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     Volume 7 Issue 40 | October 10, 2007 |

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Cover Story


The Culture of Fear

Nader Rahman

Shafiqul Islam spends about one fourth of his day in traffic. A few hours on the way to work, and a few hours on the way back and many hours in between. About a month ago, when returning from Uttara, as he claims the 'inevitable' happened. Under the flyover in Mohakhali three people got into his cab and mugged him. For 20 minutes he was driven around and slapped, punched and threatened of far deadlier consequences if he tried anything stupid. He did everything they wanted and was eventually thrown out of the cab in front of a bus stand. They even left him with Tk 20, apparently they wanted him to get home 'safely' by bus. This story is nothing new in the sprawling metropolis that is Dhaka, and chillingly if what is heard around town is true, the 15 million residents in our capital fear for their safety. No longer are muggings bad luck, or people stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have become as Islam says 'inevitable'. Is our newfound fear justified and is this the new age of crime?


The most misleading information when conducting research is attained through random sampling. As the name suggests by asking random people within a required target group one can ascertain some very faulty information. But possibly the greatest redeeming factor of random sampling is that if asked to a cross-section of people, it gives one many different views on the same topic. When trying to look for concrete answers, random sampling leaves one frustrated, but that is merely because people overlook the fact that often there may be no concrete answer, the multitude of views is often the best answer. With that in mind this week we went around town trying to gauge the public perception of security and crime in the capital, random sampling provided us with a multitude of views and as one might have understood the real answer to the question lies somewhere in between.

Shireen Karim, a housewife and mother of three says, “I strongly feel there is a lot more crime these days. Just look at the newspapers and the TV and you will see many crime related stories.” Her general unease is felt by millions around the city as whisperings of new wave of crime are heard around town. Karim continues, “To be honest Dhaka has always been unsafe, but these days there seems to be no escaping it. People I know of have been mugged and all my friends live in an almost constant state of fear and those of us with children feel especially at risk.” From cafes to classrooms from rickshaw pullers to housewives everyone is on edge. But are there fears justified?

Many criminal activities are not reported, thus leading the law enforcers to believe the crime rate is lower than it actually is

Afizul Islam, Officer in Charge (OC) of Mohammadpur thana feels the public unease is at times unjustified. Mohammadpur is better known as the crime hub of the city and even with that dubious reputation Islam thinks the area under his jurisdiction has gone through a lot of positive changes. He says, “I will never say crime is in the wane, but what I do feel is that it is much lower than before. Just a few years ago, there was on average more than 20 murders a month in my neighbourhood! Now the number is closer to 2 or 3.” Evidence like that is hard to refute, but as we know statistics often hide more than they reveal. When questioned about the frequency of other crimes he said, “Even muggings are down, last month only 7 were reported, while there was only one house burglary, which was rampant in previous times.” His statement brings up another interesting point as to how many crimes are actually reported to our law enforcers.

The common perception is that crimes like mugging, receiving threatening phone calls and extortion should not be reported to the police. This is a major setback in the fight against crime, if they are not even reported then how will they be tackled? Old habits die hard, and the police along with other law enforcement agencies have a reputation of harassing people who file such cases, often stopping people from filing them at all. The level of distrust between the two parties is quite high and in between the only losers are the people who refuse to report such crimes. Their cases go unsolved while the police force do little more than twiddle their thumbs so that they can rightly claiming that reported crimes is much lower than it was before.

From a drive in Chittagong's New Market area Rab 7 arrested
Moheshkhali's top terrorist Ziaur Rahman Zia with five firearms--
clearly a sign that criminals are being picked up.
(photo: Zobaer Hossain Sikder.)

A senior Rapid Action (RAB) Official who spoke on the condition of anonymity had a different take on the issue of reporting crime, he said, “the truth of the matter is that there is a gap between the figures we can show you and the real number of crimes being reported. I would not call it public apathy but many people just don't report crimes because they do not want to go through the hassle of our court system.” This remains a valid point, the legal process in long, drawn out, complicated and generally does not work without a bribe or two. With that thought at the back of their minds, the public is often willing to write off a court case and the hassle of the cops rather than report crimes such as muggings and extortion rackets.

