Over the last decade, extra-judicial killings by law enforcement agencies (police, RAB) have become the norm in the plainlands of Bangladesh. The same has been the norm for decades in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, especially from the military presence in the region.
Within this context, the Romel Chakma case is a milestone, because the discrepancies in the official narrative have become too large for even the most powerful agencies to hide.
Moreover, one arm of law enforcement (police) has directly contradicted the narrative of another (military), breaking the chain of mutual silence between agencies that has in the past kept things hidden.
In this context, the most crucial, yet weakest link is the Bangladesh media. While news reporters can play a crucial role in bringing facts to light, we find that the news media accepts the official narrative uncritically.
We want to parse, by way of example, Dhaka Tribune’s report of May 18: “NHRC hopeful about Romel Chakma probe.”
First, we note that the Tribune report says: “On April 6, Romel’s father Gyan Ranjan Chakma wrote to the NHRC chairman demanding justice for the ‘inhuman torture’ inflicted upon his son by the army personnel.”
Please note that Romel Chakma’s father’s name is Kanti Chakma, not Gyan Ranjan Chakma. (The latter is his paternal grandfather’s name, which has been mentioned as personal ID information in Kanti Chakma’s letter to the NHRC chair).
While it is common practice among Bangali-origin reporters to be careless about the names of Pahari Adivasis, this error sets the tone for the report.
Fact checking is expected by a newspaper of Tribune’s stature, and this absence has been seen before in reports on the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Secondly, the Tribune reports: “The army refuted the allegations of torture, and insists that Romel had been sick at the time of his detention for questioning in an arson case filed with Naniarchar police. They claimed that Romel had masterminded the attack in which two buses were looted and a truck torched in the area on January 23.”
Finally, even in death, Romel Chakma’s body is not spared the indignity of journalistic error. His body was burned by petrol, which is not the same as ‘cremation’ performed by the family, according to Buddhist traditions
That Romel had been ill prior to detention is new information, Tribune does not mention the source of this information. It also misses the crucial fact of the case, which is that the Naniachar Thana OC explicitly said that the Thana had no case whatsoever against Romel Chakma.
This is the key issue at dispute in this case: The police challenging the army claim, involving a case filing at the civilian police station. It is a matter only the Thana OC can authoritatively speak on, and not the army.
Yet Tribune uncritically repeats the army claim without providing this crucial information.
Later, in the same article, Tribune writes: “HSC examinee Romel, 20, was the general secretary of UPDF-backed Pahari Chhatra Parishad’s Naniarchar upazila unit. He was picked up by the local army personnel on April 5 and handed over to the police in critical condition in the evening.”
Again, this fact has been denied by Naniachar Thana OC, who has said the police did not take custody of Romel Chakma, visibly ill, when he was brought to the Naniachar police station at midnight by army personnel.
Tribune also reports: “The next morning, police and army personnel admitted him to the CMCH where he died on April 19.”
Again, this is denied by police. Evidence for this has been provided in a five part series “Is Custodial Killing Heroic?” by anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed, who provided photographic evidence of the CMCH logbook entry which states “Naniachar Army” only.
Furthermore, this directly contradicts Dhaka Tribune’s earlier sentence in the same news report, where the Tribune reporter wrote: “He was picked up by the local army personnel on April 5 and handed over to the police in critical condition in the evening.”
Finally the Tribune says: “Romel’s father alleged that they were barred from meeting him at the camp as well as at the hospital. The couple was also not allowed to join the cremation, held under the supervision of the upazila administration and the police.”
Yet, the army’s heavy presence was reported by local sources and witnesses, all of whom have been invisibilised in the Tribune’s reporting. The Police OC has explicitly said he was not present.
Finally, even in death, Romel Chakma’s body is not spared the indignity of journalistic error.
His body was burned by petrol, which is not the same as “cremation” performed by the family, according to Buddhist traditions.
We urge concerned citizens to read the detailed investigative report by anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed in the daily New Age: “Romel Chakma: Is Custodial Killing Heroic” (May 14-18).
This series sets a model for the legwork, forensic research, and documentation that we would expect from law enforcement agencies, human rights commissions, and responsible newspapers of the record.
We hope journalists and rights workers of conscience will follow her example.
Anu Muhammad is a Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University and member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. Shireen Huq is a women’s rights activist. Mirza Taslima Sultana is a Professor of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University and member of Public Nribigyan collective. Taslima Akhter is a freelance photographer and a teacher at Pathshala. South Asian Media Institute.