The killing of a retired military officer, Major Sinha Rashed Khan, by Bangladesh police has finally forced security forces to confront their culture of extrajudicial executions. For years, authorities have dismissed allegations, or even justified such killings as a means of resolving crime, accepting patently false claims that the victims died during a gun fight, either in crossfire or because security forces opened fire in self-defense.
While Maj. Sinha’s killing has finally turned the heads of those in power, it’s clear the government is more interested in moving past the incident than addressing a pervasive problem within its security forces. More than 150 people have been killed so far by law enforcement officers this year alone, according to Bangladesh rights group Odhikar, yet there hasn’t been a single successful prosecution in any of these cases, let alone in the hundreds of killings that came before.
The police initially used their usual defense after killing Maj. Sinha. On July 31, after Sinha was shot dead at a checkpoint in Cox’s Bazar while returning from filming a documentary, police said they had fired in self-defense, that they had recovered recreational drugs from Sinha’s vehicle, and had arrested his assistants.
But following outrage both among the public and within the military over the killing of a soldier who was once part of the prime minister’s protection detail, authorities were forced to take some action. Twenty-one police officers have been suspended and nine more arrested, including a senior officer who had publicly defended such “crossfires” killings – the euphemism often used in Bangladesh for summary executions by security forces – by saying that the victims were all criminals. Instead of investigating the allegations, the government awarded him a medal.
The arrests after Maj. Sinha’s death should lead to independent investigations into allegations of other unlawful killings to hold perpetrators properly to account. That, however, seems unlikely. Although the heads of the army and the police are overseeing the investigation into Maj. Sinha’s death, both seem determined only to contain the damage, describing it as an isolated incident and blaming rights organizations for using the term “crossfire.”