failed to implement, or even ignored, a number of rulings by the highest judiciary. The verdict that declared the seventh amendment to the constitution void and unconstitutional is a case in point. Although the court was unequivocal in its assertion that Ershad was should not be ‘allowed to go scot-free after committing the most heinous felony of putting the constitution at abeyance for a few years to the grave predicament of the people,’ neither Hasina nor her government has thus far given any indication that the deposed dictator will be tried, ever. On the contrary, the prime minister is reported to have had confidential political meetings with the deposed general on the caretaker issue. On the other hand, her description of the military-controlled interim regime as Khaleda’s ‘own people’ sounds rather odd, especially in view of the fact that, immediately after the January 11 , 2007 changeover, Hasina not only termed the Fakhruddin regime the outcome of her party’s movement but also publicly promised ratification of all its activities if she returned to power. Moreover, her government has thus far refused to take the onstage and backstage players of the regime to account for their unconstitutional misadventure despite Khaleda’s repeated demands to do so. True, in the past, anti-political forces used political uncertainties and consequent social disorder as pretexts to carry out extra-legal and unconstitutional takeovers. True, the government of the BNP- led alliance was significantly responsible for creating the impasse that eventually led to the January 11 , 2007 takeover. However, it is also true that the prime minister may be heading in the same direction with her persistence on the caretaker government issue. If another setback to the existing political process were to take place, society may blame her for the catastrophe because she herself made the decision on repeal of the caretaker provision, rejecting the parliamentary special committee’s initial recommendation for retention of the provision in a modified form. As for fear of incarceration and harassment under an unconstitutional regime, the opposition seems to have very few reasons to be daunted; after all, even under an elected government, it is being prosecuted and persecuted at random charges. It follows then that the prime minister may be talking about the ruling alliance’s fear; after all, allegations are there that an influential section of the alliance has abused people’s mandate in many ways to further its own material interest. If so, she needs to realise that she can dispel such fear by choosing not to go alone on the issue of the caretaker government provision and, most importantly, push the country to the brink of yet another political crisis.