Ivan Ashraf, a student of North South University says, “Why would I go to the cops and file a case if I was mugged? When probably all that will happen is that they will hassle me; plus the legal process will hold up my case. And all this trouble would be over a simple mobile phone and a few hundred takas, it's just not worth it.” A friend of his chimed in, “The mere thought that the police will actually help us has never even occurred to me. Many of us distrust them and the system too much to even report a crime. Especially if what has been stolen or taken is replaceable, then we don't even bother at all. It's better to just replace it, incur a loss and keep the incident to one's self.” Public perception and a communication gap between the people and their law enforcers has led to this situation, where both sides have completely different views on the same topic.

Afizul Islam, Officer-in-Charge, Mohammadpur Police Station

The police can point to their books and say crime is much lower than it was before, but the public by not reporting a lot of crime can rightly say they feel unsafe, because people around them are being mugged and threatened. For this situation to be resolved or even tackled these two parallel plots must be brought together. The following example should raise even the most disbelieving eyebrows.

The RAB official who declined being named said, “Just before Ramadan we decided that some of us (RAB employees) would go out for a meal together. After eating we made our way to a popular ice cream shop in Dhanmondi. There the shop assistant overheard our conversation and realised we were members of RAB. He came up to us and said there was a shooting (there were bullet marks on the floor) and a robbery here a few days ago and his boss even got on a motorcycle and chased the car carrying the miscreants as far as he could but eventually did not report the incident.” Again, a story heard all over the city, crimes are committed yet not reported. He continued, “Not wanting to put the shop assistant in an awkward position we went back to our headquarters and called the shop and asked the owner to come in. We told him that we had heard about shots being fired and a robbery and asked him why he didn't report it. He said what good will it be, they will never be found and he will just be caught up in complicated legal process. Even after urging him he did not take any action. He told us all he could about the robbers and left. In four days we found them and called him again. He was so happy he could not contain himself and said he would file as many cases as was necessary now.” This story highlights a few very interesting points, when the criminals are not being caught, then the legal process seems long and fruitless. Yet when they are caught people are more than happy to file a hundred cases. Many crimes are not reported yet when criminals are caught, then people are willing to report everything. The problem needs a step forward from both directions. The law enforcers must persuade people to report crime. Encouraging them that they will try their best to catch the criminals and that without the public's help nothing can be achieved rather than being happy with the official reported low rates of crimes. The answers are not so easy for the legal process, as it is the complicated and lengthy nature that becomes a deterrent. Obviously the legal process has to be reformed so that it is simpler and quicker to access and get results from. Only then will people actually believe that a court case is worth the trouble.

Jafrul Islam a driver from Badda offers another point of view: “Not enough criminals are caught. If more people were caught then the public would have some faith in the police force. Now all we hear about is crime, but I never hear about the criminals being picked up.” That remains a fair point, but Afizul Islam refutes it by saying, “Last month we found a stolen car and caught two groups of muggers. Around the city many criminals are being caught, it's just that the public is not attuned to such news.” The problem here is that in relation to the official figures of crimes being reported, the rate at which criminals are caught is not all that bad. But the problem is when compared to the real figures of crime being committed, the numbers being caught by the police actually look quite slim. Yet the question still remains, is crime on the rise?

Even places such as the much-used road 27 in Dhanmondi are not free from crime. Whether during the day or the night, crowded or not, it is not a very safe place.

