Amend Arms Act first

A special counterterrorism unit called “National Police Bureau of Counterterrorism” is on the cards. It has been reported in the press that this special units was proposed a year ago but the pace of forming the unit got tangled in bureaucratic red-tapes. However, the process has been accelerated when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took special interest in forming this.

The work of the unit would comprise investigation, raids, information collection and exchange. Two departments will work under this unit namely: “Terror Investigation and Operations” and “Terror Intelligence and Analysis”.

This is certainly a positive step in Bangladesh’s fight against terrorism. This unit would be able to play a big role in local and regional anti-terror measures. Understandably, the size of the unit would be quite big so that it can handle the entire country. The unit would certainly know what to do about its future course of actions once it is operational. However, a few suggestions could come handy for the unit to get started.

The unit would have to deal with quite a lot of illegal weapons-related matters such as recovery, FIRs, cases, punishments etc.

In this connection, one example would explain things better. On 12 January 2011, police detained five armed persons from a motorcade led by a member of the parliament elected from western Jessore district. Now, if this is a tip of the iceberg, the special unit won’t be able to make any difference in its anti-terror initiatives. The reports of illegal weapons recovery in the country tell a story of horror. It does not need an expert to say that the use of illegal weapons is on the rise in the country. If one took stock of the casualties and deaths in the past year from social violence, more than 90 per cent are due to illegal weapons.

The 10-truck arms haul, ammunition recovery at Sherpur in 2010, etc are cases in consideration. Since the illegal arms are one of the major sources of terrorism, the special unit would do well in tackling this front first. The success of the unit would depend on how well it would prevent the use of illegal weapons in the society.

Then comes the legal side. While dealing with illegal arms, it would have to follow the Arms Act (1878) enacted by the British way back in 1878.

This is the Act under which unlicensed manufacture, conversion and sale of arms, import and export of arms, transport of any unauthorised arms over Bangladesh and possession of unlicensed firearms, etc have been prohibited. Provisions have been made, giving power to the government, to make rules as to license, restriction on movements with arms, cancellation and suspension of license, etc. Committing any breach of the prohibitions would be an offence–punishable with imprisonment of different terms. It is also a punishable offence to knowingly purchase arms from an unlicensed person or to deliver arms to persons not authorised to possess them.

There is another law in place: the Explosive Substances Act 1908. Explosive substance deems to include any material for making an explosive substance and also the apparatus, machines or any part thereof which may be used for causing or aiding in causing any explosion. Causing explosion by any explosive substance likely to endanger life, injury to person or property or with intent to commit an offence or to enable any other person to commit an offence are punishable under this Act with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment of any other term with a minimum mandatory sentence of 2 to 5 years.

However, Bangladesh has not made any amendments to the 1878 Arms Act. Therefore, the provision of permitting import or export of arms in “reasonable” quantity by anyone possessing a licence makes Bangladesh law concerning export/import the weakest in the region.

On the other hand, the Sri Lanka Firearms Ordinance has the strictest limitations on export and import in South Asia, requiring an importer to have a valid permit and to bring the weapon through an approved port of entry.

The government of Bangladesh is yet to take steps to amend the Arms Act (1878), for classifying the sharp metallic lethal weapons like Chinese axe, slaughter knives, ramda, kirich, chapatti and such other implements and bring those under the ambit of the definition of “arms” in the law book.

A High Court Division Bench in November 2001 directed the government to amend the Arms Act to bring those weapons within the category of arms.

At present, the Arms Act or any other law of the land does not prescribe local lethal weapons as falling under the definition of arms. So, clinically speaking, those implements, which are frequently used in inflicting wounds and even fatality in criminal acts, do not qualify for arms, and hence the offenders or the suspects get off the hook. Even people, possessing those lethal weapons and captured by the police, are going scot-free when charged under the Arms Act.

Earlier in 1988, another HC Division Bench in a judgement observed that such an amendment was a must.

In 2004, the then law minister told a newspaper that the government had already initiated the recommended amendment. The matter, he said, was under scrutiny with the home ministry.

The government was also supposed to enact the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act, though Bangladesh does not produce, possess or use any such weapons. However, no one really knows what has happened to this process.

It’s high time for the government of Bangladesh to amend the law related to illegal arms and chemicals.

The special counterterrorism unit would have to deal with terror campaigns and crimes on the internet. The police chief was heard saying that the present arms act is not enough to deal with the crimes that take place on the net. More so, the criminals caught by the law enforcers get scot-free when cases are filed under this Act. And that’s the reason why the hired guns and street gunslingers continue to be actors of terror in public life.

Therefore, the age-old Act needs an amendment on an urgent basis, as early as possible. Let the special unit be delayed for a while. The first task here should be to amend the Act. Without that, forming the “National Police Bureau of Counterterrorism” will be a cart before the horse.

The author is a journalist and a writer.

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