A ‘gunfight’ too far

The circumstances surrounding the killing of a retired army major on July 31, the eve of Eid ul Azha in the country, are by now well-known, although there is no official version of events yet. The only witness remains reliably locked up, the police’s version has crumbled under scrutiny, and an inquiry committee formed in the aftermath has yet to submit its report. A consensus however emerged over the course of the week that could be said to most closely align with the contents of a leaked field report by the DGFI, which was supposed to have been secret. The fact that it was leaked barely a day after the incident would suggest, given the identity of the victim, that the leak to Sweden-based Netra News was orchestrated to foil the police’s plans of a cover up.

Police said the retired army officer, Sinha Rashed Khan, 36, was coming to Cox’s Bazar from Teknaf in his private vehicle with another person, Shahedul Islam Shifat, around 10:30pm that night. When police halted his vehicle and attempted a search, an altercation ensued. Police then opened fire as the army officer, who was dressed in combats, apparently brandished his pistol. The army officer was seriously injured and was taken to Cox’s Bazar Sadar Hospital where on-duty physicians declared him dead.

Cox’s Bazar police superintendent ABM Masud Hossain said residents in Shamlapur had contacted police, alleging that there were robbers in the vehicle. Police then tried to stop the vehicle at the check post. As the passenger of the vehicle endeavored to open fire on police, they retaliated in self-defence. The man (Sinha) was killed in the firing.

The SP also said two cases have already been filed in connection with the incident. Two people were arrested and the pistol was seized. Police later searched the vehicle and recovered 50 yaba pills, cannabis, and two bottles of foreign liquor, he said.

Clearly, the police’s version sought refuge in the tried-and-tested ‘gunfight’ script that they have used with impunity over many years now to justify extrajudicial killings. The number of such killings has gone up exponentially in the last 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.

‘Gimme some truth’

The DGFI report directly contradicts the statement offered by Cox’s Bazar police, which claimed Sinha was killed when he brought out a pistol from his pocket and was about to shoot at the police after his car was stopped at the Baharchhara check post. It should be mentioned at the point that Sinha had been making travel documentaries for a YouTube channel called "Just Go". He had been staying at Nilima Resort in Himchhari of Cox's Bazar along with Shifat and two other students of a private university for around a month to film a travel documentary.

On the fateful night, he was returning to Cox's Bazar from Teknaf along with Shifat in his car after a shoot around 9pm.

Citing eyewitnesses, the report by the military intelligence agency says Major Sinha never pulled out his (licensed) gun. Instead, the report claims he kept the gun in his car as instructed by the police and calmly got out of his car with his hands above his head, yet he was shot dead instantly by Inspector Liaqat Ali of Baharchhara Police Investigation Centre, an assertion that recurs throughout the report. It also accuses the police convoy of intentionally wasting 45 minutes before taking him to the hospital.

The DGFI’s leaked report may have provided some of the basis for the case filed by Sinha’s elder sister Sharmen Shahria Ferdush almost 5 days after the incident with Teknaf Senior Judicial Magistrate Court. But on some important points it tends to differ.

According to her statement, on the night Sinha was killed, it was around 9.25pm (the DGFI report said 9pm) that Inspector Liaqat Ali of Baharchhara Police Investigation Centre and Sub-inspector Nandadulal Raxit of Teknaf Police Station stopped Sinha's car at Shamlapur police checkpost on Marine Drive in Teknaf.

In that car were Sinha and Shahedul Islam Shifat. After Sinha revealed his identity to the policemen, the cops flung open the passenger door of the vehicle and dragged Shifat out. As Shifat also told them who they were, the two policemen became furious. At this, Sinha came out with hands up and yet again said he was a former major of Bangladesh Army.

"I have seen many majors like you. I'll now show you how the game is played," Inspector Liaqat yelled at Sinha. These admonitions find no mention in the DGFI report (which rather claims Liaquat shot Sinha without saying a word). Perhaps more importantly, it mentions that while continuing to abuse Sinha and Shifat, Liaqat made a phone call to Pradeep Kumar Shaha, officer-in-charge of Teknaf Police Station. At one point, the inspector is said to have told the OC on the phone, "Alright. I am finishing him."

He then proceeded to shoot Sinha, thrice, in the chest and neck, in a stunning turn of events.

In the case, which was filed after the family received assurances of justice from none other than Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, Sharmen alleged that it was a premeditated murder and inspector Liaqat shot her brother in cold blood after being instigated and instructed by Pradeep over the phone.

The case statement said Sinha fell to the ground in a pool of blood and when he attempted to stand up to flee for his life, accused Safanur Kabir and Constable Mostofa pinned him down on the ground again. Liaqat then fired one more bullet at Sinha to make sure he was dead. After a while, OC Pradeep is said to have appeared at the scene. He kicked Sinha's face and body to find out whether he was dead. Pradeep also tried to mutilate Sinha's face by rubbing his boots on it, the statement said. The accused policemen then drove away the eye-witnesses and locals by flaunting guns.

Sinha was brought to Cox's Bazar Sadar Hospital at 11:45pm (here it again aligns with the DGFI report) and the duty doctor declared him dead, the statement said.

The day the case was filed, OC Pradeep was withdrawn from duty as the officer-in-charge of Teknaf police station over the incident. That night, arrest warrants were issued for 7 of the 9 (two of the names belonged to no-one on duty that night) accused by the family in the case - including Pradeep, and Liaquat, who had been suspended earlier with 15 other officers of the Baharchhara police outpost. The next day, they were all in custody, and the court granted permission for RAB to take them into remand for seven days.

The face of impunity

Pradeep Kumar Das 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 for the so-called 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 a recent interview he told the media he would make Teknaf drug-free by December 16 this year. 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.

