The Limon incident where a young boy was shot in the leg by RAB while the elite ‘crime fighting’ force was conducting a raid, and the national drama that followed is not about law and order but about the nature of the legal state of Bangladesh. On one side, stands the official world while on the other side, contesting it are a sprinkling of human rights activists and agencies, a few lawyers and the media. One is not sure where the public stands. The struggle is therefore not a trial or a campaign for justice for Limon but it is largely about what Bangladesh has become over the years, how far it will go and who decides that. * * * RAB has been killing people whom it considers enemies of the state for quite sometime. People are quite used to seeing crumpled dead bodies on the TV screen and being told how the terrorist was killed in shootouts trying to escape. Many people also support RAB thinking that the criminals deserve no mercy and those killed would never be tried for a variety of reasons. So what happened in this case? Did RAB get too complacent and lazy so instead of killing Limon outright they shot him and sent him to jail? If that is the case then I am sure many RAB officials are now kicking themselves for the lapse and next time, it is unlikely that they will make such a mistake. Limon’s issue has become a national issue and this time it has not exactly ended with the usual 9 o’clock news. * * * Some incidental facts of Limon’s case show how the extrajudicial state operates through law and order delivery in Bangladesh. After Limon was shot, the main accomplice of RAB appeared to be the police who not only put Limon behind bars but later filed a charge-sheet against him, contested by many as fake. The police continue to act as the main source of Limon’s internment and as a ‘lesser agency’ compared to RAB, its main civil assistant. RAB could never get its work done without the police. Charges that Limon was member of a criminal gang and even his family members were all part of that gang is a product of civil-military collaboration. The civilian administration has worked the hardest to make sure that pressure is high on Limon, his family and supporters. The judicial enquiry which the home ministry promised to conduct has proved to be inadequate and even after the bluster about ‘five major areas of investigation’, the administration has asked for ‘unlimited’ extension of the enquiry deadline. * * * But it is the actions of the political government that deserves attention. Shahara Khatun, the home minister has become the symbol of helplessness of the official world in times of crisis. She declared first that the government had nothing to do with the case and subsequently stated that the comments of the Defence Advisor Tariq Ahmed Siddiqui that Limon was a gang member and RAB never shot him intentionally was the official statement of the government. What it essentially says is that there is a chain of command of extrajudicial actions in Bangladesh. From the humble policeman to the home minister, people are committed to this extrajudicial process. If the entire machinery of the government is involved, surely it is not an isolated issue of one force like RAB acting wildly. * * * The judiciary by contrast has done better including the local magistracy. The High Court first moved suo moto on allegations of torture and subsequently granted bail to Limon and asked the government to explain the situation upon application by the HR organisation Ain O Salish Kendro. This organisation has continued its long tradition for standing up for victims of human rights abuse. National Human Rights Commission despite its extreme constraints has been a voice of reason as expected. Its chairman Dr. Mizanur Rahman has publicly questioned under which law a juvenile like Limon could be sent to jail. It is an important voice of the moment. Its questions and queries have formal impact and its rebukes will be taken into consideration even if not acted upon. * * * Any measurement of the depth of RAB’s integration into Bangladesh political society can be understood by the comments of Human Rights Watch, an international HR agency. It says, “the battalion has been involved in nearly 200 extra- judicial killings since the current Awami League government came to power in January 2009 – a rate of killing similar to that which took place ‘in the seven previous years. ” (http://www.hrw.org/en/node/ 98591 /section/2). They may disagree on everything but the BNP and AL don’t disagree on extrajudicial actions or RAB. * * * Election Commissioner Sohul Hossain has said to the media that people want RAB to protect elections and that people have full confidence in them. He is actually reflecting a generally held public opinion but also a scary reality which is that Bangladesh has itself become an ‘extralegal’ state where extrajudicial killings are considered normal and welcomed whatever the reason is. Without extrajudicial RAB, even fundamental legal activities cannot be conducted. * * * Bangladesh is not alone in this and we have an excellent example in Pakistan where ISI recently abducted and killed a journalist. Their ‘pick and kill’ missions in Pakistan are legendary and it is obvious from where the RAB’s inspiration comes. In another recent case, Pakistani Rangers killed a young boy