Three murder suspects affiliated with Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League have been killed in “crossfire” with law enforcement personnel since Sunday, raising concern about a deteriorating law and order situation in the country.
All three were in custody of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite unit comprising both civilian police officers and military members, when they were shot dead.
On Tuesday, Zakir Hossain, a leader of the Jubo League – the youth wing of the ruling party – was killed in “crossfire” with RAB officers in Dhaka.
His killing came two days after Arzoo Mia, a student Awami League leader in the capital and Mehedi Hassan Ajib, a local Awami leader in southern Magura district, were killed in separate encounters with police and RAB.
Activists say these “extrajudicial killings” began with the creation of RAB in 2004.
According to the Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights group that provides legal aid to victims of police violence, at least 1,500 people – most of them opposition party members – have lost their lives in the past 11 years in so-called encounters with law enforcement.
“We have been voicing our concern loudly about these extrajudicial killings for a long time, but to no avail. We want culprits to be punished, but punishment should be meted out following due process of law,” Sultana Kamal, executive director of ASK, said in a statement Wednesday.
The killings have taken place under both the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), when it was in power.
What makes the latest deaths unusual is the fact that the slain men were members of the ruling party.
While there have been widespread protests and condemnation of such killings over the years, it has usually come from opposition parties claiming that the party in power is using “crossfire” to eliminate political opponents.
Now, field-level activists and local leaders of the Awami League are up in arms, demanding independent investigation into the killings of the three comrades since Sunday.
Law enforcement agencies gave their standard explanation for the shootings, saying the deceased were hardened criminals wanted on murder charges.
“A team of RAB personnel arrested Arzoo Mia in the early hours of Monday from the capital’s Hazaribagh area for murdering a 16-year-old boy on charges of theft,” RAB spokesman Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan told reporters Tuesday.
“As the RAB team boarded the jeep with Arzoo, some miscreants tried to forcibly snatch him when the crossfire occurred and he died in the ensuing encounter,” he added.
Similar encounters occurred in the other two cases and both died in the same way, Khan added.
Relatives of the victims alleged they were murdered by law enforcers and demanded punishment for the perpetrators.
“My brother had no cases against him. He was murdered in a planned way. We want justice,” Masud Rana, Arzoo’s brother, told BenarNews.
On Wednesday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters “there had been some cross-fires in the past few days and some people died as a result.”
Communication Minister Obaidul Kader defended the shootings.
“Action is under way. Our party is not going to spare anybody if they commit crime,” he told BenarNews.
Activists say the latest actions against ruling party members are a reflection of the deteriorating law and order situation, blamed largely on the turf battle among local Awami League leaders fighting for supremacy.
“It is clear from the law enforcement agencies’ actions and speeches made by some influential government leaders in recent times that they want to contain the situation through extrajudicial killings,” Sultana Kamal, of ASK, said.
Some observers worry that in resorting to such unlawful actions in the name of controlling rising violence, the government is putting its credibility in question.
“The fact of the matter is nobody really believes the stories of these ‘crossfires’ any more as people are tired of these staged encounters,” Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB), told BenarNews.
“In order to make it credible, the authorities should make sure that a judicial magistrate accompanies RAB or police whenever they go for these kinds of actions,” he added