Bangladesh questioned over extrajudicial killings

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh human rights activists have accused a government minister of supporting extrajudicial killings as a means to control rising crime and asked for an explanation.

Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan said on Saturday that “criminals should be killed in cross-fire”, as it was often not possible to try them under existing laws.

‘Cross-fire’ is widely used by Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies to justify extrajudicial killings. Hardly a day passes in Bangladesh without somebody being shot and killed in cross-fire, newspapers and officials say.

Home Minister Shahara Khatun also defended cross-fire deaths, saying police had the right to defend themselves when criminals open fire. But she said all such killings would be investigated.

Ain-o-Salish Kendra, a human rights watchdog, on Monday demanded a clarification from the government on whether the ministers’ views reflected its own position.

“It must be taken seriously because responsible people in the government made the remarks,” executive director Sultana Kamal told Reuters. “If the government fails to issue a clarification, we will assume that it has pulled back from a promise of ‘zero tolerance’ to unlawful deaths.”

Cross-fire incidents rapidly increased after the government of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia launched “Operation Clean Heart” during her second spell in power from 2001 to tackle crime.

But it drew widespread criticism as some of the cross-fire deaths were suspected to have been linked to political or personal rivalries.

After her election in December, 2008, current prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to end extrajudicial killings and restore the rule of law.

Odhikar, another Bangladeshi human rights group, accused law enforcement agencies of killing at least 97 people while in custody in the past nine months.

The English-language daily New Age on Monday said 1,142 people had been killed by the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in cross-fire shootings since it began operations in June 2004.

“One cannot go forward by taking steps bypassing the existing laws,” said A.S.M. Shahjahan, a former police chief.

Shahdin Malik, a Supreme Court lawyer, said: “Cross-fire cannot be a solution (in crime busting) but would rather turn Bangladesh into a barbaric state.”

Reporting by Azad Majumder; Editing by Anis Ahmed