Teknaf, Bangladesh (BBN)-When Bangladeshi police announced that three notorious human traffickers had been killed in the early morning hours of May 8 during a gunfight with officers, there was reason to be skeptical.
The media reported that police in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar had received a tipoff that human traffickers were preparing to smuggle migrant workers in search of a better life onto boats heading to Malaysia, reports Al Jazeera.
According to the police, the officers came under fire after arriving on the scene, so they retaliated with rubber bullets. When the gunfight ended, the police say, they found three bullet-riddled bodies, later identified as top human traffickers.
The officers say the men shot and killed each other, presumably accidentally.
The three men- Zafar Alam, 25, Jahangir Alam, 30 (no relation) and Dhalu Hossain, 54- were not the only casualties of such shootouts.
Over the next four days, two others, also alleged human traffickers, were killed nearby in almost identical circumstances.
Human rights activists and local politicians say that the timing of the deaths is suspicious.
The men were killed just a week after the discovery in Thailand of mass graves full of bodies of Burmese Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant workers (similar graves were later found in Malaysia as well).
The discovery of the graves put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to take action against those complicit in the trade — and likely led local police to round up the men.
Sabbir Ahmed is an elected representative of Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League, in Teknaf.
He believes that in an attempt “to show they are doing something against the trafficking business, [the police] picked up these three men.”
In all the cases, the police say, they were only acting in self-defense after being fired upon by dangerous criminals. But an investigation by Al Jazeera America has found that one or two days prior to each of the incidents, the police picked up the men from their homes or from local markets.
Thus, each man would have been killed while in police custody. This information was corroborated by family members of each of the men, plus neighbors and other eyewitnesses.
In some cases, dozens of people saw the men being taken away by law enforcement officials.
Extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies like these are not unusual in Bangladesh.
In the first five months of 2015, human rights organizations reported 64 deaths from such “crossfire” incidents. But most of those killings were of members of the political opposition, unlike the victims in Teknaf.
The government has consistently denied involvement in crossfires, as they are commonly called in the country.
“These appear to be nothing other than extrajudicial killings by the police of people who should have been brought before the courts if there were indeed evidence that they were actually involved in human smuggling offenses,” Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of the human rights organization Odhikar, says of the May shootings.
Ahmed adds that the men, like many accused of involvement in human trafficking, may have had no significant association with the trade.
“For every 15 the police arrested for human trafficking, 11 are innocent,” he says, taking out a list of names of people who have been detained but, according to him, had no involvement in human trafficking. At the same time, he says, no action is taken against kingpins.
At 8 am on May 7, Zafar Alam was standing in front of a tea shop near his house in Hariakali, a fishing village in the Cox’s Bazar district.
Hariakali was known by police as a transit spot for migrant workers seeking to travel to Thailand.
Some of the fishermen, police allege, ferry the migrants on small boats to larger ships farther off the coast that are run by traffickers.
According to tea house owner Mohammed Rafique, Zafar Alam was standing with a group of other men, waiting for the shop to open, when two vehicles arrived and four plainclothes police officers got out.
Some years earlier, Alam had been charged with theft, and though he was released on bail, he missed a number of court appearances.
On seeing the police, he began to run toward the local school building. The police gave chase.
They caught him in the yard of a house belonging to Nazir Ahmed, who lived nearby.
There, Alam was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away in front of Ahmed and other locals.
Later that morning, two vehicles pulled up outside Jahangir Alam’s house in the village of Katabania, a five-minute ride away.
According to accounts from two eyewitnesses, Zafar Alam was sitting inside one of the vehicles.
About a dozen plainclothes policemen got out and encircled the house’s walled perimeter.
Jahangir Alam was wanted by police on a number of human-trafficking charges.
He would spend the nights away from home, says his wife, Rehana Akhter, and only return after dawn, as he did that day.
“It was about 9 am I was lying in bed, next to my husband, who was sleeping,” she recalls. The police entered their bedroom. “Jahangir was then handcuffed and taken away in the clothes he was sleeping in — a lungi and vest.”
Sakhina Khatun, who lives in the house next door, saw him being taken away.
“He seemed in total shock when he was coming out of the house. I tried to give him a shirt to wear, but the police did not allow me,” she says.
Another neighbor heard the commotion and saw Jahangir Alam sitting in the vehicle, handcuffed, just before he was driven off along with Zafar Alam, who was in the second vehicle.
Later that morning, in the village of Noabazar on Shah Porir Dwip island, Nurul Islam, a fisherman, was repairing nets inside Dhalu Hossain’s house.
Hossain had recently been released on bail after being detained for four months in a case involving human trafficking.
“Four men in civil dress but with guns entered the main gate of the property and asked, ‘Who are you?’” Islam says. “I was with another worker, and we said that we were working here. Two of the men then went inside the house, and we heard them shout to the other two outside, ‘We have got him!’ We ran from the house at this point.”
Helal Uddin, Hossain’s son, was inside the house with his father. “The men said that they were from the police-inspection unit and they were taking my father to Teknaf Police Station,” Uddin says.
“Everyone in the family was crying, crying for mercy, but my father said nothing.”
Back in Hariakali, Hasan Ahmed, an uncle of Zafar Alam, was trying to find out where the police had taken his nephew.
He had witnessed the arrest and could identify the police officers involved.
