Right from the night that it happened, the killing of Sinha Rashed Khan in Teknaf's Marine Drive, on the evening of Eid ul Azha in 2020, carried the sense of a dam about to break. Perhaps it was the sheer gall of the police to try and pass it off as yet another 'shootout' or 'gunfight'. Let's not forget that they did try it. The police's version of events that night sought refuge in the tried-and-tested 'gunfight' script that they had used with impunity over many years by then to justify extrajudicial killings.

The number of such killings had gone up exponentially in the previous two years, under the cover of an ill-advised 'war on drugs'. Here the problem was that it would prove a bit of a stretch to pass off the ex- army man, who had even served a stint in the prime minister's security detail as part of the Special Security Force before leaving the army on his own accord, as a criminal suspect, whether for dealing drugs or involvement in militancy. But they did try it.

The police had said that Sinha had aimed a gun at them when they stopped his car and inspector Liaquat Ali shot Sinha in self-defence, according to the first information report (FIR) of the case filed by sub-inspector Nandadulal Rakshit with Teknaf police station.

Sinha was rushed to the Cox's Bazar district hospital but died on the way. Police apparently recovered drugs and a gun in Sinha's car and then followed up with a drive in his hotel. The drive yielded more narcotics, the FIR added.

In this week's landmark verdict by a lower court in Teknaf, the judge ruled that none of the events took place: it was not a "shootout" as the cops maintained but a cold-blooded murder. Furthermore, it ruled that the murder was premeditated, for which it handed down the death sentence to suspended police officials Pradeep Kumar Das and Liaquat Ali for the killing. It was the first verdict against police officers that exposed and rejected their usual script for such incidents.

Pradeep, the then officer-in-charge of Teknaf Police Station, had plotted to kill the retired army official, and Liaquat, who was the in-charge of Baharchhara Investigation Centre, executed the plan by shooting Sinha at an APBn checkpost on July 31, 2020, it said.

Pradeep had been involved in all sorts of illegal activities in Teknaf, using legal firearms. Sinha was killed as he came to know about these illicit activities of the OC.

RAB's investigation

RAB's legal and media wing director Lt Col Ashik Billah revealed these at a press briefing held at the RAB media centre in Karwan Bazar in December 2020, after the investigating officer, senior assistant superintendent of police Khairul Islam, submitted the charge sheet of the Sinha Md Rashed Khan murder case to the Cox's Bazar chief metropolitan magistrate court.

Retired army major Sinha Md Rashed was killed in police fire on 31 July, 2020 at the Baharchhara outpost along the Cox's Bazar Marine Driver. The police filed three cases in this regard at the Teknaf and Ramu police stations, accusing Sinha Md Rashed Khan, Shahedul Islam Sifat and Shipra Debnath of possessing drugs and obstructing official duty. RAB submitted its final report to the court, asking for these charges to be dropped. The charge sheet submitted by RAB, was for the case filed at the Cox's Bazar court by Sinha's sister Sharmin Shariya, some 5 days after the incident.

Ashik Billah said RAB has investigated the case with neutrality and professionalism. It took the investigating official four months and 10 days to complete investigations. Fifteen persons have been accused. They included 9 dismissed police members of the Teknaf police station, 3 members of APBn, and 3 civilians. And 14 of the persons named in charge sheet are in jail. Among those named in the charge sheet, 12 have given depositions in court. Dismissed police officers Pradeep Kumar Das and Rubel Sharma did not make confessional statements. The investigating officer took statements of 83 witnesses. He also examined various evidence and digital content.

Ashik Billah told the media that the plan to carry out this killing was made over the course of July, Sinha Md Rashed Khan was a friendly person and had gone to Teknaf as part of starting up his YouTube channel. He soon struck up friendship with the local people. He came to know about the oppression and torture inflicted on the people by OC Pradeep. He also had evidence of Pradeep's dealing in yaba. The evidence he had collected was a threat to Pradeep. He went to the Teknaf police station to interview Pradeep Kumar Das, where Pradeep directly threatened him and told him to stay away from such activities. Sinha, however, continue with his efforts. Later Pradeep held a meeting at the police station with the sub-inspector Liaquat and three informants. Pradeep instructed them to finalised the plan to kill Sinha.