More rabid than RAB

The Rodrigo Duterte-style War on Drugs declared by the prime minister in May 2018 has led to two of the worst years on record, when it comes to extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. After 466 individuals ended up getting killed extrajudicially by the law enforcement agencies in 2018 - a three fold increase from 2017, and the highest on record - another 391 died under similar circumstances last year. The only other year in which these killings averaged more than one per day in records kept by Odhikar, an advocacy group, was in 2005. So far in 2020, the killing frenzy has not slowed down, with at least 204 people killed extrajudicially by law enforcement agencies across the country in the first six months of the year, according to another advocacy group, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK).

Of the victims, 59 were killed in crossfire with Rab, 92 were killed in crossfire with police while 12 with DB, one with joint forces, one with Coast Guard, 28 with BGB. Interestingly, although it is the advent of RAB as a paramilitary force under the BNP-Jamaat coalition government in 2004 that is most often associated with an exponential rise in extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh - to the point that ‘crossfire’ and ‘gunfight’ became fixtures of our national discourse - the numbers clearly reflect how the police have long since taken over as the principal perpetrators of such killings.

After commencing operations in April 2004, from 2006 to 2012, the number of extrajudicial killings by RAB did exceed the number by police in all years except one (2009). But since 2013, that pivotal year of political upheaval, the police have been the main culprits in this regard. Not only have they outscored RAB in each year since, of the 2081 extrajudicial killings that have taken place in the country till June 2020, a staggering 63 percent (1302) have been at the hands of police, including the Detective Branch.

Coinciding with a period in which the government has regularly been accused of using the police for suppressing opposition politics, and filling the ranks of the police by recruiting its supporters en masse into the force, it is certainly not a good look. Police leaders have been caught boasting of propping up the government during this period, feeding the widely held view that they operate with impunity. Can the killing of an ex-army officer finally force the kind of reckoning necessary for the police to try and transform itself into a force for good in the public’s perception?

Reckon not

Unfortunately, despite the arrests of Pradeep, Liaquat and the rest, the overall signs suggest otherwise. Once the dust settles, we may expect the police to return to their old ways - only being more careful when it comes to retired or active army officers perhaps. After all, as on countless occasions before, the police leadership has refused to take responsibility for the acts of individuals, even if they are bringing disrepute to the uniform.

In a joint statement issued through ISPR, the Army’s public relations wing, the army chief and the IGP said the forces will “not take the responsibility of the individuals involved in the incident”, and that it would not affect the long-standing good relations of the two forces.

“We all in the military are in grief as what has happened . . . the police force is shocked as well,” Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed told a media briefing along with Inspector General of Police Benzir Ahmed, after visiting the crime scene together.

Aziz said the incident appeared to be an “isolated event” and both the Army and police have confidence on a high-level committee constituted to investigate the case.

“The (individual) perpetrators of the incident will have to shoulder the incident,” he said, adding the police force as an institution should not be held responsible for “what happened here”.

Benzr echoed the Army chief''s terming of the incident as an “isolated” one, saying that Rashed'’s death would not create any rift between the two forces despite “attempts by some quarters to fish in troubled waters”.

The police have also apparently provided assurances to the army that such an incident would never happen again. Citizens immediately wondered if the guarantee had been secured by the army on behalf of all citizens, or only itself. It is the plight for us as citizens, that the answer is most likely the latter.

 

What about the team?

As you may expect, the ordeal has come as a shock to Shahedul Islam Sifat, Shipra Rani Debnath, and Tahsin Rifat Noor -- students of Stamford University’s film and media studies department -- who were the crew members of Major (retd) Sinha Md Rashed Khan. All of them were in Cox’s Bazar to shoot a travel documentary for Sinha’s YouTube channel named “Just Go.”

Instead of going to different places, exploring new horizons, and working their magic through the camera lens, Sifat and Shipra are now in jail after their team leader, Sinha, was killed by the police at the coastal district’s Marine Drive.

Sifat, who accompanied Sinha at the time of the incident, was arrested right after the killing of the former Army major and he was sent to jail in a case filed by police. Following this, Shipra and Rifat were held by police over allegations of storing liquor and marijuana in their rooms at Himchhari’s Nilima Resort.

However, the next day, Rifat was handed over to his relatives but Shipra was shown arrested and sent to jail in a narcotics case.

Their relatives and guardians say they never imagined that these three students would have to go through such a horrific ordeal.

Contacted, Sifat’s local guardian Sangsad TV’s Producer Masum Billah is currently in Cox’s Bazar and dealing with the case filed against Sifat. They have submitted a bail petition to the court for him [Sifat]. The court has fixed Sunday to hear their plea.

Meanwhile, Shipra’s mother, who lives in Mirpur upazila of Kushtia, told Dhaka Tribune that her daughter was very passionate about film making and thus got herself admitted in the Stamford University’s film and media studies department.

“She has no bad habits. We are just shocked by what happened with our kid,” she added while seeking anonymity. Shipra’s father is a retired BGB officer.

Moreover, teachers and students at Stamford University Bangladesh have demanded proper investigation into the heinous incident and sought justice. In the wake of the latest arrests, and it being clear that they are innocent, it is really just a waste of time and achieves nothing but trauma for these young individuals and their close ones. The charges against them should all be dropped as promptly as possible and they should be released unconditionally.

According to him, Sifat’s mother lives in the United Kingdom, and because of this, Sifat and his sister used to live with him.

He said that Sifat was a freelance photographer and was very passionate about both photography and videography.

Sifat used to work in different projects as part of his academic curriculum, he added.

  • Police superintendent ABM Masud Hossain
  • Cox’s Bazar
  • Gunfight
  • Killing
  • Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed
  • IGP, Benzir Ahmed
  • Major (retd) Sinha Rashed

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