Why vigilantism exists
On January 18, 2019, a piece of news circulated around the web that the prime accused of a rape case had been found dead in Savar. The body carried with it a note stating: “I am the main culprit behind the rape.” The news leaves the law enforcers dumbfounded. The bullet-ridden body was of Ripon, who was accused of raping a 16-year-old.
On January 26, police in Jhalakathi recovered the dead body of a youth who was a suspect in a rape case. This one also had a printed note that was tied around the neck which said: “I am Sajal. I am the rapist of [victim’s name]. This is my punishment.”
This is the second time in a row that a rape suspect has met his fate at the hands of someone other than law enforcement. In both cases, the victims were accused of the heinous act of rape. And the men behind the killings are mysteriously unknown. Therefore, it is fair to ask, could this be the rise of vigilante justice in Bangladesh?
Vigilante justice, according to Cornell Law, are the “actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so.” We see it being characterized in popular fiction where the hero takes matters into his own hands when justice is not served.
One such fictional character is Frank Castle (The Punisher). In real life, the vigilante doesn’t wear a cape, nor does he get legal immunity. It is much more complicated.
The vigilante himself, in the process, commits an unlawful act and is equally an offender in the eye of the law.
Vigilantism is not uncommon around the world. There is a Leeds-based group in the UK called the “Paedophile Hunters” who track internet paedophiles and shame them online. So do groups like “The Daemon Hunter” and “Protecting the Innocent.” Such groups co-ordinate sting operations against suspects, often filming them and gathering evidence.
Looking at the statistics, it can be seen that these groups have contributed to the eventual prosecution of child sex offenders in the UK. However, not all vigilante justice can be, or is, just. There are reports of innocent people being killed in India over cow slaughters, sparking communal violence.
In Bangladesh, although this drive against rapists is new, the practice of mob justice isn’t. It is mostly common in the rural areas, involving merciless beating of thieves and bandits. In almost all situations, the victims of such public lynching cannot get out alive.
What does the law say about this?
It is technically not illegal to be a vigilante and standing up against injustice. But getting involved in any unlawful activities could certainly get someone arrested. No person is entitled to take the law into his own hands. In Bangladesh, there are no laws that specifically talk about public lynching in its penal code. The existing laws on murder and unlawful assembly govern it.
The penal code recognizes common intention, common object, and abetment -- which are sufficient to try anyone involved in vigilante justice.
Vigilantism is motivated by the belief that law enforcement has become ineffective to tackle crime.
It emerges from the frustration of the lack of justice at the cost of giving in to other unlawful acts. In this process, many innocent people also become victims -- like that which is found in mob justice. But what about habitual offenders, like the rapists in Bangladesh?
There is a disturbing rise of rape cases in Bangladesh. A total of 17,000 rape cases were filed in the last four years and the number keeps on creeping up.
There are instances when the accused get away with paying bribes, while justice seekers remain in agony. Rapists on bail repeat their offenses, making a mockery of the justice system. In these situations, such mysterious characters intervene, making the right authorities realize their responsibility.
However, such actions cannot and should not be glorified, but whoever safeguards the interests of the citizens are no less than heroes to them, be it the police or vigilantes.
Aiman R Khan is an advocate in Dhaka Judge Court.