As many as 4,044 people were subjected to extrajudicial killings that took place in the guise of gunfights or crossfires between criminals and law enforcers in the past 21 years in Bangladesh, says a recent study.
Of the total number of victims, 3,453 people were killed in reported gunfights between 2001 and 2018 and an additional 591 were killed between 2019 and 2021, the study revealed.
The findings of the research study, "Executions at Will? Extrajudicial Killings by State Actors in Bangladesh", were disclosed at a webinar on Saturday.
The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) conducted the study through analyzing reports and cases of extrajudicial killings from January 2019 to December 2021.
Dr Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, was the principal investigator of the study.
Dr Shahdeen Malik, senior advocate of Bangladesh Supreme Court, Barrister Manzoor Hasan, executive director of the Centre for Peace and Justice at Brac University, and Advocate Alena Khan, chairperson of the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation (BHRF), also joined the webinar.
According to the study, extrajudicial killings of the past three years show that 'gunfight' has been the most frequent mode of deliberate killings. The killings have taken place in 56 districts, which suggests that it is widespread and has become a behavioral pattern of the law enforcement agencies.
Altogether 238 cases have been identified in Cox's Bazar district alone. Police, including the Detective Branch (DB), and the Rapid Action Battalion allegedly carried out these killings, the study said.
The maximum number of killings took place in July 2020 when 49 people became victims. This figure is followed by 42 incidents in May 2019. The government not only denied the incidents but also patronized and normalized them through offering rewards and ensuring impunity, the study mentioned, adding that the supportive comments of officials, political leaders, and members of parliament have also helped to continue this phenomenon and exculpate the perpetrators.
"There is a growing sense of impunity among law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh as there is no accountability for extra-judicial killings," said Dr Ali Riaz in his keynote presentation at the webinar.
Dr Ali Riaz cited various facts and figures, uncovered in the research, where there is proof that the government has at various times either tried to deny or justify the acts of extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh.
These kinds of acts fall under the definition of extra-judicial killing according to several international standards, he said, adding that such killings are not new in Bangladesh, with a case history dating back to 1972.
From 2000 to 2013, extra-judicial killings did not have any specific patterns. However, from 2018 onwards, killings became more common as the government widened its anti-narcotics operations, Ali said.
He also demonstrated a pattern of increase in the killings right before the national election.
The study shows that most acts of extrajudicial killings were covered in the media, using the excuse of gunfights with the police, the Detective Bureau, or RAB. Statistics also show that there was one extra-judicial killing on average every day in certain months. Most of the killings were reported from the Cox's Bazar region.
Dr Ali Riaz recommended that all acts of extrajudicial killings be investigated and brought under the purview of the law. The government needs to stop justifying such killings.
The law enforcement agencies need to be made accountable for their actions. And finally, the national commission for human rights needs to be reformed and empowered to fulfill its role to protect citizens' rights, he added.
Advocate Alena Khan stated that according to the government's claim, a magistrate keeps the investigation report behind the 'gunfights'. However, these reports have never been made public. She concluded by saying that the national human rights commission is failing to investigate extrajudicial killings and needs to be reformed from scratch.
Dr Shahdeen Malik said the constitution has certain provisions which allow the government to provide indemnity to anyone in the name of national security. However, the number of extrajudicial killings has declined significantly since the US imposed sanctions against members of the law enforcement agency.
He fears that these kinds of sanctions might increase if the law enforcement agencies continue to do the killings. Such actions might have a very negative effect on the economy of Bangladesh.
Dr Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury said that the pattern which shows a rise in extra-judicial killings before the national election is indicative of the culture of fear and oppression that people are facing.
"There are three dark elements in our society: Loss of freedom of speech by laws such as the DSA, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings. These elements have formed an evil force we must fight against," he added.