Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a press conference in Dhaka on December 31, 2018. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is under pressure from her Parliamentary colleagues to address rising crimes against women. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

Extra-judicial killing is not new in Bangladesh. What is new is a campaign by elected lawmakers in Parliament to legitimize killings by the police that are not court-mandated.

Last week, some members of the Bangladesh Parliament demanded that law enforcement agencies should kill rapists “in a crossfire” to stop incidents of sexual violence against women. Official statistics show that rapes and violence against women are on the rise in Bangladesh. “Crossfire” is a euphemism for “fake encounters”where the police take custody of the accused and kill them and pretend that they were trying to resist arrest or escape.

The support for such “fake encounter” killings by the police from lawmakers of the ruling party and the opposition is unprecedented in Bangladesh. The debate in Bangladesh over such killings reflects the furor in the US when a popular film, Dirty Harry, advocated extra-judicial killings by police officers who blamed the slow judicial process for rising crime rates.

The ratio of guilty verdicts given against offenders in rape cases remains extremely low. Only 5 offenders have been punished against 1,283 rape cases resolved from 2011 to 2018, according to a research by a non-government organization Naripakkha. Data compiled by Naripakkha from official government records show that a total of 4,372 rape incidents took place in six districts of the country between 2011 and 2018. Out of those, a total of 1,283 cases have been disposed of and only five offenders received punishment.

The call came from both the treasury and the opposition benches of the parliament, which makes laws for one of the largest democracies in the world.

The country’s 11th national parliament sees the Jatiya Party, a key ally of the newly-re-elected ruling Awami League during the elections, now sitting in titular opposition. Jatiya Party lawmaker Mujibul Haque Chunnu initiated the issue on January 14. He said incidents of rape in Bangladesh were at their highest last year, breaking all past records.

According to the report of Ain-o-Salish Kendra — a Bangladeshi human rights body — a total of 1,413 women fell victim to rape in 2019. Out of those victims, 76 were killed and 10 committed suicide after rape. The number of rape victims was 732 in 2018 and 818 in 2017.

Pointing out the alarming rise in rape incidents, Chunu noted that the government has been “putting people in the crossfire” as part of its ongoing fight against illegal drugs, and asked why the same methods haven’t been used in the case of suspected rapists.

Ain-o-Salish Kendra documents show that the anti-drug campaign of Bangladesh, which recorded its first death on 15 May 2018, since then has left at least 357 people dead in clashes with police and another 20 in fights between drug cartels. Many lawmakers now wish that a similar approach is taken against sex offenders and rapists, who are summarily executed without a trial.

Echoing Chunnu, veteran Awami League MP Tofail Ahmed also compared the situation to how the police dealt with drug dealers. “If we can take action through ‘crossfire’ on drug-related issues, then why can’t we follow the same in case of rapists?” he asked.

Ahmed said the person who “we know” has committed rape has no right to stay alive any more.

Chunnu and Ahmed’s call for extrajudicial killing was endorsed by Kazi Firoz Rashid, another lawmaker from the Jatiya Party. Rashid told the parliament that he believes “crossfire” is the “only solution to eliminate increasing rape incidents in the country.”

According to Rashid, in conducting a trial of a rape case, there is always a dearth of proper witnesses, which makes it “impossible” to prosecute the case. “Therefore, you’ll have to go for [a police] encounter to get this society rid of the rape menace,” he said. Rashid dismissed those who argue that the rule of law must apply, even if it takes time : “What will you do if you or your mother or sister becomes a victim of rape?” he asks those opposed to extra-judicial killings.

Syed Nazibul Bashar, MP of Bangladesh ‘s Tarikat Federation, an ally of the Awami League, said: “I can say that you will go to heaven if you kill rapists in ‘crossfire.’”

Promotes judicial failure

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has expressed grave concern and censured the lawmakers’ demand in Parliament for extrajudicial killing of accused rapists.

The corruption watchdog has urged that all such speeches delivered in Parliament on January 14 be expunged, since these are in clear conflict with the constitutionally recognized rule of law, human rights and justice.

TIB executive director Dr Iftekharuzzaman in a statement issued to the media said that “such a demand is alarming.” He argued that using fake encounters to kill suspects would lead to chaos.

“The demand by the lawmakers proves allegations [that law enforcers have engaged in] extra-judicial killings …. This also shows a terrible trend and support from lawmakers for illegal methods. It is an ominous sign for democratic progress, transparency, accountability and good governance”, he said. “Such an illegal and uncalled-for demand in Parliament is nothing but an attempt to institutionalize the insurmountable impediments on the path of justice, human rights and the rule of law.”

“We want to believe that such comments are driven by emotion. But, being lawmakers, how can they forget their pledge to defend the rule of law, justice and human rights! It’s very painful and everyone is stunned,” he said. Iftekharuzzaman also pointed out that if the police were allowed to carry out summary executions without a trial, it would degrade the policing and could be easily misused to target innocents.

Dr Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University, US,agreed with this assessment. He viewed the lawmakers’ endorsement of extra-judicial killing as an unprecedented event in any parliamentary democracy. “Back in 2016, the same lawmaker, Kazi Firoz Rashid, told the parliament that he wanted to give those people to ‘crossfire’ who torture women and kids.”

But at that time, parliament’s deputy speaker Fazle Rabbi Mia responded to Rashid that the “government doesn’t believe” in extra judicial killings.  “However, this time, Rashid’s statement was endorsed by other MPs and his statement was not opposed by the speaker, which is a matter of grave concern,” said Riaz. This, Riaz said, is worrying and will only undermine the rule of law in Bangladesh.

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