Trayvon Martin & Limon Hossain: Innocence on Trial

Trayvon Martin. Photo released by his family.

Trayvon Martin. Photo released by his family.

Trayvon Martin and Limon Hossain: Innocence on Trial
by Tibra Ali for AlalODulal.org

recently came across a chalked message on the sidewalk that summed up the media circus and the whole trial in one pithy remark: “Only in America does an innocent victim like Trayvon Martin have to stand trial for his own murder.” But the first thing that popped into my mind was how the “Only in America…” part is actually incorrect. In particular, I thought of the young Bangladeshi student Limon Hossain.

1.

When Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States in 2009, I happened to be a lecturer at an evangelical Christian university in Central Texas. On this momentous occasion a few of my friends, curiously all of them white, Christian and Republican, declared that America has at last become a post-racial society. It’s not a view I shared; The America that I, a brown Bangladeshi man with a Muslim surname, saw was very different from the America that they saw.

If there were any doubts that Martin Luther King’s dream of the black man becoming the white man’s brother had suddenly become a reality the day Barack Obama became president was an illusion, it has certainly been shattered by the recent murder of the black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the failure of the law of the land to deliver justice. Walking down the road of the Canadian city that I now live in, I recently came across a chalked message on the sidewalk that summed up the media circus and the whole trial in one pithy remark: “Only in America does an innocent victim like Trayvon Martin have to stand trial for his own murder.” How aptly put, I thought. Long live the world dreamed up by Franz Kafka, I sighed.

The United States seems divided today, mostly along racial lines, about whether the trial was about race or not, whether racial profiling played an important role or not, whether “stand your ground” laws support one racial group over another.

Whatever the truths are about these questions, I think that these issues go further than just the white/black divide. I know that many Bangladeshis living in the U.S. tend to think that they are not affected by civil rights issues and that somehow these issues only related to “them” – those African Americans. But they are wrong – civil rights issues are not an isolated island, they go hand in hand with the larger issues of human rights which includes a whole continuum of issues such as religious and sexual rights. In a sense, these Bangladeshis and other non-black minorities also buy into the white myth of a “post-racial” society when they distance themselves from cause of the likes of Trayvon Martin. However, whenever there is a hate-crime committed by members of the minority, the manifestations of fear by members of minority groups and the paranoia stirred up by the purveyors of bigotry clearly show the cracks in the wall that’s supposed to be this “post-racial” society. The likes of Pamela Geller, who infamously opposed the building of an Islamic community centre in Manhattan by labelling it as the “Ground Zero Mosque” and those who are preaching that their white kids be wary of “young black men” like Trayvon Martin belong to the same spectrum.

Another memory from the time when I was working for the Christian university:  a young Muslim female undergraduate student, who preferred to wear hijab, was assaulted on campus by an outsider one night. She was thrown on the ground and kicked while racial slurs were thrown at her. Although the university, which had always carefully managed its Christian image, issued a statement deploring the hate-crime, it nevertheless skirted the real issue: the statement was more concerned with how the incident took away from the “mission” of the university than anything else. The statement carefully avoided the word “Muslim”, and it was the only Jewish professor on Campus (a distinguished liberation theologian) who pointed out this hypocrisy of the university administration.

2.

Limon Hossain. Source: New Age

Limon Hossain. Source: New Age

And meanwhile I see secretive hatred murdering the helpless
  Under cover of night;
And justice weeping silently and furtively at power misused,
  No hope of redress. [1]

But when I first came across the above mentioned “chika” (Bengali for graffito) the first thing that popped into my mind was how the (rhetorical?) “Only in America…” part is actually incorrect. Innocence gets put on trial all the time and everywhere. Didn’t Tagore lament about the same thing in him famous poem about the problem of evil?

