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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Deep-seated discrimination and mistaken identity

It seems that all the difference has been due to the fact that Masum happens to be a journalist and not just another Joe on the street. Surely, the home minister would not have visited Masum in the hospital had he been simply another citizen of Bangladesh who might have suffered the same indignity and had worse injuries… it appears that the sense that some people are more equal than others has become entrenched the

Rapid Action Battalion reportedly stated that a marked criminal by the name of Kamrul Islam Bappi had died during a gunfight between the crime fighting unit and criminals. This Kamrul Islam Bappi who supposedly took bullet injuries during the skirmish was an abettor of the Jishan Gang, alleged the battalion on September 9. But Bappi’s family members were aghast when they came to know. Their Bappi, one Kaisar Mahmud Bappi, did not return home when he left home after iftar on the evening of September 9. According to a report in the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, as the entire family became worried later, Bappi’s friends called them saying they had seen their friend’s body in the morgue on television. It was there at the morgue during identification that the relatives found out that the name on the post mortem report was different. The police told them Kaisar Mahmud could well have been an alias used by Kamrul Islam, who alleged he was a notorious criminal and had died during a shootout with the battalion.
More than a month and a half later Bappi’s family held a press conference where his relatives said he was not the alleged criminal, the report said. Apparently, the dead Bappi had graduated in commerce and was looking for a job and did not have a criminal record. His relatives also showed his academic certificates to prove that his name was indeed different from the one that the Rapid Action Battalion had presumed it to be. Bappi’s mother reportedly lamented at the press conference that she could accept that her son had been killed, but now she would also have to reconcile with the fact that her family would now be branded as that of a criminal’s. There is clearly a very good chance of mistaken identity. The report also quotes the battalion chief saying that if there was indeed any wrongful act, there would certainly be action according to the law.
This shows that the elite crime fighting force could, in fact, take someone in custody without being sure of the identity. One should not allege that the battalion actually shot and killed Bappi because one cannot quite prove that. But ‘crossfire’ as they call them has come to be widely perceived as a synonym for ‘murder in custody’. And the perception is not quite baseless either. These deaths, and so far there have been hundreds, have all been preceded by uncannily unique and similar chain of events according to the official press releases that followed. The chances of such coincidence are so slim that they are quite impossible to happen in reality and thus the general perception that crossfire is synonymous to murder by the state.
Although a number of law enforcement agencies have engaged in such practices, the primary tool to carry out crossfire has been the Rapid Action Battalion, formed as a hybrid force drawing personnel from all the defence and security agencies including the police, military and paramilitary forces. So far, since July 2004 there have been 1,161 deaths in ‘crossfire’, 116 since the current government took office in January. Whether there were other cases of mistaken identity like that of Bappi is a matter of conjecture, and the answer to such a question from this elite crime fighting force would be similar to the one in the case of Bappi.
But this is not to say that it would have been alright to kill the other Bappi, who was allegedly a criminal, since his crime was not proven in a court of law. And the state minister for home affairs said as much when he tried to defend crossfire, saying that there were certain things that had to be done in this manner because of the overall situation of the country. However, extrajudicial killings cannot be termed as justice delivery simply because they were carried out by uniformed men hired by the state and not by a radical acting against the state. They are both committing murders. However, when the state provides a certain agency such a licence to kill, it begins to gain a sense of impunity and acts as if its actions are not within the ambit of the laws of the land. It would be a natural progression.
Thus, the Rapid Action Battalion’s officer was not at all acting out of character when he tortured FM Masum, a junior staff reporter of New Age. But this was no case of mistaken identity. His beatings continued well after Masum had been able to disclose his identity in between blows. The similarity with Bappi was probably that Masum happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It appears that is all the difference between life and ‘crossfire’, indignity and freedom. It is highly unlikely that this is the first time that any officer of the battalion has beaten up someone innocent for no reason and then detained that person without solid grounds for suspicion at the battalion’s offices for over ten hours. It is also very likely that this very officer has before this acted in a similar fashion that should have indicated an undesirable streak in him.
Perhaps quite like Bappi’s death, the previous incidents were overlooked as there was no hue and cry. There were no such press releases of rights groups at home and abroad demanding justice, the media had hardly paid attention on the previous occasion, and surely this would be one of the instances that the home minister and her state minister visited a torture victim.
But even there, when she visited the hospital, there were no assurance that the officer would be punished but only similar pronouncement that proper punishment would meted out if there has been any wrongdoing, as if she were not aware at that time that the Rapid Action Battalion itself had issued a statement regretting the incident and apologising for the untoward incident. When the institution itself has admitted its wrongdoing the minister still seems bent to stand by it. On the other hand, all that the battalion can do is withdraw the individual from active duty and send them back to their original unit where perpetrators of injustice would be able to continue with their jobs. That, however, is hardly any punishment for killing someone, or even beating up an innocent citizen.
It seems that all the difference at this instance has been due to the fact that Masum happens to be a journalist and not just another Joe on the street. Surely, the home minister would not have visited Masum in the hospital had he been simply another citizen of Bangladesh, who might have suffered the same indignity and had worse injuries. It is true that repression of journalists is considered a grave crime by a government that claims to have a democratic dispensation and so there is always much hue and cry. But it appears that the sense that some people are more equal than others has become entrenched. It has become so entrenched that even the victims do not question such open discrimination against an ordinary citizen and the topic is not even broached in any form. This Awami League government, however, is expected to usher in times of change. It is also expected to uphold the spirit of equality of every citizen. But the home minister would hardly be able to make time to visit Bappi’s family for instance. They are less equal.

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