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     Volume 8 Issue 83 | August 21, 2009 |

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Special Feature

Scourge of the Streets

In the second of a two-part series on Street Crime, the Star looks at the root causes of the recent crime wave, and searches for solutions.
Businessmen drawing money from banks are frequently targeted.

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Late in the afternoon of June 23, four men and a woman entered the Amin Jewellers showroom in Gulshan-2. As the salesmen were displaying the jewellery, the group produced handguns and quickly herded the staff into a corner. The robbers stuffed diamond rings, necklaces, broaches and bangles into bags and were on the point of making a getaway when members of the staff tripped a burglar alarm system. As the siren went off, people quickly gathered outside and caught two of the gang as they were trying to board a microbus. The rest escaped with the jewellery.

Earlier, on May 21, Mobarak Ali, 55, father-in-law of Delowar Hossain, owner of Tuba Group of Companies, was killed when gunmen sprayed his car with bullets. The intended target was Delowar Hossain who had reportedly ignored a demand from a notorious gang to pay “toll money”.

On Tuesday, muggers shot a doctor in front of his Green Road surgery and snatched Tk 3 Lakh in cash.

The high profile incidents are part of a recent slide in law and order that has terrified city dwellers and fuelled concern that with Ramadan and Eid nearing, Dhaka could be headed for a crime spree. Street crime poses a significant threat, with scores of robberies including theft, mugging and snatchings occurring in the city every day. Extortion, too, is on the rise, while a spate of daylight carjacking has raised alarm among vehicle owners.

“There is a feeling that the city is gradually becoming unsafe for the common people,” says Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). “We should not have to live in fear. If there is no security, no investment will happen and no jobs will be created. The government must show it is serious about fighting criminals, regardless of their identity.”

A gradual process of criminalisation turns innocent youngsters into hardened criminals.

Public confidence in the Police remains low, and this is reflected by the fact that most victims of street crime don't bother going to the police station. Even when they do, the performance of the law enforcement agencies often leaves a lot to be desired.

“When our jewellery shop was robbed, we activated an alarm that was connected to the police box,” says an employee of Amin Jewellers on condition of anonymity. “The police did not come until one of us rushed to the police box. By that time, the robbers had escaped, leaving behind the two we had caught.”

Such a blatant robbery in broad daylight in the posh Gulshan area may have shocked the city, but analysts think it reflects a state of chronic inertia within the police. “Unfortunately in our country loyalty is rewarded more than efficiency,” says Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of Odhikar, a rights group. “So, many police officers simply don't want to do anything unless there is a signal from 'above'.”

A careful analysis of the recent mugging incidents shows some clear trends. The criminals are increasingly using motor vehicles to gain greater mobility. In most cities of the world, commuters are advised to take a taxi after dark for safety reasons. In Dhaka, the taxicabs are the vehicles of choice for muggers. This is made possible by loose documentation and lax enforcement of registration laws.

“It is true that taxicabs and CNG auto rickshaws are often used in mugging incidents and robberies,” admits Monirul Islam, Deputy Commissioner, Detective & Criminal Intelligence Division of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. “Many taxi drivers are involved with muggers. We are trying to work with cab companies and CNG owners to prevent the use of these vehicles for criminal activities. Quite often when we check papers of vehicles used in criminal acts, we find forged papers and duplicate driving licenses. It is up to the BRTA to stop this.”

There is plenty of blame to go around. The police point to the inefficiency and corruption of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority for failing to stop fake papers and unfit vehicles. The BRTA says vehicles with genuine papers are often stolen for criminal purposes and policemen on the street let these vehicles go after taking bribes. The drivers of taxicabs and CNG auto rickshaws claim owners make their lives difficult by taking more money than is allowed under government rules.

“The government has fixed the daily fee of owners at Tk. 450,” says Mojid, an auto rickshaw driver. “But in practice all owners force us to pay Tk. 650 per day. What are we going to do? With the horrible traffic jams we have in Dhaka, it is difficult to make ends meet. This is why some drivers end up with gangs.”

“Owners of taxicabs and CNGs must be made accountable,” says Absar Uddin, a businessman who was mugged in a taxicab in Banani. “If my vehicle was used in a criminal act, I must at least be able to provide the police with details about who was driving it. Drivers must prominently display their ID on the dashboard. If we can crack down on the use of these vehicles in crime, it would have a major effect.”

Few cases of street crime are recorded and still fewer are solved.

Another way to deter muggers could be to make the stolen goods useless to the criminals. The muggers are looking for small high value items. Since the advent of ATM cards, most people have stopped carrying large quantities of cash. Mobile phones and iPods make an easy target. The vast majority of muggings involve mobile thefts. The handsets are usually sold after SIM cards are removed. But there are ways in which stolen mobiles can be rendered useless.

Every GSM and UMTS mobile handset has a unique IMEI number or International Mobile Equipment Identity number. Whenever a mobile is used, the IMEI number shows up on the operator's system. Mobile operators can block stolen phones if the owner has the serial number of the handset. The 15-digit IMEI number appears when you press *#06# on your mobile. It should also be on a sticker underneath the battery. The number should match the one on the cash memo issued by the shop when a mobile is sold.

Saad Ahmed, Chief Technical Officer of Warid Telecom says mobile operators have the capability to block stolen mobiles using the IMEI number. “But this has to be done by all the operators simultaneously; otherwise the criminals can use the phone on another network.”

In many countries, the telecom regulatory body maintains a central database in association with the police, where stolen phone numbers can be reported. There is no such system in Bangladesh as yet.

“It is important for the BTRC to get all operators on board for stolen mobiles to be blocked across networks,” says Numan Sakhar, DGM (Customer Service) of Warid. “This can definitely make life difficult for criminals.”

