South Asia

Due Process and Bangladesh’s Counter-Terrorism Measures

The government’s apparent success in recent months in killing and detaining many alleged Islamic militants increasingly comes at the cost of the rule of law and due process.

Security personnel block a road near the site of a gunbattle with militants on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Security personnel block a road near the site of a gunbattle with militants on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

On August 8, a Bangladesh news website published an article claiming that two militants – Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, allegedly ISIS’s Bangladesh coordinator, and sacked army major Syed Ziaul Haq, said to be behind a series of targeted killings – were both in state custody.

This claim, which according to the article was based on conversations with ‘senior law enforcement officers’, was officially denied.

Three weeks later on August 27, the police stated that Chowdhury had been killed, along with two other militants, following a raid on a suspected militant hideout in Narayanganj where he was living.

This was without doubt a significant counter terrorism development.

Chowdhury was supposed to have been the alleged mastermind of the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery where ISIS inspired militants had killed 20 guests.

The militant attack on the restaurant, which came in the wake of over 25 targeted killings of ‘atheist’ bloggers, LGBT activists and religious minority community priests, galvanised the government to take concerted action to end the Islamic militancy, which it had previously blamed on the opposition parties.

In the reporting that followed Chowdhury’s death, Purboposhchimbd’s article (removed from its website in late September) was ignored.

Yet, if the article was true, it would have meant that Chowdhury had been kept secretly in state detention before being killed, in a scenario rather different from the story told by the police.

A question of credibility

In Bangladesh, severe caution must be taken before giving credibility to a news report based on anonymous law enforcement or intelligence officers, particularly in the context of reporting on militancy.

People within these state agencies often use the media to spin particular narratives and provide false information to reporters. Some journalists and papers in Bangladesh – knowingly or unknowingly – play along.

However, there are reasons why this particular story may well be more reliable than many others.

First, it had the byline of one of Purboposhchimbd’s crime correspondents, Mustafizur Rahman Sumon. In Bangladesh, whilst not all ‘exclusive’ stories lacking bylines are false, most fake stories have no bylines.

Second, the reporter stands firmly by the claim in the article. “I stand by the story,” Sumon told me. “It was based on interviews with multiple sources from different intelligence and law enforcement agencies,” he said.

Third, on August 6, another pro-government newspaper Ittefaq – this time with no byline – published an article titled, ‘Are Zia and Tamim arrested?’ claiming that the men were in state custody. It read: “Are the masterminds Tamim and Zia in the country? Well, police say that they are. From different places we have information that the law enforcement authorities undertook an operation on July 12 at Niketon in Gulshan where Major Zia was arrested, but no one has confirmed it so far.”

Fourth, two crime reporters working at different media outlets also confirmed that their law enforcement contacts had told them in mid-August that Chowdhury was in detention. “I had read Mustafiz’s article and so had checked with my law enforcement sources,” one of these reporters said speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He confirmed to me that both Chowdhury and Zia had been detained”.

And finally, secret detentions are not uncommon in Bangladesh – with many ending in deaths. This year alone, 15 families allege that a relative was picked up by law enforcement authorities, secretly detained and killed whilst in state custody, while a further 19 families claim that their family members remain disappeared. Moreover, international attention has recently focused on two Holey Bakery guests who were held secretly for a month before being ‘shown arrested’ and the sons of three senior opposition figures remain in secret detention since being picked up in August.

In this context, is not difficult to imagine that Chowdhury and Haq could well have been picked up and kept in custody, unknown to the public and the courts.

There, however, remains some uncertainty. Unlike in most disappearance cases, no person had reported that the men were picked up by law enforcement authorities.

The lack of such a report should not be surprising. Whilst in most cases of disappearances, there are witnesses who saw the person being picked up by law enforcement officials and a family who is able to report it, the situation is different when it involves militants who have already separated themselves from their families and are living secretive lives, perhaps only communicating and living with other like-minded individuals.

In such situations – as would have been with the case of Chowdhury and Haq – there are no witnesses who can say that these particular men were picked up and no family to report the incident.

An eye-witness to detention

The two men are, however, not the only alleged militants who are said to have been secretly detained.

Nurul Islam Marjan has been missing from his family home for around seven months and is alleged by the police to have been another mastermind of the Holey Bakery attack.

At a police press conference on August 12, the head of the counter terrorism unit claimed that Marjan took the Holey Bakery attackers to the Gulshan area on the night of the attack and received the photographs taken by the militants that night.

The police say that they are still trying to arrest him.

However, Sweden-based journalist Tasneem Khalil, who specialises in counter-terrorism in Bangladesh, says that he has heard from two sources – “one a highly placed leader of the Awami League, and another, a mid-level law enforcement officer” – that Marjan has been detained and kept in the “counter terrorism unit custody”.

