In what was perhaps the most public endorsement of extra judicial killings by lawmakers in Bangladesh, multiple Members of the Parliament on January 14 came out in support of killing the rapists in “crossfire”. Some, including a senior Awami League MP, went so far as to say that if the government can take instant action on drug-related offences, it should do the same for rape. This, we believe, was a significant admission on the part of the lawmakers, given that the Bangladesh Government has consistently claimed that deaths from “crossfire” are not intentional or pre-planned, but the result of law enforcement officers acting in self-defence. We reached out to our readers and asked them what they thought of these admissions.
The response was overwhelming—and telling, in more ways than one.
The majority of readers, both on The Daily Star’s Facebook post and over email, spoke of the importance of the rule of law and expressed their dismay that lawmakers could so brazenly admit to extrajudicial killings in the parliament. They argued that, no matter how heinous the crime, we need to uphold the rule of law, and ensure punishment through strict implementation of existing laws and necessary reform of the justice system. Interestingly, a sizable number of the people who argued for rule of law also argued for death penalty of rapists, stating that rapists deserve nothing less than the highest punishment available under the laws of the country. A smaller number wrote about the need to challenge social norms and values that degrade and objectify women.
Below, we publish some of these comments.
However, in what came as a surprise to us, a significant number of people actually supported the lawmakers’ decision to kill rapists in “crossfire”. Interestingly, those supporting “crossfire” had less to say about “crossfire” (many, in fact, conflated “crossfire” with the death penalty), and more about how society and state (including the legal system) protects rapists at every level, making it impossible for survivors and victims to get justice—they are essentially saying that rapists should be eliminated via “crossfire” because they will not be convicted by courts. Some wrote eloquently on how we are quick to jump to the defense of rapists and their human rights, but do not show the same courtesy to victims and/or survivors and make them go through hurdles at every step of the legal process, further victimising and traumatising them.
Some supported “crossfire” given that guilt of the rapist could be proven, but provided no explanation of who or how such guilt could be ascertained, if not through the legal system. Yet others who argued for “crossfire” worried that influential persons would still get away with rape or that such a move could be used to target innocent people or for political killings.
Across the board, whether one argued for or against “crossfire” of rapists, there was complete and utter frustration with the authorities’ inability to implement the rule of law. Those who argued for “crossfire” were infuriated by the total impunity enjoyed by rapists and simply did not have faith that the current legal system could deliver any form of justice. While the lawmakers comments endorsing extrajudicial killings is concerning, what is perhaps equally worrying is the significant public support for doing away with due process, as the latter shows that citizens’ faith in law, law enforcers and justice systems are slowly, and disturbingly, eroding. Due process must become fair, fast and efficient; the government needs to do everything in its power to restore due process of law for that is the single-most important indicator of a civilised society.
- DS Editorial Desk
The most alarming aspect of this proposal in parliament is the open and unapologetic endorsement of a practice that has so far been denied officially. When local and international laws and conventions are blatantly violated to carry out extrajudicial killings, it is already shameful enough for us. But an open admission not only legitimises these crimes of “crossfire” but also encourages habitual perpetrators within the law enforcement agencies to continue with more vigour and enthusiasm.
The calls by lawmakers for “crossfire” will, no doubt, find resonance with a section of the population. Some among them may even be educated people who are simply frustrated with the repeated incidents of rape making headlines. The fear that any woman anywhere in Bangladesh may fall victim to the heinous crime of rape is a valid one, and so is the frustration of the people. However, policymakers have a responsibility to not only understand the sentiment of the people but also to do what is right and solve problems in the most effective ways within the law.
The truth is that there is no research or data to suggest that the high number of rape incidents are occurring because there is no “crossfire”. Rather research suggests that rape and other crimes of sexual violence occur because of various social factors including the societal attitudes towards women, power balances within families, and so on. The Nusrat case, not so long ago, exposed the attitude of certain members of the law enforcement towards victims of rape or sexual violence, which also contributes to the impression of impunity when it comes to these offences.
Forget “crossfire”. Is death penalty, which is within the bounds of law, an effective way to curb the crime? Perpetrators commit crimes with the intention of not getting caught, and so the subsequent consequence is likely to have little deterrent effect. Even if it did, perpetrators are unlikely to weigh the pros and cons of death penalty versus “crossfire” versus life imprisonment before deciding whether or not to commit the crime. It would also not deter crimes of passion, crimes under influence of drug or alcohol, and by those who do not have mental capacity.
Our policymakers should rather focus on creating an environment where rape can be reported, the investigation of rape is better managed and is more efficient with the use of technology, and delays in the criminal justice system are prevented. We need practical solutions.
Nowadays rape has become the norm rather than an exception. Every day we come across some news on rape on the social media and in newspapers. Then the news vanishes. Then if enough people raise their voice against a rape case, our law enforcement agencies produce a suspect, who lands in jail. But rapes keep occurring, while rapists get off scot-free. So our lawmakers have come up with a radical solution to this destructive cycle: shoot to kill “in crossfire”. Some people might say this a good thing and it will curb the crime and I appreciate their sentiment. But if this indeed comes to pass, it will give the law enforcement agencies broad, unchecked power which will be very dangerous for our society. What our lawmakers are proposing will turn the law enforcers into judge, jury and executioner all at once.
