RAB personnel in Tongi

Published in The Independent, 29 May 2010

The recent controversy surrounding the Crossfire exhibition at Drik Gallery in Dhanmondi has finally ended, with the closure of the exhibition last week.  Crossfire was intended to raise awareness about the lack of accountability of the Rapid Action Battalion, the anti-crime and anti-terror unit of the police force established in 2004.  The forcible week-long closure of Crossfire by police acting on government orders further ignited a general resentment towards RAB’s operations and the public’s right to debate it.  I met with Crossfire photographer and Drik’s Managing Director Shahidul Alam as well as high-ranking RAB officials to discuss the concept of “crossfire” and extrajudicial killings. Unsurprisingly, their views on the subject differ dramatically.

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was established to stop the spread of crime and terrorism. No expense is spared this elite police force, whose members receive specialist training from nations such as Australia, the UK and the USA. Unlike the regular police force, RAB personnel are generally issued with uzis and rocket propelled grenade launchers, amongst other items.  Posters of various weapons and mugshots of terrorists cover the hallways and offices in RAB’s headquarters in Uttara.  A poster in Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan’s office has the following description next to a photograph of a pistol, “In a class of its own: silent, compact and accurate.”  RAB is credited with having seized thousands of illegal arms and ammunitions, and it has made several notable arrests, including that of Mufti Hannan, who attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2005.  Commander Sohail, who is the director of the legal and media wing, said: “Over the last five years there has been a lot of good coverage in the media about our actions and operations.”

However, those who die in RAB custody are almost always officially recorded as having been killed in crossfire or a shoot-out.  So widespread is the level of suspicion surrounding such repetitious circumstances that national newspapers report the deaths through “crossfire” or a “shoot-out” in inverted commas.  Amnesty International regards these terms as a euphemism for extrajudicial executions. I asked Commander Sohail whether it bothers him that inverted commas are used.  He said, “People can write whatever they feel – there is full freedom.  Why should it bother me?” But when I pressed him further by emphasising that the inverted commas indicates disbelief, Commander Sohail sighed deeply and changed the subject.

When the Awami League came to power in 2008, it did so on a pledge to “stop extrajudicial killings, bring the perpetrators to justice, and establish the rule of law and human rights.”  Unfortunately, however, the “crossfire” killings continued, but Home Minister Sahara Khatun denied this was the case.  Her declaration that “[T]here is no crossfire in the country. It never happened,” forms the caption of one of Shahidul’s haunting images.  Commander Sohail expressed a similar sentiment to that of the home minister.  He said, “In 2009 there were 110 encounters involving RAB, which resulted in the deaths of 38 terrorists.  The fact that not all 110 died indicates that it is not our intention to kill.  And there was not a single case when RAB opened fire first.  We try to neutralise the criminals rather than shooting them, but the criminals are desperate.  Whenever we use a gun, it is for the security of the citizen and we use it within the legal framework.” Commander Sohail added, “Last year we lost four officers and around 375 were injured – many by bullets.  RAB suffers less casualties than the criminals because we are well trained. The criminals are not.” Commander Sohail also stressed that human rights are respected by RAB personnel. He said, “Each and every RAB member is trained on human rights issues and we try to uphold those principles during each and every moment.”

Crossfire depicts sites where someone killed by RAB was reportedly found. Shahidul explains his seemingly innocuous photograph of a rice paddy, whose young green stems stand out starkly against a brooding night sky. “This image was based on a case study where a person was found in a paddy field,” he said. “RAB explained it in its usual manner – there had been a scuffle, followed by a shoot-out, and the victim had died in the resulting crossfire. Local people had queried how the rice paddy was undisturbed, other than where the body was discovered. Questions had also been raised about why the body bore bullet holes but the shirt that the victim was wearing did not. Interestingly, when I asked the police why they should be so concerned about a photograph of a paddy field, they were immediately able to make the connection.”

I asked Shahidul why he chose symbolic imagery rather than graphic representations of the victims of “crossfire.” He said, “Since the information relating to both RAB and the extrajudicial killings was so well known, providing more information was unlikely to move people into action. Art’s strength is in its ability to evoke an emotional response. I had decided to use this power of art to shake people out of their complacency.” As Shahidul writes on his website, www.shahidulnews.com, he regards his images as a “quiet metaphor for the screaming truth.”

