Community Justice?

It was a bad night last night.  Things kicked off around 1.30am when we were woken by a real commotion taking place in the street outside our flat.  With noise was so loud and persistent we got out of our beds and went onto the balcony see what was happening.  The street was well lit, and the scene that met us was horrifying.  It took a few moments to fully comprehend the enormity of what was going on.  An organised mob, roughly ten individuals, were systematically beating a man with a large, heavy wooden club.  Onlookers stood around the fringes watching the violence. Their victim wore lungi and was bound at both wrist and ankle.  He lay helpless on the street as the club was raised, ready for yet another blow. Instinct suddelnly kicked in and we started shouting for them to stop, to leave him alone. 

They paused for a moment to look up and see who had interrupted them, then resumed as before.  I’m not sure exactly what kind of reaction we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.  As heavy blows rained down we heard additional shouting coming from the balcony of the flat above where some of our volunteer colleagues live, but this also fell on deaf ears. We realised we were helpless to stop the attack, but if it continued the likely outcome was murder, literally taking place on our doorstep.  Panic set in, while all around our neighbours sood silently at their windows watching the horror taking place below.

By now things were looking pretty grim for the victim.  As persistently as we tried the brutal beating continued.  One neighbour standing only feet away in the darkness of his forth floor balcony quietly told me to stop shouting as I would anger the mob.  I asked him why nobody was calling the police to stop this. There was no reply.

We decided to take action. Not having either the telephone number of the local police station or the language skills if we had, we called the VSO 24 hour emergency helpline to ask them to call the police on our behalf.  One of VSOB’s main responsibilities is volunteer safety while in-country, so with hindsight I suppose their response was pretty predictable, but it infuriated us the time. We were instructed to get off the balcony and stop shouting immediately, to go back to bed, VSOB would discuss it in the morning.  That wasn’t going to cut it for the victim of a prolonged and brutal assault so we escalated our appeal to the VSO Country Director only to recieve an identical response. 

Below us things had reached a critical point and we feared the worse was about to happen.  The club was raised high, and with no other options available I shouted again, this time trying to contain my panic and fear and using as much authority as possible. They paused, I continued.  There was a little confusion this time around.  A brief discussion ended with a clear decision to move the victim, who was roughly pulled up onto his feet and shoved towards the entrance of the nearest building, a garage directly opposite our flat. With his restraint only allowing a pathetic shuffle he made his way slowly through the door.   

Although out of sight we could hear the beating began again with the awful sound of the club repeatedly making contact. We fell silent, wincing and cursing occasionally, but mostly standing in silence, all eyes fixed on the garage, alone in our shock and helplessness.  In the background we could hear the long whistle blasts let out by local security guards protecting the resident flats where we live – the Lalmatia district of Dhaka city.  Using this method they alert each other when unidentified individuals are spotted in the area late at night. Working together they can track the progress of anyone drifting around the streets that they don’t like the look of .   

Eventually, one by one the onlookers left the scene but with the garage lit up we could still clearly see the silhouetts of two remaining men visible through a small window.  Their activity continued for several hours. At five the Imam approached, stopping in front of the garage.  Holding a conversation for several minutes with those inside he pointed up to our balcony a number of times before making his way on to the Mosque to call the morning prayer. It was impossible for us to know what to make of this.

The remainder of the early morning passed, all activity died away and there was no sight of the beaten man.  We couldn’t help but linger on the balcony, still waiting for him to emerge I suppose.  At 7.30 I telephoned my friend and colleague Bishwajit to let him know I’d be late as I would come to the office after the VSOB meeting.  On hearing what had happened he came over immediately by rickshaw seeking out the local security guards and our neighbours to find out exactly what had taken place. He then sat us all down and started to explain.

The man we had seen being beaten was a suspected thief who had been apprehended by the security guards in the surrounding buildings.  There had been a spate of thefts over the past couple of weeks and this equates to tough consequences for them.  Initially they are forced to pay for the cost of any stolen items, often continuing to work without pay until this is done, and then they lose their job. Believing they had caught the culpret their anger and bitterness was evident.  The beating was partly venting this frustration and partly a warning to any other prospective thieves that they would be dealt with harshly if they stole from their buildings.

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