The rising incidents of disappearance and extra-judicial killings allegedly by the law enforcement agencies and the never-ending culture of impunity were a matter of grave concern among the people in 2014, observe human rights activists.
Disappearance, particularly, was a much-talked-about issue throughout the year.
The country is stepping into a new year with at least 42 people still remain missing. Families of these victims are yet to know their whereabouts. Rights activists blame the government for its failure to unearth the mysterious incidents of disappearance.
Mistrust and fear coupled with the “culture of impunity” dominated people’s minds that barred them from seeking justice from the law enforcers. They even do not dare going to the courts to file cases seeking remedy, the rights activists allege.
According to rights group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), 21 persons were abducted during 2007-2009 and only three of them later found dead. The number rose to 47 in 2010, 59 in 2011, 56 in 2012, 72 in 2013 and 88 in 2014.
From the last year’s victims, 23 were later found dead, 12 released after abduction, one found at the DB office, two sent to jail, one shown arrested. Moreover, seven of the victims were produced before media by elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), for the first time.
The figures show the incidents reported only in national newspapers.
On the other hand, the number of extra-judicial killings – elaborated by the rights body as “crossfire” and torture before and after arrest by different law enforcement agencies – was 146 in 2014.
Extra-judicial killings reached as high as 208 in 2013; the number was 91 in 2012, 100 in 2011 and 133 in 2010.
On the other hand, during the military-backed caretaker government, 180 people were killed by law enforcement agencies in 2007 while it was 175 in 2008, the ASK says.
In 2009, when the Awami League took office, deaths of people in the hands of law enforcers was 229.
Apart from RAB and DB, the other agencies blamed for extra-judicial killings and disappearance are police, BGB and joint forces.
The victims belong to different political parties including the Awami League, while some of them are businessmen or students. Rights bodies say many of the victims are innocent.
Trained by the US and the UK on interrogation and human rights among other issues, RAB since its inception in June 2004 has been criticised also for defending the extra-judicial killings, mainly “crossfires” claiming that they open fire in self defence only.
During the BNP-Jamaat government, 210 people were killed by the law enforcement agencies in 2004. The figure rose to as high as 377 the following year and stood at 362 in 2006, according to ASK documentation.
The deaths drew massive criticisms at home and abroad. However, the government defended RAB activities.
Then home state minister Lutfozzaman Babar told a US embassy official in 2004 that he got hundreds of calls from people blessing him after each crossfire and judges encourage him to continue “the good work.”
He justified RAB as a short-term tactic pending his long-term reform and streamlining of the law enforcement agencies.
In 2002, around 50 people had been killed in the much-controversial crackdown by the armed forces “Operation Clean Heart” in custody, many attributed to “heart attacks.” However, parliament gave the military indemnity against those deaths.
The Awami League government too rejects demands from different quarters for disbanding or reforming the RAB, formed to combat serious crimes and protecting the VVIPs.
Rights activists demand that every incident of extra-judicial killings and disappearance by the law enforcers must be investigated and those responsible be brought to the book to ensure justice for the victims.
They say the alarming trend of impunity should be stopped by the state itself otherwise the country’s social and political situation would be jeopardised.
Sultana Kamal, the ASK executive director, blamed the ill political culture for the situation.
“Currently, there is a huge lack of sense of accountability in our political practice. The issues of establishing democracy and people enjoying their rights including freedom of speech depend on the quality of political practice.”
On the other hand, there is lack of sense of accountability and responsibility among the people. “Thus the total atmosphere creates a violent situation at the individual-level as well as the state level,” Sultana, also a former caretaker government adviser, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Nowadays not only an individual but also the state acts in a desperate mood which will make everyone violent against each other. Who began all these is a debatable issues. But it is important what the state is doing to tackle such desperate situation.”
She observed that such situation continued not beyond the knowledge of the rulers.
Sultana also expressed concern over the grabbing mentality of the ordinary people as well as the influential people linked to the state and the government.
Several human rights organisations in investigations found that members of the law enforcement agencies were involved in most of the cases of extra-judicial killings and disappearance or abductions, including the much-hyped seven murders in Narayanganj in late April.
It is also alleged that the law enforcers mainly those from RAB and DB can now be hired for committing crimes.
In a report submitted to the High Court, elite force RAB has admitted that its officials and members in unit 11 were involved in the abduction of seven people including a panel mayor and their subsequent killings.
The rights bodies at several discussions brought the victims’ families to public who claimed that their near and dear ones had been abducted by the law enforcement agencies.
On May 17, another accusation surfaced against RAB officials. From a human chain at Siddhirganj Power Station in Narayanganj, Abdul Mannan alleged that Nur Hossain, the prime accused in seven murders, and three RAB officers had been involved in the abduction of his brother Ismail Hossain, 42.
Ismail, an Awami League activist, was abducted on February 7. His family claims that they received a letter where the abductors demanded that Tk2 crore must be paid to former RAB 11 unit chief Lt Col Tarek Sayeed Mohammad for the release of the victim.
Lt Col Tarek is the son-in-law of Disaster Management Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya. He was sacked after the allegations of his involvement in the seven murders proved in preliminary investigation.
Rights activist Nur Khan observes that when the victims’ families are blaming the RAB and the DB members for most of the incidents, the government pays no heed.
He suggested establishment of a judicial investigation commission to bring the law enforcement agencies under accountability so that the government cannot interfere.
He also recommended that chain of command and discipline be ensured in the law enforcement agencies so that they work free from any political influence.
New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Meenakshi Ganguly said when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in opposition, she had committed to reforms in human rights protections.
“Soon after the Awami League took office during the previous term [in 2009], the government made the promise of zero tolerance for human rights violations. Since then, however, there have been several steps backwards, including the targeting of opposition members,” she said in an email sent to the Dhaka Tribune upon queries.
South Asia Director of the HRW, Meenakshi also said the “crackdown on criticism” has had a chilling impact effecting not only media but also civil society.
She suggested that the government initiates immediate reforms to the criminal justice system, introduce judicial reforms to reduce case load and maintain the independence of the judiciary, and empower constitutional bodies including the National Human Rights Commission and anti-corruption authorities.
About RAB, she said: “The Rapid Action Battalion is a joint force made up of police and military. Although the force is usually headed by a police official, it is increasingly the army that is calling the shots, effectively placing the military into domestic, civilian law enforcement duties. The army is a powerful force in Bangladesh and resists any attempt to hold its forces to account for abuses.
“The Narayanganj killings exposed misdoings by RAB forces to the extent that the state was forced to make arrests. But other abuses, including the attack that left an innocent teenager [Limon Hossain] disabled, are yet to punished. In fact, motivated allegations of criminal activities were made against the victim.”
Expressing concern that “RAB excesses are now duplicated” by other forces, she said the government should engage in immediate police reform, including proper training in modern investigation and rights-respecting law enforcement.