According to RAB, Sinha Md Rashed Khan was shot at 9:25pm on the night of 31 July. Upon hearing the news, Pradeep Kumar Das went to the spot to confirm that Sinha was dead. He was very careless about sending Sinha to hospital. Other accused persons who were at the spot, staged a drama to divert the killing to a different direction.

Concerning the role of police super Masud Hossain, the investigating officer said that that he had played a compromising role by not visiting the spot of the incident and not taking necessary action. He recommended that departmental action be taken in this regard.

Whether on his advice or not, over the next two months, as many 1,351 police personnel, including the superintendent of police, were transferred out of the Cox's Bazar district, in what some called the biggest ever reshuffle in the history of the police in Bangladesh.

Dying for a purpose

Sinha's killing also effectively drew the curtain on the wasteful War on Drugs pursued by the government, during which extrajudicial killings spiked alarmingly in Cox's Bazar. Between 2018, when the War on Drugs was announced, and August 2020, as many as 287 deaths in so-called gunfights/crossfires were reported in Cox's Bazar, according to Human Rights Forum Bangladesh (HRFB), a coalition of 20 human rights and development organizations.

Citing media reports, it stated that 161 among the 287 victims were killed by Teknaf police alone. During the length of Pradeep's reign at the helm of Teknaf police station, 110 people were subjected to such extrajudicial killings, the coalition found. It would be nearly five months, from the day of Sinha's death, till the next such incident was reported in Cox's Bazar. In the whole of Bangladesh, in the month following Sinha's death, there would be only one such shootout, in Sylhet. Prior to that, according to ASK, at least 207 people were killed in 182 "gunfights" with police, RAB and other law enforcement agencies between January and July of 2020.

Although they did pick up again over the course of 2021, since the US sanctions on RAB and seven serving and former officials of the unit including present IGP Benzir Ahmed on December 10 last year, no "gunfights" have taken place in the country between law enforcers and alleged criminals.

This week's landmark verdict may add to the momentum against such policing misdeeds. Apart from Pradeep and Liaquat, Cox's Bazar District and Sessions Judge Mohammed Ismail sentenced six others, including three policemen, to life in the murder case. All the convicts were fined Tk 50,000 each.

Seven other police officers from the original 15 who were indicted, were acquitted as the charges against them could not be proven in court.

All the accused and Sinha's elder sister Sharmin Shahria Ferdush, who filed the case, were present at the packed courtroom on January 31. While reading out the summary of the 300-page judgment, the judge said the court tried to find out answers of some questions, including whether the murder was planned, why police shot Sinha, if there was any necessity to open fire and whether the fatal incident could have been avoided.

The judge then said Liaquat opened fire to kill Sinha, which left him injured. He then deliberately wasted time in sending the injured to the hospital and ensured his quick death. He also destroyed evidence and filed a case against Sinha later.

Pradeep ordered Liaquat to open fire, kicked Sinha in the chest, choked him, and delayed sending him to hospital. He also lodged false cases against Sinha and his companion Shifat to avoid the murder charges and destroyed evidence, the judge said.

"Despite knowing that the order [to shoot Sinha] was illegal, he [Liaquat] followed the senior's [Pradeep] order after being a part of the conspiracy to kill Sinha," said the judge.

Police Sub-Inspector Nandadulal Rakshit, constables Sagar Deb and Rubel Sharma, and informants Nurul Amin, Nezam Uddin and Ayaz Uddin were sentenced to life-term imprisonment.

The court acquitted SI Md Shahjahan, Assistant Sub-Inspector Liton Mia, constable Kamal Hossain Azan, and Abdullah Al Mamun, Safanur Karim, Md Rajib and Md Abdullah Al Mahmud.

Relying on appeal?

Talking to reporters, Public Prosecutor Faridul Alam said, "The accused had committed different offences and filed false narcotics cases. But they were angry after learning that Sinha made videos on their irregularities. The accused had threatened Sinha so that he left Cox's Bazar but he did not care about the threats. Later, the accused, in collusion with each other, plotted the murder"

He also said, "We are partly satisfied with the verdict. We will go to the higher court challenging the acquittals."

