Development without fundamental freedoms

The top brass of the security forces are in a state of denial as extrajudicial killings go unabated. The political leadership under successive governments has condoned such killings that began with notorious Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini under the first Awami League government. The practice received a fresh boost during Operation Cleanheart launched by Khaleda Zia’s BNP government. The subsequent creation of the Rapid Action Battalion by the BNP government and its shoring up by the successive governments with equipment and training, without making them accountable for their actions, have instilled a culture of impunity among a section of members of the elite force, writes CR Abrar

004THE ruling elite and their cohorts are now gloating over their success in ushering in massive development in the country. It is in that stride they have become the sole claimants of the glory of recent graduation of the country from ‘the least developed’ status. Nowadays, one hears about development targets to be achieved under the ruling party by 2041, way past the Vision 2021 that was earlier touted.
Such trumpeting of success of the regime’s development efforts and the pushing back of the target year for realising bigger dreams for national development come at a time when the opposition political forces have been virtually decimated by brute force, the filing of cases and intimidation, with their leadership of various rungs been put behind bars or kept on the run. Some among them find it convenient to switch loyalty to the ruling tribe.
The purported success also comes at a cost to the freedom of expression. A plethora of laws have been put in place or are being mooted to curb and discourage dissenting views on grounds of national security. The ICT Act and the Cyber Security Act have come in handy in dealing with non-conformists. In addition to self-censorship, diktats by powerful quarters on what to report and whom to invite in television talk-shows are reminiscent of the state-controlled press during the early years of independence and the subsequent military dictatorships of late the 1970s and the 1980s. Of late, media reports inform about the pressure being exerted on the private sector enterprises not to post advertisements of their products and services on a couple of leading dailies (one English and one Bangla) whose circulations are way higher than any in the industry. One assumes that the dailies concerned are being made to pay for their reporting on matters that did not augur well in some powerful quarters of this democratic government.
The intolerance of critical views is not necessarily restricted to members of the ruling party and their loyal band of intellectuals. Various state agencies and their top functionaries make little effort to conceal their bias. Forsaking professionalism and neutrality that should be the hallmark of holders of public office, some have been on the records making political and partisan speeches and statements that even dwarfs those of party stalwarts. All these have contributed to an environment of fear, anxiety and silence, severely restricting freedom of expression of citizenry, the much-cherished principle of democracy.
Two recent examples may be cited to reinforce the above line of reasoning. The first one involves Shujon (Citizens for Good Governance), a civil society platform of eminent people, which conducts its activities solely on individual subscription of members. The second concerns Odhikar, a human rights organisation duly registered with the NGO Affairs Bureau with the government.
006On June 18, 2015, the Shujon secretary in a letter to the secretary of the Election Commission referred to the summary report posted on the commission’s web site on its recent initiative to update the electoral rolls that ended on January 1, 2015. Shujon requested the EC to provide gender, constituency and district-wise disaggregated data at its earliest convenience.
One major concern of Shujon was the widening in gender gap of enrolled voters and the absence of any ‘discernable pattern’ in this regard that appeared in the summary presentation of the commission. Shujon was worried that high rates in gender gap could have been the result of ‘disenfranchisement of a large number of women voters throughout the country’. The organisation felt that the observed gender gap, ‘especially among new voters is inconsistent with the prevailing sex ratio in our population’. It further noted, ‘The rate of increase in voters is not consistent with the rate of increase in our population’.
Shujon’s letter to the commission was essentially guided by its keen interest to have an informed discussion on the revised electoral rolls. In order to avoid further controversy on the electoral rolls before the next general elections, Shujon recommended a third-party audit of the rolls ‘to establish accuracy so that necessary corrections can be made on time’.
It may be noted that a section of the media also raised serious questions about the way the electoral rolls were revised and its accuracy. It also reported that in many upazilas and towns as well as in the capital city itself enumerators did not visit houses of potential voters. There was hardly any publicity about the revision of the rolls, the media reported.