More significantly, another person with direct access to the detective branch office of the police – which is where the counter terrorism unit is based – has told this correspondent that he had seen Marjan in a cell in one of the buildings.

Marjan was “handcuffed, on the floor and looked as though he had been tortured,” this man said, who wished to keep his anonymity fearing repercussions. “I recognized the man to be Marjan because I had seen his picture in the newspaper.”

This sighting, which took place after the police press conference, corresponded with a period when a number of newspapers published detailed information about Marjan and his role in the Holey Bakery attack. Perhaps this is no coincidence; where else might the police have obtained this detailed information other than from the man himself?

A further five?

Khalil also raises questions about five alleged Ansarullah Bangla Team operatives who the police say were involved in a number of killings of so-called atheist bloggers and publishers.

On May 18, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police released pictures of six men – ‘Sharif’, ‘Selim’, ‘Sifat’, ‘Shihab’, ‘Raju’ and ‘Sazzad’ – and announced an award totaling BDT 1.8 million for information leading to their capture.

A month later, on June 15, the police said that they had arrested Shihab in Dhaka for his alleged involvement in the attack on publisher Ahmedul Rashid Tutul in October 2015.

On June 19, the police claimed that Sharif (real name Mukul Rana), who was alleged to have assisted in the murder in February 2015 of American-Bangladeshi writer Avijit Roy, was killed when shot as he tried to escape on a motorcycle during the course of a police raid.

And the police then said that on August 23 they arrested Moinul Hasan Shamim (also known as Sifat), and Abdus Sabur (Raju) on September 4, both of whom are said to be responsible for the murder of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan.  Police claim that they are still hunting for Selim and Sazzad.

However, according to Khalil, five of the men were picked up by law enforcement authorities much earlier in the year.

Khalil says that in late May a message was posted concerning these six men on Dawahilallah, an Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent affiliated online forum, which stated that, “These brothers have been missing from earlier, the Taghut [evil] forces picked them up from their homes over a period of time. These brothers have been missing for a long time. And the Taghut force is now staging a fabricated drama.”

Khalil then sought to corroborate this information with his contacts in Bangladesh. “My sources inside the government confirmed that they were indeed in secret detention at a Task Force Intelligence facility near Uttara since February,” he said.

His information dovetails with the claim made by the family of Sharif, who the police say was killed in the gunfight on June 19.

His family says that Sharif was already on that date in state custody, since he had been picked up on February 23 by officers from the detective branch of the police.

The story was first reported on February 24 by the Bangladesh Protidin (referring to Sharif as Hadi, one of his other aliases), just  days after the alleged pick up, and subsequently reported in many newspapers after he was killed..

Does due process matter?

Since July 1, the police say that they have killed 33 militant operatives in various operations and gunfights (including 11 militants killed today, Saturday).

Many people in Bangladesh will remain unconcerned about how these killings took place or in general how the state deals with militant suspects.

The string of targeted killings that started in February 2015 and the Holey attack in July this year has been so shocking to many, that they would give the state a blank check as long as it stopped the Islamist militancy. Ignoring due process requirements speeds up the process of halting the militant attacks – and creates fear amongst militants or those willing to be recruited, they say.

There are however reasons to be very concerned.

To start with, alleged secret detentions and unlawful killings are wrong in principle. Doing so is against the law, they are serious crimes and they tend to blur the distinction between militants and state law enforcement officers. Since it is wrong for militants to unlawfully hold hostage and kill citizens, it is equally wrong for state employees to do so – even when they think the people are serious criminals.

If state employees/law enforcement officers think that detained men should be detained or executed, then they should let the court make that decision on the basis of evidence. Law enforcement officers – whether with or without political sanction – should not make the decision themselves, which would have the effect of reducing themselves down to the moral level of militants.

“We have forgotten law. We have stamped out law by taking high-handed measures,” said senior Bangladesh lawyer Shahdeen Malik, one of the few people in Bangladesh still willing to speak critically about the government’s counter terrorism measures.

“No circumstance can be taken as an excuse to take away people’s fundamental rights … Applying our short-sighted thinking, we are throwing the constitution into the dustbin.”

In addition to this, using unorthodox and illegal methods could well backfire – creating obstacles in defeating the militancy.

This is because the known use of these unlawful methods can scare citizens from approaching the police with information about militants, worried about how the law enforcement authorities will respond – particularly if the matter relates to a relative or friend.

And whilst such unorthodox methods might have the effect of deterring some from taking part in militancy, they also risk providing to the militants a further sense of injustice and more rationales for what they are doing, which can be used by them and their supporters to recruit and continue their militancy.

This article has been updated to include the 11 militants killed on Saturday.