The same RAB official who asked not to be named said, “There has been a spike in crime in the last three months, but I will still say times are much better now than they were before.” He went on to add, “In the current situation the motives of crimes have changed. There are more crimes based on personal vendettas and enmity between people, as well as cases of fraud, matters relating to property and of course cheated labourers looking for work abroad.” The traditional gangs where there was an organised system to make money by committing crimes is on the wane. There are still individuals who work along those same lines, but even their numbers have decreased. What is alarming is how easily arms are available to such criminals. Programmes such as X-Crime on Bangla Vision graphically show how easy it is even for petty muggers to own a gun. These programmes serve a dual process, while logically the public should hail such programming because criminals are caught in each episode; it also in a strange way helps to propagate fear. Instead of taking the positives out of such a programme, people often claim what is shown on the programme is merely the tip of the iceberg and that there are many more criminals out there. They hear their cases, see how they work and fear they will meet someone like them on the streets, just this time without the cameras rolling.

The current spike in crime and perceived danger is more sociological and psychological than most may admit. In the past few months almost all the corrupt business leaders and politicians who were so mercilessly taken away have been released. This sends out the wrong signals to the public as faith in law enforcers wanes. From being the saviours of the nation, they have slipped back into old habits and all the public can see is that the people who valiantly put the bad guys away are letting them go. When the joint forces took people into custody there was an air of finality about it, people would be tried for their crimes and they would pay. On their release the general public feels more unsafe than ever and as we know very well, fear spreads further fear.

Empty roads no matter how well lit, are best not travelled unless one wants the 'inevitable' to occur

The RAB official says, “The last time there was a spike in crime was when hawkers were evicted from across the city. Muggings increased almost overnight and there were a few cases that pointed in the direction of hawkers taking up mugging to make ends meet.” He continues, “We have all been taught criminal psychology and using those skills we analysed two muggings where people were killed. The reason they were killed was that the muggers were not professional criminals, they panicked and killed people in the ensuing chaos. If they were 'professional' criminals then they would never have committed murder. This was obviously a hawker looking for some money through a mugging and when a factor changed beyond his known capacity, he panicked and killed a person. We are not seeing crimes along those lines now, there is a slight spike, but nothing which should create widespread panic.”

It all boils down to the same question, is crime really on the rise, or are public insecurities flaming a fire larger than the real problem? Nuru Mia a rickshaw puller in Karwan Bazaar says, “I am not sure if crime is on the rise, I do hear of a lot of muggings, but what I do know is that fear is on the rise.” That opinion is probably what best sums up this argument. In comparison to a few years ago crime is far lower than it is now, but high profile politicians and businessmen charged with corruption and other crimes being released, coupled with an increase in muggings and extortion rackets have created a culture of fear, which the public is having a hard time breaking out of. There are a host of other factors that must be looked into, the population of Dhaka is now nearly 15 million and our police force is horribly understaffed. That in itself creates a situation where crime should increase. Afizul Islam says, “the logistical support to tackle the current population is nowhere near enough. Yet even with that problem we are dealing with the situation as best as we can. Crime is nowhere near as bad as it was before and criminals are being caught regularly. What else can we do with the resources at our disposal? All I can ask is for the public to work with us, rather than propagate fear within themselves.”

Black cabs once considered the saviours of the average commuter,have become nothing more than mugging traps. Travelling especially at night has become very risky

At RAB the criminal conviction rate is a staggering 75%, among the highest in South Asia, but even that statistic is coupled with an 11% criminal conviction rate for the police. Seemingly there is more than a slip betwixt cup and lip, as criminals are caught but the legal process often sets them free. If that is really the case what else is the public to think, other than that the streets are not safe? The answer lies somewhere in between what the law enforcers and the public say. Yes, there has been a surge in crime, but that does not necessarily mean crime is on the rise again. But for that crime to be tackled and the surge brought down again, the public and the police must work hand in hand. There should be no scare mongering and the public must learn to be patient, change cannot occur overnight. Afizul Islam has returned home every day for the past week well past three in the morning. He says, “I can't slack off, the criminals know when you are taking it a little easy.” In a way he is right, the police and public can't slack off, they must work together to help fix this current spike and make sure it does not become a permanent rise.


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