Crossfire and the rule of law 

Mozammel H. Khan


My people and I have come to an understanding which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please and I am to do what I please. Fredrick The Great (1712-1786).


On February 13, 2005 I joined a several hundreds of my very sombre compatriots who braved a very chilly subzero temperature of Toronto to stage a silent protest at city�s Danforth-Victoria Park area to express solidarity with Mrs. Asma Kibria�s world wide appeal to our overseas community. The protest was very unique in many ways, not because of its unprecedented size, but the torment of distress was visible at every one�s face. The protest attracted the attention a number of TV channels whose correspondents were talking to cross sections of attendees. One of the TV reporters was talking to a lady, who probably was in her mid forties, standing by my side,  She was asked to explain the purpose of the silent protest, although scores of banners inscribing the demand to �Bring Kibria�s Killers to justice� were visible all over the street. The lady explained to the reporter, in perfect English, the reason of her coming to the protest, stressing her assertion that Mr. Kibria was �one of our finest politicians�, with her 12 years old son and the husband. Then came the very natural question from the reporter, �don�t you have the law to punish the killer of an opposition member of the parliament and a former minister�? The lady responded immediately, �yes, we have the law, what we are demanding is the rule of law�.


In the words of Justice (US supreme court) Felix Frankfurter, Fragile as reason is and limited as law is as the institutionalized medium of reason, that's all we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling�.  If one looks at the current happenings in Bangladesh, bombs, grenades and crossfire are the omni-present vocabularies. I could not find the word crossfire in any of the legal dictionaries. The Random House dictionary defines crossfire as �lines of gun fire from two or more positions or combatants crossing one another�. In English language, the victim of crossfire carries the connotation of an innocent bystander who got caught in the conflicts between two warring parties. Bangladesh is not in the midst of a declared or undeclared civil war and as such does not contain two warring parties. It left us with the fallacy of crossfire that requires firing from two combatant sides. The constitution of the Republic is in full effect, where in even if the President�s delivery of the ceremonial speech in the parliament is delayed by a day for whatever exigency situation, is considered by its treasury bench members as serious violation of the sacred document, which all of its citizens is bound by oath and allegiance to defend. The very sacred document clearly stipulates the fundamental right of its citizen by affirming in Article 32, �No person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty saves in accordance with law.   Article 35 (3) goes further when it reaffirms, �every person accused of a criminal offence shall have the right to a speedy and public trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal established by law�.  Our honourable law minister, who, ironically, has the distinct honour of wilfully and faithfully serving every despot who usurped the state power by unlawful means, is justifying the killing in crossfire without any specific reference to the law or ordinance that empowered the concerned law enforcing organ of the state to carry out these extra-judicial killings. Absence of capital punishment in many societies does not in any way reflect their leniency towards the perpetrators of a crime, rather to give the benefit of doubt to an irreversible phenomenon in case of a wrongful conviction. The acquittal of a number self-confessed killers of the founding father of our state by the court of law once again has proved that the �cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling�  has no room in the thesaurus of law.


Today�s world is a global village and the government, however it is constituted, of any sovereign state has no absolute sovereignty to kill its own people. Amnesty International is the most prominent watch dog body to monitor such gross violation of the rule of law, whose reports and concerns are very dear to our politicians when they are in the helpless side of the aisles. Its present chief, who happens to be an icon of Bangladesh origin, only visited Bangladesh on the other day to record, in absolute term her, vehement opposition to unabated killings in so-called crossfire. Also added in that choir of protest was the voice of the luminary Asma Janangir, a highly respected human right activist of the world. In the diplomatic arena, only on the other day the head of Delegation of the European Commission in Bangladesh, Ambassador Esko Kentrschynskyj termed the deaths in so-called crossfire as extra-judicial killings and said,those killed in 'crossfire' were denied their right to justice and their human rights, as they had not been tried. Such activities are contrary to good governance and rule of law�. In the domestic front, a large group of our eminent citizens, considered to be the conscience of the nation�s soul, have issued a strongly worded statement which mentioned among other things, �the constitution is being flagrantly violated and the judicial system of the country is virtually on 'the brink of a breakdown' due to such 'ferocious' and 'fascist' acts unleashed by the government. If such killings continue unabated, many in future will dare to defy the constitution and the judicial system�. And then came the news of the donors� meeting in Washington �at the behest of Europeans concerned over deteriorating governance, rising lawlessness and a fear of Islamist militants' uprising�.

In the backdrop of such wide-spread criticisms over the lack of governance and the absence of the rule of law, our honourable finance minister, who finds fault with everyone but himself, squarely blamed the opposition politicians and the nation�s news media for the harsh questions he had to face during his recent encounter with the European Commissioners. The honourable minister�s refutations were cheap shots and were not prudent and credible enough to score any points in the arguments, let alone impressing the European commissioners who did not have to be re-educated in the essence of the rule of law. In the societies governed by the rule law, any extra-judicial killing in the hand of a law enforcing authority is promptly investigated by the Special Investigation Unit and the reports of its findings, either indictment or acquittal, are public documents. Law enforcing agencies in those societies are only accountable to the rule of law, order of the Prime Minister or the President to arrest a suspected criminal has no place in its domain of authority. Equating the recurring phenomenon of bomb blasts and grenade attacks in Bangladesh and the subsequent failure of the law enforcing authority to bring the perpetrators to justice, with those of Spain, where the Basque separatist guerrilla war is in effect, and Ireland, where a never ending civil war is on, reflected the sheer ignorance on the part of the honourable minister. 

Although politicians in our land do not hold the exclusive right to hypocrisy, no where else it is probably so much blatantly obvious as in Bangladesh. Ironically, the party which has been ceaselessly exploiting the killing of Siraj Sikder in the hands of the law enforcing authority some thirty years ago and demanding an investigation only when it was in the opposition, is now approving the allegedly cold blooded murder of his comrades and terming them as death in crossfire. The custodians of the law do not have the option to take refuge in the ordinary citizens� believed perception. In the words of Justice Catherine Crier (of Texas), �The rule of law is not a popularity contest where the most likeable, most articulate, or even the most repentant violator wins, and a sworn oath to defend the constitution is not contingent upon the subject under discussion�. Let me conclude by quoting the Lord Chief Justice Coke said in the case of Proclamations (1610), "The King himself ought not to be subject to man, but subject to God and the law, because the law makes him King".

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is a Professor and the Head of Mechanical Engineering and Quality Engineering Departments and the Director of Continuing Education of Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Oakville, Ontario, Canada