In particular, I thought of the young Bangladeshi student Limon Hossain who on the 23rd of March, 2011, was shot at point blank range by members of the law enforcement agency RAB (Rapid Action Battalion). Unlike most of RAB’s victims Limon survived but as a result of his injuries he lost his left leg. Later it turned out that this was a case of mistaken identity and RAB had planned to nab (and perhaps shoot at point blank range?) another, a Limon Hossain Jomaddar, who in addition to sharing the same name was also supposed to be wearing a red shirt as young Limon was wearing that day!

This was not the first time that RAB had accidentally shot someone who had the misfortune of sharing the same name with someone else that they were looking for. An article in New Age by Rahnuma Ahmed on the Limon case also mentions another case of mistaken identity where a young model named “Bappi” was killed at point blank range because RAB mistook him for a wanted criminal with the same nickname. Digging through articles while preparing for this post I came across a Bengali article titled “Shumons Beware” (সুমনরা সাবধান) by A.Z.M. Abdul Ali, published in Shomokal in 2005, warning all young men named Shumon because RAB had been looking for a criminal named Shumon and had already killed one person with that name by mistake. Mistaking innocents for wanted criminals and then killing them, seem to be part of RAB’s modus operandi!

Returning to the case of Limon, instead of admitting their mistake, RAB filed false cases against Limon claiming that he was a wanted terrorist, and even tried to stop his mother from registering a case against the RAB members who had been involved in the shooting. For more than two long years RAB and the Government of Bangladesh pursued these false cases against Limon. They harassed him and his family. This also seems nothing out of the ordinary for RAB as there are many other documented cases where they have followed the same procedure of harassing and intimidating the family of someone whom they had mistakenly shot and killed.

But Limon, supported by his poor family (his father is a share-cropper and a day labourer) and his villagers and guided by the legal advice from the human rights group Ain O Shalishi Kendra (ASK), has persisted in fighting these false cases while pressing forward with his own case against RAB. At one point very recently, Limon and his family were advised by the government appointed chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Bangladesh to withdraw their case against RAB in exchange for the government to withdraw its cases against Limon. The chairman was even quoted as describing it as a “win-win” situation for all. So Limon losing his leg and getting his life ruined while RAB manages to cover up its sham practice of “cross-fire” (RAB’s double-speak for extra-judicial killings) is perceived by the government’s chief human rights officer as a win-win situation! However, I have to give the NHRC chairman some credit as he had advised the government to withdraw its false cases as well as challenged them in the courts.

Only recently, on the 9th of July of this year, more than two long years since the shooting, and in the face of mounting national and international outcry, has the Government of Bangladesh agreed to withdraw the cases that RAB had filed against Limon. However, Limon and his family, thanks to the courage that only comes from innocence, are continuing to seek justice against RAB despite enormous pressure to drop their case. Limon has been quoted as saying, “[I]t should be proved once and for all that no one is above the law.”

3.

Inspired by a street-side comment I looked at two very different cases from two different countries and continents. There are important differences but the unifying theme is the killing, maiming and persecution of the innocent and the failure of the justice system to deliver justice.

For crimes like these the law should be clear cut. There are no ambiguities in what action should be taken in either of these cases: In Limon’s case the RAB members should be brought to justice and Limon should be handsomely compensated (same for all other victims or victims’ families of “cross-fires”). The high toll of innocent lives lost in “cross-fires” and high profile cases like that of Limon should clearly bring about the realization that there can be no alternatives to corruption-free and accountable law and order enforcing institutions. In the case of Trayvon, since it is too late for justice, all the “stand your ground” laws that make racial profiling and the killing of innocents legal should be scrapped. If America is truly going to become a post-racial society, there need to be recognition and open discussions about institutional racism.

These cases are terrible indictment of the status quo in these societies and they should lead us to considerable soul searching.

1. Rabindranath Tagore (1985) ‘Selected Poems’, translated, edited and with notes by W Radice, Penguin, London.

Related link: Toronto & Sammy Yatim: http://m.vice.com/en_ca/read/why-did-the-toronto-police-kill-sammy-yatim

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