by shooting him in the leg and letting him die. This was videoed and has now caused a storm in Pakistan. The Rangers had denied everything earlier. Does it sound familiar? We are so much like Pakistan that I think it makes sense to call MA Jinnah our father of the nation, unless Sheikh Mujib wants to claim credit for this kind of an extrajudicial activities driven Bangladesh. * * * There is no way that RAB will disappear or its functions become legal because few things legal work in Bangladesh. There is a weak legal system and no government has shown any initiative in establishing a strong one. So how can RAB act legal when legal systems don’t exist? It is not RAB’s fault, it is how the extralegal/judicial state has evolved till date. * * * One hopes that Limon gets off lightly as he has already paid a huge price. Since it has become a public issue, he will most probably survive though at what price no one can tell. Once another event comes up, the media as its nature is will forget Limon and move on. While the Limon affair is still making headlines, it might be worth remembering that the matter is not whether Limon and his family members are criminals. It is about extrajudicial actions and not following the rule of law in managing law and order. * * * It is much better to hope that next time RAB will not leave behind such a mess. So dear RAB, next time please shoot straight and maybe use larger bullets so that the offending man actually dies and the news is on TV as usual. We are used to that and not troubling questions about our support to extrajudicial killings in an extralegal state.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
THE deployment of mobile courts by the Awami League-Jatiya Party government to, in the words of the home minister, ‘check anarchy’ during the 36- hour hartal (general strike)—called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led opposition camp to protest against incumbents’ decision to have the constitutional provision for election-time non-party caretaker government scrapped— contravenes, at one go, universal democratic principles, the constitution of Bangladesh and the AL electoral pledge for ‘courtesy and tolerance’ in the political culture. According to a report front- paged in New Age on Monday, the mobile courts—thrust into hartal duty for the first time in the country’s history—sentenced 80 people, including 58 in the capital Dhaka, to imprisonment of varying terms, between one and three months, upon summary trial on the first day of the general strike on Sunday. While the government may froth in the mouth, trying to justify deployment of mobile courts during hartal hours as a means to protect public safety and security, it tends to suggest that the ruling alliance is willing to go any length to encroach upon the democratic— and constitutionally guaranteed— space for the opposition camp to carry out its political programmes. Such an expression of intolerance, if not tyrannical tendencies, by the government is perhaps not surprising. After all, the incumbents have time and again sought to foil political programmes of the opposition camp, on one pretext or the other, although the constitution recognises freedom of assembly as a fundamental right of the citizen. Not long ago, the government did not allow the opposition to organise such a decidedly innocuous political programme as human chain. Similarly, the government does not quite have an unblemished record insofar as the establishment of the rule of law is concerned. Hence, deployment of mobile courts by the government for summary trials, which by themselves are an affront to the very concept of the rule of law as they deny the accused the scope to adequately defend themselves, of pickets during hartal hours is also not quite surprising. Besides being the manifestation of the government’s apparent intolerance with the political opposition and disregard for the rule of law, the deployment of mobile courts provides yet another instance of blatant abuse of the subordinate judiciary to partisan end, which would further erode the credibility of the magistrates in the eye of the public. It will also make a mockery of the government’s repeated assertions of its commitment to the independence of the judiciary. Indeed, violence and vandalism in the name of protest are deplorable, no matter how reasonable the demands and how strong the grievances may be. As such, those who have damaged public property and endangered public safety and security need to be brought to justice. However, there are specific laws and procedures to address such offences. Moreover, if the government was truly against violence and vandalism per se, why is it that it remained largely silent in the face of atrocities and excesses committed by the Bangladesh Chhatra League and other associate organisations of the ruling party since its assumption of office in January 2009 ? Be that as it may, the government needs to realise that it has set a very bad precedent of repression on the political opposition. If the past is any indicator, the opposition parties, as and when they come to power, are likely to use it to a greater degree. All said and done, the ruling party may have introduced yet another vice in national politics, the consequence of which is likely to be felt for days to come.