Around 2,700 people killed in so-called crossfires or gunfights since 2004, according to rights bodies
"Aren't you involved?" said an unidentified voice.
"No", replied another voice.
A few seconds later, a gunshot rang out followed by the groaning of a man.
As it continued for a few seconds, Ekramul Haque’s wife and two daughters were screaming and begging for his life.
“My husband has not done anything … Why are you killing him?” the Teknaf municipality councillor’s wife Ayesha Begum kept screaming repeating these words.
These were heard in an unverified audio clip reportedly detailing the last conversation between Ekram and his family, moments before he was killed on May 26, 2018 in what the law enforcers described as a ‘gunfight’.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said that he was killed in a shootout between their members and drug smugglers at the bordering town of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar.
Soon after the killing, the government said that an inquiry led by a judicial magistrate would be opened.
“We'll look into the matter," Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said then before adding accountability and punishment would follow for anyone found guilty.
However, the only action over such extrajudicial killings remains limited to promises of further investigations.
Not even a case was started over the death of the Teknaf councillor, who was killed within weeks of the launching of a nationwide anti-narcotic drive.
In Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings usually go by the name of “crossfire” or “gunfight”.
Explanation of every extrajudicial killing seems very identical, where police say they only opened fire in self-defence after being attacked. However, rights groups have described these as planned killings.
The frequency with which extrajudicial killings have been taking place in recent times, goes to show that there is reason to be concerned.
In 2019, the High Court, while hearing the matter of a murder suspect’s death after arrest, the judges asked the lawyers, “Who will give an explanation over deaths in crossfires in police custody?”
Extrajudicial killings came into spotlight again after the July 31 killing of retired Major Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan in a reported police firing, once again in Teknaf.
The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, which has been vocal about extrajudicial killings in the past, seems have turned a blind eye to the recent incidents.
“This is a misunderstanding. We are unable to do many things due to the ongoing pandemic. This should be taken into account,” its Chairman Nasima Begum told Dhaka Tribune earlier this month.
“There are many other issues of rights violation other than extrajudicial killings. But this is the only thing we are asked about all the time. People think that we are not doing anything. But we are working with other issues as well,” she added.
Spike in extrajudicial killings
According to rights bodies, the first wave of extrajudicial killings Bangladesh witnessed was in 2004 after the elite police unit, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was formed.
Extrajudicial killings spiked sharply once again after May 2018 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a “war on drugs.”
Within just the first 10 days of launching the operation, 52 people were killed by security forces, according to Amnesty International.
Human rights organizations have documented 466 such deaths reported in 2018 alone, more than three times higher than that in 2017 and the highest in a single year in several decades.
“It was less than 15 to 16 per month in 2004. In 2018, it reached around 40 per month,” said human rights activist Nur Khan Liton.
Cox’s Bazar: Infamous for “crossfires”
A majority of extrajudicial killings took place in Cox’s Bazar with most of them on the Marine Drive Road or near Teknaf’s Naf River, which marks the border of southeastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar.
According to rights organisations, more than 100 people died in incidents of extrajudicial killings in Cox’s Bazar in 2019 alone.
Law enforcers say drug smuggling are to blame for most of the “gunfights” in the locality.
Myanmar is infamous for producing vast quantities of methamphetamine-based yaba, opium and cannabis.
Yaba is usually smuggled into Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazar district, bordering Myanmar's Rakhine State, according to intelligence agencies.
According to Amnesty International, repressive drug control practices are having a devastating impact on human rights. Alleged “crossfires” or “gunfights” have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of suspected drug offenders.
“The main reason behind extrajudicial killing taking place repeatedly is the authorities’ apathy,” says rights activist Liton.
“Recently, some lawmakers have also talked about encounters and gunfights. It was even being discussed during a parliamentary session,” he said.
Human rights defenders are landing in jail for being vocal against extrajudicial killings in the media, according to Liton.
Major Sinha: The latest victim of extrajudicial killing
On the night of July 31, retired army officer Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan was shot dead at a police check-post on the Marine Drive Road between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf.
Following the incident, Bangladesh Police chief Benazir Ahmed said they do not agree with the term “crossfire,” and that only the NGOs use it.
"Those who work with NGOs here bring funds from abroad for various reasons and say many different things to justify their activities. Crossfire is one of those," Inspector General of Police Ahmed said.
Bangladesh Army chief General Aziz Ahmed said both army and police forces need to be very careful so that no such incident reoccurs.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sinha’s death has drawn attention to a culture of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh.
“But, it is not just security forces that are to be blamed but a culture of impunity where all too often, even senior leaders have justified these so-called crossfire killings as a means of crime control, enabling trigger-happy law enforcement,” said its South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly.
Soon after the killing Major Sinha, many families of extrajudicial killing victims started filing complaints against the local law enforcement agencies.
There are allegations that Teknaf police station officer-in-charge Pradeep Kumar Das killed some 140 persons in so-called crossfires or gunfights.
Pradeep, who now stands accused of murder in the case started by the slain army officer’s family, has been suspended before he was sent to jail.
Surprisingly, a petition seeking directives for the government and the IGP to record a case against Pradeep for killing a salt trader in “crossfire” at Moheskhali in Cox’s Bazar, remained pending for three years.
The High Court’s directive was scrapped after hearing of an appeal filed by the IGP when an affidavit was presented before the Appellate Division in July 20, 2017, which said that the salt trader, Abdus Sattar, was a “criminal and arms smuggler.”
Eventually, Sattar’s wife Hamida Akhter lodged a case against Pradeep and 28 others with the Senior Judicial Magistrate court in Maheshkhali upazila of Cox's Bazar.
Human rights defenders say Bangladesh's record for rights violation has continuously deteriorated after the formation of RAB in 2004 during the BNP-Jamaat Alliance government's regime.
According to rights body Ain o Salish Kendra, around 2,700 people were killed in so-called crossfires or gunfights since then. Of them, more than 900 were killed after law enforcers picked them up.