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In Bangladesh: Killing of ex-Army Maj exposes issues beyond encounter hits

Maj (retd) Sinha

The cold blooded killing of Maj (Retd) Sinha Mohd. Rashed Khan by a section of the Cox's Bazar police brings home the reality of encounter killings with an impact nobody imagined. The fact that the victim was a retired army officer played a critical role.

When criminals are killed in extra-judicial encounters, people no longer protest or even bother to ponder. It is accepted that such killings will happen. But this time, the victims' identity made a big difference. In a tragic way, that has actually helped shed light on a violent culture that all had protested against but had still gone on.

The Officer in Charge of Teknaf Thana Prodeep Kumar Das has now become the symbol of crossfire killings in Bangladesh. The OC and his team alone are reported to have killed almost 200 people this way. Having done so in a high crime zone for a couple of years, he can be forgiven for thinking that he was above the law. After all, despite complaints, he was not touched.

Teknaf area is the entry point for Yaba drugs - Bangladesh's national drug- and the other is Rohingya refugees, now increasingly involved in smuggling and law and order problems. Police were expected to control law and order. Encounter killings were seen as a tool to achieve such objectives. Possibly that is why it was tolerated.

Yet going by media information, more Yaba and drugs have entered Bangladesh this year than ever before. So what exactly did the killings achieve even if we accept that in Bangladesh it was an accepted way of doing business? On top of that, many people are now coming forward to say that Prodeep used crossfire threats to extort money from people.

Pradeep Kumar Das, main accused in Sinha killing

The Sinha killing

Maj. Sinha's killing remains a bit of a mystery because he was never a suspect in any crime nor had he a criminal record. He had been a member of the Special Security Force (SSF) which puts him at the top layer part of the military elite. Going by media reports he was shot several times after being taken out of the car he was travelling in. It is not like the usual encounter story of an alleged criminal being taken out to look for arms while in custody and then dying in a shootout. However, that's for the investigation committee to figure out.

What hit people was that police killing was another story of immunity. The army reacted and actions followed including the arrest of the alleged killers. With the army on their side so to speak, rage against such killings went public.

It has already caused acute embarrassment to the Government as it is a sort of conflict between the police and the army. However, the Government went into immediate embarrassment management.

The chiefs of the police and the army held a joint press conference -possibly the first ever- to assure everyone that both were working together. They said the Teknaf killing was an "isolated incident" and nothing would impact on the mutual cordial relations between the two forces. This was followed by the news that joint army-police patrols in the area would begin.

The police did the usual thing with the killing in the first phase. The police First Information Report said that Maj. Sinha was caught with drugs and he tried to shoot the police who returned fire and killed him. But the outrage within the army was high at his death and it didn't stand.

Both serving and retired officers protested which meant it had affected the institution as a whole. Several statements were made and an initial investigation committee report differed from the initial FIR and several police personnel went into their shell.

Soon the pressure mounted, and after a case was filed by Sinha's family nine of the Teknaf Thana were ordered to be arrested including Prodeep who has now emerged as the national hate figure. More investigations are on while Rapid Action Battalion asked for and got remand of the alleged killers for questioning.

The roots are intact

The roots of such killings can be traced to an extremely high volume of crime in the society where anyone who thinks he can get away with a crime tries to do so. This includes it seems both law breakers and law enforcers.

In contrast, the capacity of the enforcement system is limited. Part of that is because the legal system is archaic and cumbersome to the point that almost all criminals with some money and connections can feel safe. That's s how encounter killings have gained so much acceptance within the system. Many people support it as most of those killed are criminals.

This method has been in place for the last two decades and has grown so that such killings run into hundreds every year now. No one dares to question them and even when people criticize and complain, they are simply ignored. But the identity of the latest victim has changed that.

Many law enforcers are alleged to be involved in the "crossfire economy" - making money by threatening crossfire- including Prodeep. However, the IG of police has said that "crossfire" is an "NGO inspired word" which means it doesn't exist in official eyes. So the chance of it declining, not to mention ending, is low.

Events seem to indicate that justice will be done in the Sinha case. That is possibly because the army, the most powerful of all Bangladeshi institutions, has taken up the cause as a corporate issue and the Prime Minister also supports that move. She has promised Sinha's family that justice will be done. In this case yes, but no one expects encounters to disappear soon.