A shocking audio clip depicting final moments of Ward Councillor Ekramul Haque has gone viral. It has the heart-wrenching cry of a family that got to hear over phone the whizzing of bullets as the thrice-elected public representative's life was cut short in a so-called 'gunfight' on May 26. It jolted the whole nation triggering public outcry against injustices being meted out to people in the name of anti-narcotic drive. But to our utter surprise there has been no respite to such custodial deaths yet after the revelation of an audio that in many respects is self-explanatory and comes as a testimony of public perception that extrajudicial killings are taking place. As this piece goes to press the latest count shows some 140 lives lost in 'gunfights' since government embarked upon a 'war on drugs' in the beginning of the month. May has been the bloodiest of months in recent political history of Bangladesh when almost every nights law enforcers took suspects under their custodies to 'different drives' and returned 'clinically' safe except losing the arrestees in 'line of fires'. As the night clouds hung heavy in the Muslims' holy month of Ramadan with the sighs of 140 families seeking justice, government has very rightly commissioned a magisterial probe into the death of Ekramul taken place in shady circumstances.

If we have to go by the home minister's account in each cases of custodial deaths a magistrate does carry out a probe. And again we've got our road minister to remind us that "one or two mistakes may occur' when 'big drive' like the 'war on drugs' does take place. Now question comes into mind what's the process of public getting to know that which the cases were where 'mistakes' actually did happen. The magistrates would definitely identify those cases where people were made to die in mistakenly held 'gunfights' - but how people will get to know about that that's remain a big concern. Meting out justice is just one part of it but it is equally important to ensure that people get to know that justice has been delivered and perpetuators are awarded with due punishment.

Whether or not Ekramul or for that matter any other of the 'gunfight' victims were drug peddlers is completely immaterial here. Even if someone is now found out to be a big time drug dealer it does no way justify his/her death in 'gunfight' while being held under the safe custody of law enforcers. Everyone should have a fair chance of facing trial in the court of law. Listing of 'drug dealers/peddlers/godfathers' by intelligence agencies or law enforcers is not an exhaustive exercise. There is no guarantee that such 'listing' of drug dealers would be foolproof and there always remain a possibility of certain error margin. Basing on such 'lists' if highhanded measures are taken against any perceived drug dealers and if later it is found to be not appropriate - what course of remedies would be left out, nothing. A life is the most precious thing and once a life taken it can't be given back.

Before we further pursue the 'gunfight' doctrine we need to revisit circumstances surrounding the so called 'Operation Clean Heart' after the turn of the last century and current 'war on drugs' - these all appear to be whirlwind efforts to clean in one go all the 'evils' that we swept under the carpet and overlooked for years. As many as 57 people died in custody and hundreds were injured by torture during the controversial criminal hunt - Operation Clean Heart in 2003. The most disturbing account of then joint force was that people caught during the drive died of heart ailments. The then BNP-Jamaat-led four-party government even passed a law indemnifying all those who carried out the countrywide operation between October 16, 2002, and January 9, 2003 from prosecution. But lest we forget that every death counts. Years later Bangladesh's judiciary scrapped that illegal indemnity law in 2015. The High Court in its verdict said custodial torture is a naked violation of human dignity which destroys, to a very large extent, the individual personality. "It is a calculated assault on human dignity. Whenever human dignity is wounded, civilisation takes a retrograde step. The flag of humanity must on each such occasion fly half-mast," said High Court. Declaring the Joint Drive Indemnity Act, 2003 illegal, void abinitio (dead from the birth) and unconstitutional, the court ruled that any family members of the victims of the operation can file cases with the lower court against those responsible for torture and custodial death of their relatives.

Today as the death toll from such 'custodial deaths' or 'gunfights' well surpassed the 2003 level, family members of the victims of the extrajudicial killings are at liberty to take lawful recourse. There is no indemnity act in force. But question remains about victims' families' getting an enabling environment where they're not intimidated, where they can feel free to take recourse in the court of law. The role of civil society, intelligentsia and different liberal forces within the society is central here. If these forces don't come forward in support of the victims and their families, "calculated assault on human dignity" would never end. We'll see recurrence of such assaults on one pretext or other - at times in the name of curbing crimes, at times in the name of fighting terrors and at times in the name of waging war against drugs.

Time has come for country's right-conscious forces to raise voice against the state's modus operandi of fighting drugs. When there has been strong public perception of drug dealers having direct blessings from a section of politicians and law enforcers, the fight must begin at 'home' first. Government and its agencies should have gone for political high-ups and their cohorts in law enforcing agencies first to show that they mean business. Such a move would have helped government earn the public trust in its 'war on drugs'. But that trust-building move is nowhere to be visible now.

For the sake of justice, the least the state can do now is pursue a rigorous probe into each and every death caused by the so called 'gunfights' and make the findings public. It has to be seen that justice is delivered. Whoevers shall be found guilty of any deliberate 'murders' needed to be punished accordingly as per the law of the land. The families of the victims should be compensated - not only monetarily - but in every possible way. There is example of enacting Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act in the Philippines in 2013. Through this law, the Philippines acknowledges its moral and legal obligation to recognize and/or provide reparation to said victims and/or their families for the deaths, injuries, sufferings, deprivations and damages they suffered under the Marcos regime covering the period from September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986.

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor, United News of Bangladesh

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