He asked Sabbir Ahmed, the local elected representative, for help. Hasan Ahmed knew that the leader of the group of cops who’d arrested his nephew was Subinspector Sanaul.
Sabbir Ahmed reached Sanaul by phone later that day, the elected representative said, and Sanual acknowledged taking Alam into custody because of his outstanding warrant.
Hasan Ahmed said that other officers also told him that his nephew would be brought to court the next morning. But by early the next day, Zafar Alam, Dhalu Hossain and Jahangir Alam were dead, and the families were told to collect the bodies from the police station.
Local police, however, deny that they took the men into custody. “The allegation is untrue,” said Ataur Rahman, the officer in charge of the Teknaf police.
“[T]he men [who say these things] are advocates for the accused.” Rahman told Al Jazeera America that, instead, the men killed each other after police, acting on a tip, confronted them. Sanaul also denies that he or anyone else detained the men a day earlier.
The police also insist that the three men were high-level human traffickers with a record of past arrests on such charges. According to Rahman, Zafar Alam had been named twice in trafficking cases, while Jahangir Alam had been named in five cases and Hossain in eight.
The men’s actual ties to human trafficking are in dispute. Zafar Alam’s family, for example, says he was actually an anti-trafficking activist.
But Sabbir Ahmed says Alam was linked to the trade, but at a much lower level than police allege.
Jahangir Alam’s mother denies that her son was involved with human trafficking, although one neighbor says he did have some past involvement with the trade.
Dhalu Hossain’s family denies his connection to trafficking, though one elected official, Hamidur Rahman, says he was involved — but that it’s extremely common in this part of Bangladesh.
“Each and every house” in the area has at least one person involved with human trafficking in some way, Hamidur Rahman says.
All three families say that they received warnings, sometimes from anonymous callers, instructing them not to make allegations against police over the killings.
In the following two days, two other men were picked up in villages close to the town of Cox’s Bazar by detective branch police, an elite cadre of law enforcement, say dozens of witnesses.
One of the men, Mohammed Zafar Alam Majhi, 40, known as Zafar Majhi, worked for the local hatcheries catching tuna.
He was getting a shave from barber Babul Sharma when four policemen on two motorbikes came roaring through the market, say a handful of people who were present at the time.
According to Sharma and a shopkeeper next door, Majhi was taken away in handcuffs on a bike.
The next morning, May 10, his family woke up to see on a television news ticker that he had been killed in an alleged gunfight.
Local police deny that Majhi was ever taken into custody. Dewan Abul Hossain, the officer in charge of the local detective branch in the town of Cox’s Bazaar, says, however, that human trafficking victims named Majhi as a trafficker, and at the time of his death, police were investigating his possible involvement in four trafficking cases.
Nurul Kader, Majhi’s brother, denies Majhi had any role in trafficking and believes politics may have played a role in his death: Majhi was a publication secretary for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party in his local ward. His father, who is angry that his son’s death hasn’t gotten more attention, says, “We don’t have enough money to file a case.”
The second man allegedly picked up by police was Belal Hossain. The 30-year-old was unemployed at the time, having sold his four fishing boats last year. He was sitting in a public garden near his house in Kawapara village, close to the town of Cox’s Bazar, with five others when nine plainclothes officers walked in, according to four people who spoke to Al Jazeera America.
Abdur Sukur Rana, who was in the park with Belal Hossain, says police handcuffed and blindfolded Hossain and took him away.
News of what happened quickly reached Hossain’s younger brother Abdur Rashid, who went immediately with a friend to the detective branch office in Cox’s Bazaar town.
Rashid says he saw his brother in one room of the office in handcuffs. “We did not dare to speak with anybody, but left immediately,” he says.
Two days later, in the early morning hours, local television stations reported that Belal Hossain had been killed in a gunfight with police.
Police deny that they took Hossain. Boktear Uddin Chowdhury, a senior officer in the town of Cox’s Bazar, who an eyewitness says was one of the arresting officers, denies that Hossain was ever in custody.
“We received information [from local police] that human traffickers were trading fire among themselves,” he says. “Sensing our presence, the criminals opened fire again and we retaliated. We rushed the injured man to hospital, but he died on the way.” Police say Hossain had been named in six human trafficking cases.
But as in the other cases, Hossain’s involvement with trafficking is a point of contention. His family denies his involvement. Abdur Rashid says Hossain had been named in two trafficking cases in the last two years, but says those cases were filed only because he was an active member of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Adilur Rahman, the human rights activist, says there is little chance these five deaths will be properly investigated.
No law enforcement officer has ever been prosecuted in any of the hundreds of crossfire deaths in Bangladesh in recent years.
But the government has taken action against those bringing these suspicious deaths to the public eye.
Two years ago, Rahman was arrested and jailed for two months in relation to Odhikar’s 2013 report on alleged unlawful killings following an assembly of the Muslim radical group Hefazat-e-Islam.
In addition to such specific persecution, Odhikar has been “a constant target of state repression,” according to its website, which has taken the form of monitoring cell phones and the activities of its lead officers, as well as intimidation and harassment, and placing limits on its ability to receive funding.
“No independent investigation is possible as the law enforcement officials effectively obstruct such initiatives,” Adilur Rahman says.
“And due to the absence of rule of law in the country, there is no authority which has the real political desire to undertake such investigations.
And,” he adds, “some of these killings may well be done with the approval of political and government leaders.”