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Dhaka Tribune and a Dehumanising Assault on the Rohingyas
Unmasking the Role and Conduct of Law Enforcement in the Rohingya Crisis
Why does the Dhaka Tribune publish such articles? Lacking context and with a provocative title like "Rohingya camps breeding ground for criminals", they must be aware of its potential reach? This kind of content can easily fuel xenophobia in Bangladesh, India, and further afield.
The power of words cannot be understated, especially when they come from the mouths of those in positions of authority. Former Cox's Bazar senior district and sessions judge Mohammad Ismail's remarks about the Rohingya refugee camps are not just shocking but deeply irresponsible. At a time when the world's empathy should be directed towards the Rohingya, Ismail's comments are not just in poor taste, they risk deepening their plight. But the missing context is very interesting here, and that is what I want to bring to your attention.
First, allow me to briefly share the remarks made by our judge during his farewell event . Labelling the Rohingya camps as a "breeding ground for criminals" is not only a grave misrepresentation but a gross generalisation. To label an entire community, especially one that has faced immense persecution and violence, based on the actions of a few, is not just ethically wrong, it is an intellectual failure. How can one, especially a judge — a beacon of impartiality — pass such overarching judgment?
Additionally, Judge Ismail’s reference to the camps as "factories for criminals" reeks of dehumanisation. The Rohingyas are not mere statistics in a criminal database but are individuals with unique stories and a dire need for a safe haven. Most of them are innocent civilians — including children, women, and the elderly — who have endured unimaginable suffering in Myanmar. To use such inflammatory language minimises their individual struggles and paints their shared identity with an indiscriminate and unjust brush. The gravest concern is that these remarks, made by a retiring judge about whom the reader is told NOTHING, will have repercussions. They risk reinforcing biases, guiding policy decisions, and negatively shaping public perception.
Except there are a few problems with our judge’s analysis:
When the retired senior district and sessions judge chose to paint the Rohingya refugee camps with the broad brush of criminality, he conveniently sidestepped a crucial aspect of the equation. Before any fingers are pointed at the refugees, it is vital to remember the turmoil and rampant problems that existed within the police force of Cox's Bazar itself.
While Rohingya refugees were grappling with traumas of forced migration and living in unfamiliar lands, the police force, which was supposed to be a beacon of security and justice, was undergoing a seismic shift. Over 1,340 police personnel, ranging from officers-in-charge to constables, were transferred in a sweeping change following the shooting of former major Sinha Md Rashed Khan at a checkpoint. A staggering number that reveals deep-rooted issues within the force, so much so that Deputy Inspector General of Police in Chattogram, Anwar Hossain, stated that such an overhaul was a "new model of transfer" in the police department. The justification offered by the authorities for such a large-scale transfer is murky at best. The question remains: Was this action merely a band-aid solution to a festering wound?
The Armed Police Battalion (APBn)
Yet, as concerning as the police transfers were, one cannot overlook the damning revelations about the APBn's conduct in the Rohingya refugee camps. Allegations of extortion, arbitrary arrests, and harassment have marred their reputation. Since APBn took over camp security in 2020, the situation for the Rohingya has reportedly deteriorated. Accusations hint at the disturbing possibility of collusion between APBn officers and armed gangs in the camp. Please read that sentence again. Yes it is alleged that. the APBn collude with gangs. The very forces assigned to protect Rohingya are implicated in their suffering.
In the heart-wrenching accounts documented by Human Rights Watch, the Rohingya refugees narrate their harrowing experiences under the APBn's oversight. Refugees were arrested on fabricated charges, framed with illicit drugs, and in some instances, subjected to physical abuse. The allegations point to a calculated system of extortion where those who cannot pay often face the direst consequences. To put it bluntly, it's as if they're being punished for seeking refuge.
A few days ago, Fortify Rights released a damning report. The alleged actions of APBn contravene several global covenants and conventions, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture (CAT). Such violations amplify the magnitude of the situation on an international scale, putting Bangladesh under the global scanner.
The report also makes clear APBn's disregard for Bangladesh's own statutes. Allegations against APBn indicate potential breaches of national laws like the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act of 2013 and the Anti-Corruption Commission Act of 2004. This paints a grim picture where the very guardians of the law—the police force—are accused of sidestepping the legal safeguards designed to protect people!
Rapid Actional Battalion (RAB) and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI)
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) have recently come into the spotlight for their alleged covert operations against the Rohingya refugees. Actually, there is no spotlight whatsoever. Bangladesh media does not talk about it! Nevertheless, in November 2022, under the guise of a narcotics bust, the RAB launched a raid in the "No Man's Land" community at the Tombru border post between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The official account of the raid by the Bangladesh government portrayed it as an anti-narcotics operation that escalated into a gunfight. However, leaked documents from Myanmar’s junta suggest a deeper strategic motive, indicating a collaboration between Myanmar and Bangladesh armed forces against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group. Subsequently, in January 2023, the situation intensified when the entire settlement at No Man's Land was razed in an attack, killing several and displacing the entire settlement of 4500. Witnesses and community spokespeople alleged coordination between RAB and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) in this assault. The events raise serious concerns about the roles of RAB and DGFI in the orchestrated displacement of the Rohingya refugee community from the sensitive border area.
Last but not least, we cannot turn a blind eye to the unsettling figures pertaining to extrajudicial killings of the Rohingya. Amnesty International cited local human rights organisation Odhikar in revealing that over 100 Rohingya refugees fell victim to alleged extrajudicial executions from August 2017 to July 2020.
Given the circumstances, IT IS outright absurd, to evaluate the Rohingyas' alleged role in Cox's Bazar's rising crime rate without delving deeply into the conduct of the very forces vested with maintaining law and order. We must rigorously question the credibility, competence, and ethical standards of the forces entrusted with justice. The alarming accusations against the APBn, the need for sweeping changes in police personnel in Cox's Bazar, the destruction of No Man’s Land and the extrajudicial killings of Rohingya cannot be sidelined or brushed under the rug.
Given this backdrop, it becomes even more apparent that our judge knows precisely what he's doing. The timing of his remarks, especially during the election season, can’t be dismissed as mere coincidence. Elections typically magnify every statement and action, imbuing them with a heightened resonance and significance. The judge's selective memory suggests political manoeuvring where certain injustices are strategically ignored. Predictably, in this pivotal election phase, our judge has to echo the prevailing narratives on the Rohingyas, as promoted by government officials, ex-military generals, and state-endorsed media and journalists.
Yet, these unsavoury comments only scratch the surface of Judge Ismail's professional conduct.
Judge Mohammad Ismail of Cox’s Bazar was found guilty of judicial misconduct this year. He repeatedly granted bail to members of the ruling government party without the proper authority. Over three years, Ismail violated standard procedures, drawing the critical attention of High Court bench judges. Justices Md Habibul Gani and Ahmed Sohel criticised Ismail, questioning whether his primary allegiance was to the government or to the principles of justice. This behaviour not only casts a shadow on his controversial remarks about the Rohingya but also questions the very integrity of the judicial system he was a part of in Cox’s Bazar.
It's worrying to see publications like the Dhaka Tribune resort to sensational headlines and amplify xenophobic remarks without adequate context. While it's “important” to report on the words of this discredited judge, especially from “significant” events like his farewell, context is crucial. Without it, such articles can perpetuate biases and endanger the safety and perception of an already marginalised community.