Many experts believe the spike in street crime and street violence reflects a deeper malaise in our society. Lack of a firm belief in the rule of law, and the absence of a social safety net is fueling the process of criminalization. Better law enforcement can only treat the symptoms, but in order to eradicate the disease, the underlying causes must be identified and treated.

Dr. Khondoker Mokaddem Hossain, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, thinks social inequality and lack of gainful employment are among the root causes of crime. “There is migration to the urban centres every day,” says Prof Hossain. “People come to Dhaka because they have lost their home in the village due to natural disasters or in search of better opportunity. This creates a floating population that is desperate to survive. These people are often exploited by criminals. For many, the criminalisation process starts at a very early age.”

Parvin, aged 9, sells flowers at streetlights in the Panthapath area. Her father a rickshaw puller -- left her mother years ago, and after her mother remarried, Parvin and her siblings were left to fend for themselves. Parvin says her 14-year-old brother was taken away to a Juvenile Correction Centre because he was caught selling Phensedyl. “A boro bhai (elder brother) at the Kuril slum where we live gave it to him,” recalls Parvin. “They gave him a shirt which had pockets built in to keep the bottles. One day the police caught him, and took him away.” Parvin says she took to selling flowers because she has to eat, and does not want to do “bad things”.

The involvement of street children in crime is rising. Children as young as 12 were caught by police investigating a series of thefts in the Gulshan and Baridhara areas recently. The OC of Gulshan Thana says the children were used by a gang comprised mainly of women. “The gang used the kids to crawl through small openings and then open doors,” says Kamal Uddin, officer in charge. “The women often survey the area posing as house help, and then use the children to gain access.”

Critics say the police sometimes house juveniles with adult criminals in prison, and this quickens the process of criminalisation. The youths are often impressed by the inmates they meet and are inspired to be like them and stand up to those who threaten them. In many cases the children are abused, which gives rise to a resentment towards society in general. Once released, the juvenile offenders soon go back to criminal activity, and slowly graduate to more serious crime. This ritual conflict with the law gradually turns an innocent child into a hardened criminal.

“Unfortunately, our justice system has gaping holes when it comes to juveniles,” says Aminul Islam, Programme Manager of Aparajeyo Bangladesh, a child rights NGO. “Under the Children's' Act 1974, a probation officer should be present at the police station when a child is detained and questioned. It is a sad fact that there are only two Probation Officers in the whole of Dhaka metropolitan area.”

Aminul Islam says child rights groups along with UNICEF are liaising with the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) to make police officers aware of good practice when it comes to children. “Aparajeyo Bangladesh has 8 community officers who work with police in 8 Thanas. Other NGOs are also active. We want to make the police aware that simply locking up children isn't a good idea. If a trained community or probation officer is present, the child can be counseled and often released in the care of community leaders such as a head master or Imam unless he or she is involved with some heinous crime.”

Sociologists and rights activists also emphasise the need to create employment opportunities for the disaffected youth. “We must focus on creating jobs and addressing the underlying social grievances,” says Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of Odhikar. “Otherwise, criminal gangs will always have a steady stream of recruits.”

It is not all about hunger and deprivation, however. Prof Mokaddem Hossain says there is a growing trend where young people from affluent families are being drawn into crime as a “lifestyle choice”.

Says Prof Hossain: “Nowadays we see cases where teenagers get together and carry out muggings and theft because they want drug money or money to maintain a certain lifestyle. They see movies and admire the anti-hero. They want to be the tough guys. The proliferation of a gang culture is very dangerous for any society.”

Warning signs have already appeared on Dhaka streets, with spray-painted slogans appearing in areas such as Dhanmondi and Gulshan. The cryptic slogans on buildings and buses refer to 9MM, RIPBoys or Tequila99. The signs may not indicate criminal behaviour, but analysts worry they may reflect a tendency towards the gang culture that has invaded places like London's East End and New York's Harlem.

Sociologists say anti-social or delinquent behaviour such as disrespect for school staff and spray-painting slogans on buildings can often be stopped through early intervention before they become more serious and lead to a life of crime or victimisation.

“If you want to defeat street crime, you must stop it at the source," asserts Prof Mokaddem Hossain. "You need to engage in prevention early on -- with social skills and anger coping lessons in schools from a young age,” says Prof Hossain. “Parents must also play an important role in teaching youngsters how to distinguish between right and wrong.”

Parvin the flower girl does not have any parents she can call on for guidance. But her innate sense of morality tells her that her brother took the wrong path. She is determined not to follow in his footsteps, although she wishes she could do something more rewarding. “Selling flowers is tough,” she sighs.


How to Beat the Muggers

Hundreds of people are mugged every month. Here's how to protect yourself:
* Look around you and be aware of your surroundings. Walk in well-lit busy streets and walk in a group if possible.
* Walk actively and confidently.
* Do not carry your bag slung diagonally across your body as this increases your risk of injury in case of a snatching.
* Do not display your mobile or iPod in public; do not walk around talking on a mobile phone as it will distract you.
* Keep your mobile on vibration if you are out at night.
* If you are taking a taxi, memorise the number and text it to a friend. Also check if the driver's card (which should be on the dash board) has the number on it.
* Avoid black cabs and CNGs after dark. Yellow cabs from reputed companies are safer. Take a bus if possible.
* In a taxi, sit on one side and be ready to step out if the vehicle stops.
* Write down the IMEI number of your mobile, and keep it in a safe place.
* If someone asks the time, don't check your watch or mobile phone. Asking for the time is a classic trick used by muggers to distract victims and locate valuables.


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