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Murder, shootouts, and the slow wheels of justice

  • Published at 12:05 am July 4th, 2019
Guns and bullets
Extra-judicial killings show a worrying trend BIGSTOCK

Nayan reaped what he sowed, but that is only the small picture

The death of the notorious Nayan (he must have added the Bond name to his, a la James Bond, in an incongruous way) raises a good number of questions. 

It is the manner of his death which raises those questions. In the form of a worn-out cliché, the police have informed us that he was killed in a “shootout” when he and his gang opened fire on the law enforcers.

That explanation certainly does not pass muster with so many among us, given that we have over the years been treated to the same statement over and over again in the aftermath of the death of criminals. 

We are not in any doubt about Nayan’s criminality. What we must wrestle with is the extra-judicial nature of his death. From the perspective of the law, there is little reason for us to accept such crude means of the physical end of a criminal.

There is that larger matter of human rights, of the right to a fair and transparent trial, of the law taking its own course that we cannot look away from.

But, then again, we are faced with the other side of the picture, of human psychology as it were. In a society where criminals go free, where political power and influence have often come to the aid of those who do wrong or break the law, there is that certain impatience with the slow or ineffective working of the law. 

The law, it is often argued, is often bent or pushed aside, with the result that a considerable length of time elapses before a criminal can be punished -- or not punished at all. And so there is that particular section of citizens, in exasperation and despair at the absence of justice, who have no problems with the kind of death which comes to men like Nayan. 

There is for them the argument that he died deservingly, which is a point you cannot dismiss out of hand.

Whether he died in an actual shootout or was put to death in a manner repugnant to the law is immaterial for these citizens. Nayan murdered Rifat Sharif in all the brazenness of audacity. He deserved to die, the sooner the better.

That leads one to a wider issue. At the height of the war crimes trials not so long ago, many were the people, especially foreigners resident in Bangladesh as well as abroad, who wondered if applying the death penalty on the ageing collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army could not be replaced with imprisonment for life or even clemency. 

Their worries were misplaced. In the first place, these collaborators ought to have been tried and punished in the early years of this nation’s freedom.

In the second, there was the very legitimate point that their crimes were too obvious and too horrendous to be ignored, even if four decades had gone by since they committed those crimes. 

Had a socialist or communist revolution taken over Bangladesh in December 1971, all of them would be dispatched without pity. Had the ideals underpinning the War of Liberation been allowed full play and had the tragedy of August-November 1975 not come to pass, the collaborators would have walked the gallows or gone to prison long ago.

That brings us to our next point, which is that if the war crimes trials had not sentenced the leading war criminals to death, there would be the danger of their emerging free one day and causing havoc once again.

Despite the worries of our friends abroad, despite this clamour for the “rule of law” to be upheld in dealing with war criminals, the punishment imposed on them was well-deserved. If the Nazis and Japanese militarists could face summary justice and be marched to the gallows, the Bengali war criminals were luckier, for they were tried in open court. 

Besides, in a country where irony has been a factor in politics and where local enemies of the state were emboldened into rehabilitating themselves per courtesy of a military regime, it could well be that had they not been tried for their acts of collaboration, they might have at some point come back to freedom, to politics, to our intense regret. 

The moral question here is not that these active agents of the Yahya Khan military junta were tried and executed.

It is in the reminder of how they had escaped justice for so long and how they ended up wielding power in a country they had virulently opposed in their youth and middle age. 

In the end, the issue is one of whether or not justice is applied in dealing with criminals, indeed to the merchants of death. In the latter 1970s, hundreds of airmen were hanged and buried in secret graves, unbeknownst to their families.

It was a ruthless dictatorship that refused to give them the benefit of the law. 

In the early 1980s, 13 military officers were hanged on unproven charges of complicity in the murder of a military ruler. Major General MA Manzoor was murdered by an officer sent from Dhaka and not once did General Hussein Muhammad Ershad come forth with the truth. Major General Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers were murdered in crude and cruel circumstances. Justice in these instances of gross injustice remains elusive to this day.

There is the law, supposedly poised to deliver justice. And there is revenge, or call it wild justice. The first does not quite work in the way it ought to.

The second is abhorrent to all of us. Beyond and above all this, there is the reality of public perceptions of crime and of punishment of the criminal. 

Nayan’s death has cheered many. As he sowed, so he reaped. That is the small picture. The larger one circles the question of how many godfathers and patrons of crime breathe a huge sigh of relief when the criminals they train and send out to commit murder and mayhem are silenced before they can spill the beans. Nayan was not brought to court. His death has now given his godfathers a fresh lease of life.

Meanwhile, the law is in a state of enervation. It will not come back to health if politics continues to slide, if institutions begin to be wobbly. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.