Death by thousand committees

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published Daily Star, May 22nd

In the end, this is what it takes to create an inquest. When a case of torture and murder involves an Adivasi activist it needs two months of sustained national outrage, a petition signed by hundreds, and many alert notices from groups like Human Rights Watch to finally push the government to appoint a one-person committee to probe Choles Ritchil’s death. How much headway the investigator can make, with limited resources and mandate, in investigating a volatile case, is still hazy.We have seen many committees in our times, they can unfortunately also be used to mothball controversy. A call to a lawyer friend unearthed at least three effective commissions in recent times: BGMEA investigation into Spectrum collapse, Shamsunnahar Hall attack commission (headed by Justice Tofazzel Islam), and Rubel killing commission (headed by Justice Habibur Rahman Khan). The Rubel commission even came up with guidelines for cases involving arrest without warrant.

Unfortunately, kangaroo commissions outnumber effective ones. These are the commissions that never publish results (counting on public outrage to die down), or come out with “findings” that are surreal and ineffective. In the former category are commissions that investigated incidents like the abduction of Kalpana Chakma. In the latter are inquiries into massacres like the one at Logang (headed by Justice Sultan H Khan). Then there are commissions that come up with wishy-washy, non-conclusion conclusions. The August 21st AL rally bomb blast investigation concluded, via reports leaked to the press, that it “could be foreign involvement” (specific, substantial, and actionable!).

In the category of I-would-laugh-if-it-wasn’t -so-tragic was the Justice Joinul Abedin commission during BNP tenure that probed Mymensingh cinema hall bomb blasts. Absurdly, it concluded that the culprit was Professor Muntasir Mamun of Dhaka University’s History department. Apparently not satisfied with producing voluminous and authoritative works on the pre-history of Dhaka, the good professor had been dabbling in amateur bomb-confection. Now that’s a truly inter-disciplinary scholar!

The spectre of commissions that produce no results, but give political cover and buy time, is of course not limited to South Asia — they can be seen in many other times and places. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa headed the commission that investigated a massacre in Peru, and in his subsequent essay “Death in the Andes” he seemed to take the side of the government against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) rebels, with inadequate acknowledgment of the abject poverty and discrimination that made rebellion an attractive option for the Peruvian Indians. To Llosa, socialism was an “incomprehensible abstraction” for Indians (although apparently “democracy” was not), therefore they were only being “used” by the rebels.

In North America, a famous example is the inquiry into the killing of four students during anti-Vietnam war protests on the Kent State campus. After 37 years of official cover-up, tape-recorded evidence of pre-meditated killings by the National Guard (in collusion with Ohio governor James A. Rhodes) was finally released by the FBI in the face of a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) case. From My Lai to Watergate, the turbulent 60s and 70s produced many such cases of cover-up and denial. But parallel to this history are also commissions that bravely exposed uncomfortable truths. Especially notable was the 1975-76 Church Committee hearings, which published 14 reports on US intelligence agencies and their alleged abuses, along with recommendations for reform, some of which were implemented.

Coming back to Bangladesh, consider for a moment the resources being put towards the Choles Ritchil case. We have a one-person committee, headed by retired judge Mohammed Rafiuddin, investigating a case where there may be difficulties finding evidence, where the family has not yet been allowed to file a case, where the body needs to be exhumed after decomposition, where one witness is hiding for fear of his life, and many other complications from passage of two months. Power always counts on short memories — we will forget and move on. So many issues, so little time. And short-sighted leadership sometimes thinks that closing ranks and “protecting our own” is more important than setting an example by investigating, following due process, and punishing the guilty.

But perhaps, against the odds, the retired judge will uncover the truth? Can we dare hope against history? And can we, in addition to hoping, also move towards more direct activist interventions. Citizens need to create pressure for more resources for inquiry commissions, and open hearings on all such investigations, so that the proceedings and final findings are always made public. The government must offer witness protection programs, and take evidence in camera to give confidence and safety to witnesses. Investigators who first looked into the case should volunteer to submit their testimonies as well. This is all part of a collective struggle. For better tomorrows.

For all our citizens.
Naeem Mohaimen is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.

Mohaimen, N. (2007, May 22) . Death by thousand committees. The Daily Star, 5(1056)

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