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Extrajudicial Killings in the Name of Crossfire

Sultana Razia

(Ed. note: The writer is a researcher with Odhikar, a human rights group in Bangladesh.)

Killings by law enforcement agencies are common in Bangladesh. In 1972, the paramilitary group Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini came into force and had become infamous for its extrajudicial executions until it was absorbed into the army in 1975. Now, since the formation of the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in March 2004, such killings are again on the rise and are being categorised under a new vocabulary of "crossfire," "extrajudicial killings," "encounters," etc.

The government tries to justify the killings by using the term "crossfire," which it refers to as gunfights between any alleged criminal group or "hardened" criminals and the RAB or police. The term "death in an encounter" is used in other countries to mean the same thing, but the term "crossfire" is preferred by law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. The sinister connotation associated with the word demonstrates the utter powerlessness of the people facing extrajudicial killings that are taking place in Bangladesh.

Though there is no legal definition of an extrajudicial killing, if a death is caused by a law enforcement official without following the legal rules or due judicial process, it can be considered extrajudicial.

"Crossfire" is an extrajudicial execution that is in flagrant violation of Bangladesh's constitution and the international human rights conventions of which the country is a party.
Although some people believe that extrajudicial killing of hardened criminals helps ease the problem of "terrorism," in reality, it encourages lawlessness and aggravates "state terrorism." In different countries across the world, people in power have created an impression that killing "terrorists" without bringing them to justice can help curb "terrorism," but such extrajudicial killings, in fact, can neither bring peace nor eradicate "terrorism."

Rising Number of Deaths

Since the formation of the RAB, there has been a rising trend of "deaths in crossfire." The number of deaths in RAB custody is also alarming.

The RAB, which has been in operation since June 2004, was set up in March 2004 by amending the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance of 1979 and enacting a new law, the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act of 2003. It is assigned to investigate any offence under the direction of the government and has exclusive jurisdiction in this regard. It can investigate and work for all security purposes, especially as an elite law and order enforcement agency with a special focus on curbing organised crime and eliminating top criminals.

The police have also been killing people in the name of "crossfire." According to Odhikar's documentation, 169 people were killed in "crossfire" cases in 2004. Between January and May this year alone, 168 people died in similar situations (see Table 1 for the breakdown of figures).

To defend the law enforcement agencies, the government argues that those who are killed in a crossfire or an encounter are all criminals. "Criminals cannot have human rights," State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar commented on the RAB's first anniversary on March 26 this year.

Although the law and order situation has improved after the formation of the RAB and other auxiliary forces, like the Cheetah and Cobra units of the police, and the public seems to be happy with it, one cannot justify this type of killing from the humanitarian and legal points of view. Every person has the right to a fair trial; and before any trial, no one can be killed by law enforcement officials extrajudicially.

Laws Being Ignored

In Bangladesh, the law says minimum force should be applied to arrests and every person has the right to seek a trial. In the cases of "crossfire" and "encounters," however, we find that these legal provisions are being totally ignored.

Article 31 of the constitution of Bangladesh states: "To enjoy the protection of law, and to be treated in accordance with law, is the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be, and of every other person for the time being within Bangladesh, and in particular no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law."

The constitution's Article 32 ensures the protection of the right to life and personal liberty in accordance with the law. Because of the consequences of such deprivation, the drafters of the constitution made this specific provision of protection even though these rights were already covered by Article 31.

What is implicit in Articles 31 and 32 is the right to access to justice, and it cannot be said that this right has been dealt with in accordance with the law unless a person has a reasonable opportunity to approach the court in vindication of their right or grievance. Even a fugitive is entitled to a legal defence when the death penalty is involved.

A law providing for the deprivation of life or personal liberty must be objectively reasonable, and the court will inquire whether for an ordinary prudent person such a law is reasonable, having regard to the compelling, and not merely legitimate, governmental interest. It must be shown that the security of the state or of society necessitates the deprivation of one's life and personal liberty.

When the recent incidents of crossfire are studied, a common pattern that can be found is that victims were arrested and killed in what is termed as a "crossfire," an "encounter" or a shootout during crackdowns on illegal firearms or the arrest of criminals in deserted places, mostly in the early hours. This trend has become a clich?.

Still, according to the police regulations of Bengal (PRB), firearms should not be used other than in emergencies. The use of firearms are applicable in three situations: for self-protection and possessing of property, for foiling an illegal gathering and, in some cases, for making an arrest. The PRB mandates a full executive probe regarding any use of firearms. Investigators are required to send the report to the government and submit a copy to the police's top leadership.

Unbiased Inquiries Demanded

Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares in Article 3 that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Bangladesh is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which carries provisions in Articles 6 and 14 to protect a person's rights to life and fair trial and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law.

One of the principle maxims of law is that "man cannot be the judge of his own cause." The recent government decision to conduct an executive probe into every extrajudicial killing, i.e., crossfires, shootouts and encounters, would violate this legal principle. There is no guarantee for an impartial investigation into alleged misdeeds of law enforcement agencies which are part of the executive. To avoid any conflict of interest or cover-ups and to safeguard the rights of the people, independent judicial inquiries into these killings should be carried out instead.

Crossfire Killings in 2005

Number of Deaths in Crossfire with

RAB Police Chita-Corba Total
January 12 39 3 54
February 2 28 30
March 2 19 21
April 1 22 23
May 15 25 40
Total 32 133 3 168
(Source: Odhikar)

Posted on 2005-08-22
Asian Human Rights Commission

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