Commander Sohail maintains that RAB was “not at all worried by this exhibition.” However he admitted that neither he nor the Director of Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan have seen it. Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan said, “I won’t say [the exhibition] was false. [Shahidul] has the right to do it and I don’t mind it. But I also won’t say it was correct. Because I didn’t see his work I cannot comment further.” I showed Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan the image of the paddy field and read Shahidul’s case study aloud. He did not give a direct response, but rather said, “Shahidul should have told us to come and see the exhibition – if I had been invited I would have gone there.”

Drik is no stranger to controversy – nor censure, for that matter. I asked Shahidul whether he was surprised by the government’s latest attempt to limit Drik’s freedom of expression. He said, “I had hoped the government would have acted intelligently. The RAB killings were indisputable, so its best option would have been to assure the public that it was serious in correcting its ways. Whether the public would have accepted such explanations is another matter, but denying our constitutional rights by closing down an exhibition which pointed out its illegal actions was sheer stupidity. Mind you, ever since the US began leaning on other nations to enter into its so-called “War on Terror”, fundamental freedoms have been steadily eroded. It’s time we reclaimed our hard-earn freedoms.”

Shahidul is grateful for the coverage his exhibition received in the media, even prior to the police action. As well as being covered by the major news organisations in Bangladesh, The New York Times carried the story on its front page prior to the closure. As Shahidul explains, “The exhibition attracted so much interest as it was the only show that dealt with extrajudicial killings. Much of the work produced by artists in Bangladesh is apolitical. As a result, this particular show galvanised public opinion.” Unfortunately for Shahidul though, Commander Sohail read a report in a Bangla newspaper and quoted its contents to him over the phone on the day the exhibition was due to open. “It was an exchange of information,” said Commander Sohail, who added that he did not alert any authority after he spoke to Shahidul.  RAB was not involved in the closure of the exhibition,” he stated.

The show was reopened after a High Court hearing and Drik extended the exhibition until April 14, but Shahidul said that it was impossible to display the work in the manner in which it was intended. Due to an existing gallery booking, the exhibition was moved to Drik’s terrace, and a lack of space prevented the Google map exhibit from being displayed. It had taken a team of researchers six months to gather information on more than 300 deaths through “crossfire,” which were pinpointed on the map with detailed case studies. Researcher Fariha Karim said, “The good thing was that the Google map exhibit remained online throughout the closure and it’s become a public repository where people can add their comments. The level of participation is encouraging.”

Shahidul’s message resonates with Nabila Afta, 23, an architect from Lalmatia. After visiting the exhibition she said, “This exhibition was a bold step. Even though RAB was established for a very good cause, at the end of the day it has turned out badly for many.” Nabila’s comments are in stark contrast to the views of Commander Sohail, who said, “The public is not terrified of us – it is the terrorists they fear. If you go through the newspapers and TV channels you will see the public’s reaction. In most of the cases, people are very, very, very happy because a violent terrorist has been killed.” Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan feels similarly, saying, “Our main strength and achievement is having the love and confidence of the people. They believe that if RAB is deployed somewhere, there will not be a problem with law or discipline.” Lieutenant Colonel Ziaul Ahsan acknowledged that this is his personal opinion, as RAB does not conduct public perception surveys.

Commander Sohail was at pains to point out that investigations are carried out “for each and every case” involving a fatality – both by RAB, the judiciary and other organisations. He said, “If there is any wrongdoing by a member of RAB, of course they will be punished. Between 2004 and 2009, 800 RAB personnel were punished and 350 members lost their jobs and were sent to jail. No one is above the law.” However when I asked whether any of these investigations found that the use of a gun was unnecessary, he replied, “So far I did not see any such thing.”

Shahidul Alam has undoubtedly struck a cord within a population that is growing increasingly alarmed by the actions of RAB. Whether this translates into concrete change remains to be seen, particularly as RAB itself does not accept the criticism directed towards it. However it is undeniable that Crossfire has succeeded in taking the first difficult step towards highlighting the injustice suffered by so many.