A huge number of people had gathered in front of the court demanding capital punishment to Pradeep and Liaquat. When the police were taking Pradeep back to the prison van following the verdict pronouncement, locals hurled abuses at him. At one point, some stones were thrown at the van.

In her immediate reaction to the closely-watched verdict, Sinha's elder sister Sharmin Shahria Ferdous said the family's expectations were not fully met as some of those involved in the incident were let off the hook.

"We will be satisfied on the day the sentence is carried out," said Sharmin, the plaintiff in the case. "We have been demanding the maximum punishment for OC Pradeep and Liaquat from the very beginning. That expectation has been fulfilled by today's verdict."

"However, the seven people who were completely acquitted could have been given some form of punishment because they were also involved in the incident."

Asked if there were any plans to appeal against the acquittals of the seven, she said a decision will be taken after consulting their lawyers. The plaintiff's lawyer, Md Mohiuddin Khan, said he was both satisfied and had some issues with the verdict "because those who committed the murder received punishment. But some who were also guilty were acquitted. We are planning to appeal to the High Court in this connection."

Advocate Faridul Alam, public prosecutor of Cox's Bazar District and Sessions Judge's Court, said Sinha was killed in a pre-planned assassination by Pradeep and Liaquat. "We are not fully satisfied with the verdict. We will take action after receiving the full copy of the verdict."

Pradeep's lawyer Md Mohiuddin Khan said they would appeal against the verdict as their expectation had not been met. Pradeep also had the prominent activist and general secretary of the Hindu, Buddha, Christian Oikya Parishad Advocate Rana Dasgupta fighjting his corner.

On appeal, it remains to be seen whether the High Court upholds the death sentence in light of some of the gaps in the evidence. For example, the lack of scrutiny of the digital devices to assess what exactly Sinha had recorded that OC Pradeep considered so damaging, and the seeming lack of evidence that there had been a meeting between Pradeep and Sinha at the police station. In an interview after the verdict, Sifat has said they only saw Pradeep once during their stay in Cox's Bazar prior to the fateful night. These were not rigorously pursued by RAB during their investigation.

You have to wonder whether these gaps in the evidence were deliberately left wanting, in order to suit an appeal at the High Court later.

Sins of OC Pradeep

Pradeep Kumar is a controversial policeman who in his 25-year-career in the police force, almost all of it spent in different locations around Chittagong, has plumbed the depths as well as scaled the heights. He has been suspended or withdrawn on more than a few occasions, yet each time he has returned and has gone on to lead a number of important police stations in Chittagong as OC. Last year, he was decorated by the prime minister herself with the prestigious Bangladesh Police Medal, apparently for the courage he showed during operations.

He really started coming into the limelight since being posted as Teknaf OC in October 2018, some five months into the so-called 'War on Drugs' - as vital a post as any given the route through which synthetic drug Yaba enters Bangladesh. Pradeep became widely known for his apparent bravado and outspoken media briefings he gave about eradicating drugs from Teknaf. In one of his last interviews with the media before the Sinha killing, he said he would make Teknaf drug-free in another six months. He threatened the drug peddlers with raids, setting fire to their houses and the vehicles they use and so on. In an atmosphere defined by panicked frenzy over the effects of drugs on the country's youth, this became the kind of attitude that made you a decorated officer. It was bound to end badly.

According to the chargesheet, after OC Pradeep joined the Teknaf police station in October 2018, more than a hundred people were killed in gunfights under his leadership and direction. His method was to arrest the accused or if some targeted person was arrested, he would threaten to frame them in a drugs case unless they paid him extortion money.

In most cases, large sums of money were collected from the victim's family on the condition that the victim would otherwise be put in a 'crossfire'. If the amount of money received was not as expected or as per the demand, the victim or the relatives of the accused would be made the accused in the case.

Women, old people, teenagers - he spared no one. According to the investigation, women were even sexually harassed and a case has been filed in this regard.

Under the pretext of eradicating drugs and pretending to be a staunch supporter of the government, he is known to have established a sanctuary of crime and a crime-ridden 'Ram Raj' (empire) for himself. The Anti-Corruption Commission in August 2021 filed a case against Pradeep and his wife, bringing allegations of illegally acquiring assets worth Tk3.95 crore, concealing asset information, and money laundering against them. His wife has been absconding since then.

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