Looking back at the coup that dared not speak its name
Three years ago about now Bangladesh experienced a military coup that sought to transform the country’s politics by force. Regular reader Tacit looks back at the regime installed by that coup in a series of posts. The first instalment is below, two more will follow.
It has been three years since the soldiers of the 9th Division burst into Bangabhaban and senior military officers, including then Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed and Maj Gen Masududdin Chowdhury forced President Iajuddin Ahmed to resign as head of the Caretaker Government. In these three years, we have discussed the features, intentions, and actions of the subsequent military-supported government many times. I would like to raise three points about what, I believe, are the most pressing aspects of that period.
The 2001-2006 BNP government formed RAB to curb crime. Failing to keep faith in police officers, the government drafted serving military officials and unleashed them upon us. Police personnel are trained to uphold the law. They know, at least in theory, that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. They know, when they take classes in our Code of Criminal Procedure, that our common law is founded upon the principle that it is better that an guilty individual go free than an innocent person be punished. For all the power they are given, they still have to go courts and answer in front of civilian magistrates. In short, and at minimum, they are not trained killers.
But military officers are trained killers. This is not to be taken as a condemnation; it is a simple statement of fact. We train them to lay down their lives and take the lives of other human beings if and Bangladesh is attacked. Unlike a police official, who is a creature of law, a military officer is a creature of force. He is trained and indoctrinated to use and understand force.
Thus, when the BNP government brought in military officials for civilian law enforcement, force quickly replaced law as the primary deterrent. RAB quickly turned into a killing-machine. Their usual operating procedure became to pick up listed criminals, torture them to make them reveal as much information as possible, and then kill them using the dreaded crossfire. When someone is in police custody, the police know that sooner or later, they will have to be produced in court. RAB was freed from this constraint.
The BNP government was not totally oblivious to the danger posed by RAB; they scrupulously sought to avoid using RAB for political reasons, figuring that there would be no harm is “criminals” were given this dehumanizing treatment. What they forgot was that the definition of criminals can change from time to time. For an elected government which brooks no dissent, political opposition may be a crime. To parties in the global war on terror, the slightest affiliation with certain organizations may be a crime. The definition of criminal changed on January 11, 2007. For the next two years, being a politician was a crime.
The two elements of our military establishment which interacted most with civilian pre-2007 were the RAB, and military intelligence organization, DGFI, which has long been used by the government of the day to spy on opposition parties. Both got busy after 1/11. The military government needed to stop politicians from questioning its legitimacy; it also needed politicians it could coerce to obtain political legitimacy, and if needed, an exit option. Politicians from both the Awami League and BNP were picked up and given the treatment. They were stripped of their rights and tortured the same way criminals had been tortured.
This torture has not been investigated. The people carrying it out have not been punished. Steps have not been taken to ensure that no one is tortured at the hand of government agencies. Sheikh Hasina may believe that she can ignore these problems, but these charges will not go away: the victims are too many, and the scars are too deep. The government must investigate the torture, and take suitable steps, so that private actors have no excuse to take action that is outside the scope of law.