Instead of heeding Shujon’s request for detailed information almost three weeks later on July 7, the commission responded with a terse note demanding ‘whether Shujon was registered with any government authority and if so, then the identity of the authority, registration number and year of registration’.
Under the circumstances, Shujon had little option but to organise a press conference to express its concern about revised electoral rolls. Even though in its presentation Shujon quoted figures from EC data, the latter issued a press release calling on the organisations to restrain from ‘disseminating incorrect information and misleading the people’.
Thus instead of engaging with a reputed civil society institution that raised valid concerns about the revised electoral rolls, the commission reacted with high-handedness; what one may term ‘threatening’. A positive approach of the commission in dealing with Shujon would not only help clarify the issues that the latter had raised, it would also help taking corrective measures that are of supreme importance for holding of fair and credible elections. There is no doubt that it would also help retrieve a degree of credibility that the commission as an institution currently suffers from in public perception. Perhaps the chief election commissioner needs to remind himself of Article 38 of the constitution that enshrines every citizen’s right to form association and of Article 39 ensuring freedom of thought, conscience and speech. His office may also be reminded of the much celebrated Right to Information Act.
The second case of undue exercise of authority is that of Bangladesh Police’s response to Odhikar’s monthly monitoring report on human rights. Over the years every month, Odhikar has been releasing the reports on human rights violations by state agencies. The information about the violations are collected from media reports and followed up with Odhikar affiliated human rights defenders at grass roots. In certain cases, Odhikar staff go on field visits to ascertain the veracity of claims made by victims and their families. They also make efforts to meet other people including public representatives and members of law enforcement agencies in places of occurrence. In its July 2015 report Odhikar noted, ‘A total of 7 persons were allegedly killed extrajudicially’ through ‘crossfires/ encounters/ gunfights’. It went on to report, ‘Of them five were killed by RAB, two were killed by police’.
A day after the Odhikar report had been published, a media release of the Bangladesh Police Headquarters (memo no M and PR/1705, dated 02-08-15) ‘rejected outright’ the claims of Odhikar (and that of Bangladesh Human Rights Commission released independently) on extrajudicial killings. The police statement reminded that under the law, members of the force are entitled to defend themselves when attacked and an executive body headed by a magistrate is empowered to monitor if the police had acted in self-defence or if excessive force was used. The police asserted that as no court or magistrate had found illegality in police actions in the incidents of shootouts committed in the month of July, none else has the authority to term it as extrajudicial killing. It further observed that the NGOs have accused the police of murder; tarnishing the image of the force in the public eye and that such actions are defamatory and constitutes a penal offence. The police authorities affirmed that upon scrutiny it (the police) found that ‘the statements of the organisations concerned were contrary to existing laws of the land that tantamount to challenging the rule of law and the judicial process’.
Quite in tune with their counterparts in Latin America during the military dictatorships the Bangladesh police further accused the NGOs of acting as the Fifth Columnists like those of Spain during the civil war. It also stated that buoyed by foreign funds these organisations are engaged in activities that undermine law and order and judicial system of the land, ultimately tarnishing image of the country that negatively impact foreign investment and political process. All these amount to subversion, the statement read.
Security forces and their political masters summarily dismiss any complaints of extrajudicial killing and disappearance as frivolous and unfounded. This is in sharp contrast to public perception, media reports and claims of national and international human rights organisations. The similarity in patterns of operation, the physical description of the perpetrators and the vehicles they use, the likeness in the narratives of sequence of events on the occurrences dished out by the public relations or media wings of concerned security forces, the reticence to register cases by local police stations, the slow pace of investigations if at all those are launched give enough credence to any rational being that the errant members of the security forces are either actively engaged in or at least are abettors of such heinous crime. When those elements are not made to account for their heinous acts and are protected by the powers that be, the reputation and credibility of security agency concerned as a whole run the risk of being at stake.
