A zero kill year

February 5, 2009

NOW that an elected government is in power, we want to be assured that the most basic of our rights — the right to life — will be respected.

Too many lives are lost to political violence in Bangladesh every year. People die in brawls with bamboo sticks. Deadly ambushes on activists are common. Thugs armed with machetes and daggers sweep down on political foes routinely.

All sorts of modern weaponry have been added to the fights: pistols, revolvers, semi-automatics, plastic explosives, and even military-grade grenades.

The madness has been so frequent that we are almost immune to it. But the numbers are staggering. Between 2001 and 2006, at least 1,300 people died from political violence. More than 35,000 were injured.

Now I don’t dream na├»vely that all this will disappear overnight. But I do think we can make significant progress in two areas quickly.

The first is our leadership’s commitment to political justice. The main reason that the worst atrocities took place during BNP-Jamaat’s reign was that the perpetrators were protected. They were not only sheltered, but were also encouraged, financed, and armed.

The August 21 bombings remain unsolved. The murder of S.A.M.S. Kibria remains unsolved. Investigation of the fiery demise of Nurul Islam and his son is being sidetracked. And if attacks on leaders remain unsolved, the kin of everyday activists can harbour little hope of ever getting justice.

This culture of immunity was bolstered in 1975, when the assassins of the Sheikh Mujib family and killers of the four national leaders were rewarded for carrying out the crimes. It reached another level between 2001 and 2006, when mass terror, targeting hundreds at a time, began to be authorised.

Denied a fair dealing, the victims resort to seeking justice the vigilante way, and the cycle accelerates nationwide. Before we know it, hundreds are added to the roster of the dead.

Those who think that this is simply our political fate are incorrect. Research on violence shows that early and decisive intervention can stop such cycles. A political commitment to stop violence and pursue the perpetrators can reduce the deadly roster fairly quickly. AL activists, who suffered during the past seven years, will be prone to taking matters in their own hands. But the leadership needs to chain this urge firmly through the legal institutions.

The second area is one in which the target should not be just reduction, but eradication. Extra-judicial killings must stop, completely. Most of the killings by the police and the paramilitary are not accidents, but deliberate. These are the worst offenses, for they constitute a violation of the right to life by the very agents entrusted to protect it. And in their wake, these killings leave institutions of justice in shambles because the perpetrators almost never have to account for themselves.

Under the 2007-2008 caretaker government, 319 people were killed extra-judicially. According to investigation by Human Rights Watch, “a large proportion of these killings are in fact extra-judicial executions carried out after the victim had been taken into custody.”

Woeful though this record is, it was even worse during the BNP-Jamaat regime, during which more than a thousand lives were lost to extra-judicial killings. In 2002, Operation Clean Heart, BNP’s campaign to recover illegal arms, gave these killings a boost. The creation of the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) gave it another boost in 2003. In 2005 alone, a record 400 people were killed by government agents.

With this type of performance in our history, can we seriously hope for a zero kill year? We can, for we have a precedent; it was almost achieved before.

It may seem astonishing now, but in 1998 Bangladesh had only one extra-judicial killing. We had only two and three the year before and the year after.

The crucial difference between the recent past and the distant past was in political commitment.

With Awami League back in power, we have good reason to be hopeful about human rights. In its election manifesto, AL has promised to stop extra-judicial killings. But it won’t be easy to rein back the security forces who, over the last seven years, have honed their aptitude for abusing power. AL’s leadership must send the message clearly that these killings will not be tolerated, and it must prosecute any offense fully.

And this time the AL leadership should go one step further. It should openly take up the challenge of improving on its 1998 record. Tell us loudly this will be a zero kill year, that there will be no more extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh. For one killing is still one life too many to lose.

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