The secretary of justice, asked to comment about the resurgence of extra-judicial killings with lawyers as victims, admitted having difficulty in investigating and prosecuting the killers and the masterminds. He described the killings as meticulously planned by professionals, which make the cases more difficult to handle than ordinary crimes.
Thus far, lawyers’ groups and the media have placed the death toll at 53 members of the legal profession – lawyers, prosecutors, and judges – killed since 2016. Some observers have expressed their dismay at the unhurried pace of the investigations, ascribing to it a more sinister intent. The delays are presumably deliberate, akin to freezing the ball until media loses its interest in the story.
That sentiment would reflect badly on the justice secretary. Being a member of the legal profession himself, his concern over these killings should not be doubted. But for the critics, their claim that government investigators are pursuing the cases with less enthusiasm is buttressed by an online news story which revealed that out of the 53 recorded deaths of lawyers, only two cases are being handled by a DOJ Task Force organized to investigate extra-judicial killings.
It is no surprise to some that the resurgence of attacks on lawyers, activists, and sectoral leaders happened after the approval of the Anti-Terror Law and the reanimated red-tagging activities by some military and government officials. To those with a dark sense of humor, the new cases of extra-judicial killings are indicators that the country is slowly sliding back to a semblance of normalcy. The insinuation is that such killings have become part of our daily life prior to the pandemic.
But then again, the killings never really disappeared even at the height of the lockdown. Fewer cases were recorded, but they did occur. Just recently, media reported the case of a suspected drug pusher, shot several times and given up for dead by his assailants, miraculously surviving the attempt on his life.
A few hours later, armed men barged into the hospital and shot him.
What many observers find disappointing, if not appalling, is the absence of any sense of outrage over these killings. There are several explanations for this, all of which we may find distressing but should not be seen as justifications for the widespread indifference.
The first is that the people are too preoccupied with survival during this pandemic that they have little time to read the newspapers or pay attention to an issue that is the least of their concerns.
The second is that the present dispensation has succeeded in covering the populace with the foreboding cloak of fear and anxiety. Recall that at the start of the administration-imposed lockdown, ordinary citizens were being treated harshly by government enforcers in full battle gear. Curfew violators were detained illegally, publicly humiliated, and treated inhumanely at times. Some were even shot and killed by policemen. The people, one can say, were bludgeoned into submission.
The last explanation is that the rampant extra-judicial killings have desensitized a large part of the populace, making them consider such instances – enough to spark public outrage in some countries – as daily occurrences and part of life, as it were, in our increasingly benighted country.
It could also be a combination of all three, an amalgam of fear, anxiety, and indifference honed by the years of persistent assaults on our senses. The public podium is marshalled to elevate bullying and misogyny into declarations of state policy. Critics are incessantly harassed and demonized, and human life and dignity devalued. These body blows to the Constitution and the rule of law have been vicious and relentless. Already in a fragile state, the question is how much more it can endure before it collapses.
I myself am worried that over time, these occurrences – extra-judicial killings, illegal arrests, the harassment of dissenters, violations of the rule of law – would be considered our new normal. Stopping it would demand vigilance and righteous resistance. The long-term consequences of collective inaction and indifference are far too dire. We must find a way to wake the populace to the dangers posed by anti-democratic acts to their very existence as human beings entitled to be treated with dignity.