The police assertion that as the magistrates are assigned to monitor the force’s action, no one else has the authority to challenge their competence does not hold ground. Basic knowledge of jurisprudence informs that no investigation can be deemed as conclusive and aggrieved persons should not necessarily be forced to comply with the outcome of investigations. One could always dispute and contest findings of an investigating magistrate. The avenue for re-investigation is, therefore, a key element of any just and fair investigation system. The police authorities may be reminded that the attached magistrates are also human beings and are fallible. It is only the word God that cannot be challenged.
The top brass of the police have put the blame on NGOs for tarnishing the image of the country. In response, one may very well argue that along with malgovernance and corruption of the political leadership, the blatant partisan stance of a section of the leadership of the security forces, their failure to act neutrally and impartially in combating crimes, their heavy handedness in dealing with political opposition, their inability to discipline the errant members, their intolerance of public scrutiny and most importantly the blatant impunity that they seek and enjoy are the real purveyors of the negative image of the country.
The police claimed that extrajudicial killings do not exist in Bangladesh. However, in at least one instance the High Court Division of the Supreme Court issued a rule and in another case made observations on the matter. On November 15, 2009 a High Court Bench issued a rule suo moto on the government regarding the death of Khalashi brothers in ‘crossfire’ in Madaripur. On December 14, the state appealed for time during the hearing to the same division of the High Court. The court ordered that the practice of ‘crossfire’ be stopped until the hearing of the case is completed. Subsequently, however, the bench that issued the rule was dissolved when the High Court benches were reorganised. The hearing of that matter is still adjourned.
On June 1, 2010, another High Court bench during an appeal of the acquittal of Chittagong police commissioner from charges of the contempt of court noted, ‘incidents of deaths due to torture in custody will not be tolerated; because the judges had taken oath, constitutionally, to protect the rights of the people’.
The issue of extrajudicial killing was also acknowledged by the special enquiry committee instituted by the ministry of home affairs. It found veracity in the claims made by families of victims of extrajudicial killings by law enforcers. In the case of death of young TV actor Kaisar Bappi on September 10, 2009 in the Rampura area of the capital city, it concluded that the victim was killed in direct shooting by RAB and not in ‘crossfire’. In another incident involving the death of Mohiuddin Arif on February 10, 2010 in the Mirpur area of Dhaka, the committee found that the victim died due to torture in RAB custody. Investigations of the two incidents were conducted under the leadership of the deputy secretary (law wing). In both cases, the special enquiry committee had recommended ‘exemplary punishment’ of the perpetrators through the due process of the law.
In a third incident involving the unnatural death of auto-rickshaw driver Babul Gazi on June 19, 2010, the High Court ordered a fresh post-mortem examiantion, as it was not satisfied with the original post-mortem report. The expert committee headed by a professor of Dhaka Medical College concluded that the death of Gazi was homicidal in nature. Earlier, security forces claimed that the victim died to injuries as he fell down on the street while fleeing.
The top brass of the security forces are in a state of denial as extrajudicial killings go unabated. The political leadership under successive governments has condoned such killings that began with notorious Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini under the first Awami League government. The practice received a fresh boost during Operation Cleanheart launched by Khaleda Zia’s BNP government. The subsequent creation of the Rapid Action Battalion by the BNP government and its shoring up by the successive governments with equipment and training, without making them accountable for their actions, have instilled a culture of impunity among a section of members of the elite force.
Instead of providing them blanket protection, the citizenry will be better served if the policymakers heeded the advice of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights ‘that the scrutiny of governmental activities by the NGOs is not a challenge to the rule of law, on the contrary such questioning and scrutiny is absolutely essential to ensure full respect of human rights in Bangladesh’. One hopes that a nation so vociferous in upholding the spirit of the war of independence assert itself that the state respects the people’s fundamental freedoms including those of expression and association.

CR Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He teaches and writes on migration rights issues.

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