We have to understand that extrajudicial execution has no place in a democratic society and it will be used as a tool by the rich and powerful to hide their crimes by using our law enforcement agencies. Hence, it will be much harder for the rape victims to get justice. The main reason for rape in our society is the toxic belief shared among some men that women are sexual objects and should be treated as such. We can fix all kinds of punishment for rapists but rape will never end until and unless we challenge this toxic belief of men. And the best way to challenge this belief is education. We need to educate our children from the school level about sex and the importance of consent before sex as well as respect for women. Only then can we truly address rape and make our society a safer place for girls and women.
--Rashiq Abdullah Nice
Instead of killing rapists in “crossfire”, we should expend that energy in strengthening our law enforcement agencies. We wouldn’t even be having these conversations if we could prevent such crimes from occurring in the first place. Killing in “crossfire” gives authorities the permission to kill anyone without due diligence. Every human being has a right to proper legal proceedings. My fear is that the authorities will take advantage of such power, if it is granted to them, and may start using it as they please. It’s a frightening thought, really.
This proposal in parliament exposes the culture of disregarding the existing judicial system and the growing undemocratic and populist thoughts among both the public and their representatives in parliament.
When a senior lawmaker makes such statements, we as a nation should be ashamed. When a nation resorts to goon-ism (a word that needs to be created to define behaviour such as this), it puts our freedom fighters to shame and threatens the very fabric of our culture and society. Bangladesh must adhere to the rule of law; otherwise, it risks losing all the credibility.
On my first day of law school, I was asked—how can you defend a criminal? It wasn’t long before I learnt that the answer lies in two fundamental legal principles—the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.
During a recent parliamentary session, various senior lawmakers vehemently supported “crossfire” as a means of punishment for rapists who confess. Even ignoring the legal nuances of the rules of evidence and wrongfully obtained confessions, simply on the strength of the basic principles of the justice system, suggestions of such unconstitutional means of penalty coming from the lawmakers themselves is extremely dangerous. Such endorsement from the floor of the supreme lawmaking body is the first step towards opening the floodgate of vigilante justice.
Further concerning is the claim by veteran parliamentarian Tofail Ahmed who asked why, if the state could take instant actions through “crossfire” on drug-related issues, it should not do the same in case of rapists. Such a statement from our lawmakers suggest that they think extrajudicial killings mandated by the state is legally and ethically sound and that killing the accused without a trial is a legitimate means of achieving justice. Now let’s think back to the chilling audio recording of gunfire and the groans of the dying Teknaf Municipality Councillor Ekramul Haque who was killed in an alleged shootout during an anti-narcotics operation in 2018. That case is still awaiting a fair trial.
The only two solutions thought plausible by the parliamentarians during that peculiar session were introducing death penalty for rape and killing the accused in “crossfire” once he has confessed. It is truly unfortunate that they failed to suggest concrete reforms in rape laws, which could go a long way in ensuring justice of the rape complainants. The archaic sexual offences provisions of our Penal Code 1860 are erratic enough to legalise non-consensual sexual intercourse with a child above 13 if she is married to the man. While our colonial hangover remains everlasting, the British passed timely and specifically dedicated Acts to tackle sexual offences (Sexual Offences Act 2003) and have made marital rape an offence. Instead of using this current social discourse and public outcry to introduce such opportune reforms, the response from our lawmakers is to take the laziest way out and allow the accused to be killed in “crossfire”.
The MPs highlighted how there are no witnesses to be found in rape trials. That’s hardly surprising. In most rape cases, the only witness is the complainant herself. Our system has notorious legal provisions such as section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, which allows the defence lawyer to show that the rape complainant is of ‘generally immoral character’ and so is less credible as a witness. It took us 146 years to ban the degrading “two-finger-test” on the rape complainants, which had no evidential or scientific merit, and above all, favoured the rapist. The system is patriarchal and fundamentally hostile to the complainants. This would have beent he opportune time for our lawmakers to make the system more welcoming, receptive, sympathetic and less intimidating for the complainants.
Statements such as, “I can say that you will go to heaven if you kill rapists in ‘crossfire’”, are risky, disappointing and juvenile coming from a lawmaker. Our lawmakers need to address the issues at hand and find answers which are at least as rational as the one that a law student comes up with on her first day.
--Anupoma Joyeeta Joyee
I thank our lawmakers because by demanding that rapists be killed in “crossfire”, they have, in fact, revealed the true nature of shootouts that have so far taken place across the country. Are we to assume that those killed in “crossfire” were actually killed in cold blood and that our lawmakers had approved these extra-judicial killings knowing completely well what was happening on the ground? Are we to conclude that all the justifications provided so far by the law enforcers for “crossfire” were, in reality, nothing but lies? If the lawmakers give the law enforcers license to break the law, no doubt it will deepen the already waning public distrust in the justice system. We must raise our voice against such extrajudicial, state-sponsored killings.
--Anowar Hossein Sagor
Such statements only highlight that it is not just the general people who do not have trust in the justice system, but that our lawmakers, too, have no faith in it. I don’t know if there is any other country in the world where lawmakers have demanded or condoned extra-judicial killings in parliament.
We want exemplary punishment for the rapists through speedy trial tribunals. To make sure that the rapists cannot evade trial through the loopholes of the laws, we need to strengthen our institutions and revise our laws. But we cannot support extra-judicial killings no matter what the crime.