A recent development relating to Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism efforts has caught attention. The government has finally formed a new dedicated police unit, the Counter-terrorism Bureau, to fight the threat of growing extremism. This bureau is to help the police to implement the Anti-Terrorism Act 2009 (amended in 2012).
This step deserves commendation for increasing resources in the fight against terrorism. This unit has a lot to do as far as anti-terror measures are concerned. It would have to deal with illegal weapons-related matters such as recovery, FIRs, cases, punishments etc. Its work would also entail investigation, raids, information collection and exchange.
Having said that, I feel we may have to do more than just forming this unit; we may have to adopt a few legal amendments as well in order to prevent the spread of terror here. The country is in a pretty bad shape regarding the proliferation of illegal weapons. The use of weapons is rampant. Bangladesh is reportedly also used as a transit for regional and international illegal arms traders. The number of reports in the media that we see is only a tip of the iceberg and we do not have to be experts to say that the use of illegal weapons is on the rise in our country.
This is where the law comes in. When we try to tackle the scourge of illegal weapons, our law enforcers apply an age-old law, the Arms Act of 1878, formulated by the British in the 19th century.
This Act prohibits unlicensed manufacture, conversion and sale of arms, import and export of arms, transport of any unauthorised arms and possession of unlicensed firearms. It also gives power to the government to formulate rules as to license, restriction on movements with arms, cancellation and suspension of license, etc. Committing any breach of the prohibitions is a punishable offence. 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.
We have another law: the Explosive Substances Act 1908. Explosive substances 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, 135 years have passed and we haven’t upgraded this 1878 Act. Therefore, the provision of permitting import or export of arms in “reasonable” quantity by anyone possessing a licence makes Bangladesh’s law concerning export/import the weakest in the region. Other South Asian countries now have more strict limitations on export and import, requiring an importer to have a valid permit and to only transfer weapons through an approved port of entry.
We are also yet to take steps for classifying sharp metallic lethal weapons like Chinese axes, slaughter knives, ramda, kirich, chapatti and to bring these and other such implements under the ambit of the definition of “arms,” although a High Court bench in November 2001 had asked the government to amend the Arms Act in this manner.
At present, local lethal weapons don’t fall under the definition of arms under the Arms Act. So, clinically speaking, those implements, which are frequently used in inflicting wounds and even fatality in criminal acts, don’t qualify as arms, and the offenders get off the hook. Even persons possessing these weapons who are captured by the police, are going scot-free, when charges are brought under the Arms Act.
The government has not acted on court recommendations and rulings in a number of such cases observing that an amendment to the Arms Act is needed. In 2004, the then law minister said the government had already initiated a recommended amendment. The matter, he said, was under scrutiny with the home ministry.
Yet time has been spent looking to enact the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act, although we don’t produce, possess or use any such weapons. (However, no one really knows what has happened to this process). The new special unit has also been tasked with dealing with ‘terror campaigns and crimes’ on the internet.
The existing Arms Act is insufficient to deal with the crimes that take place and that’s the reason why hired guns and street gunslingers can continue to terrorise the people.
It needs an amendment on an urgent basis. Without an amendment of this Act, the special Counter-terrorism Bureau unit may not go very far in making everyone safer.