In the first few years of its inception, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) would do at least four tasks. It would issue letters to the home ministry regarding incidents of “gunfight” and enforced disappearance, would seek information of those incidents, send statements to media and at the end of the year the commission would submit a detailed report to the president.
But now the Commission is lax in doing even this much. The Commission allegedly avoids addressing rights violations like gunfights, enforced disappearance and torture in custody.
The latest report of NHRC says the allegations of extrajudicial killing and crossing limits by some members of law enforcement agencies are tarnishing the “image of the government” a little. But, the report claims, the government has notable success in improving the rights situation in the country.
The reports lacks detailed description of the allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture and death in custody. Regarding the deaths in “gunfight”, the Commission said people were deeply worried because of the deaths of accused drug smugglers and injuries of law enforcers in gunfights during the anti-drug campaigns. The NHRC report called the allegations of extrajudicial killings as “so called allegations”.
The same allegations were raised against the National Human Rights Commission, which has crossed a decade in June 2020, in the 67th session of the UN anti-torture committee on 30-31 July, 2019. The UNDP also published an evaluation report that year. Ain O Salish Kendra, a civil society body, published a separate report, ‘A Decade of National Human Rights Commission Bangladesh: Efficacy, Existing Challenges and Opportunities’, on the commission’s works in the last decade. Overall, the ASK’s evaluation of the performance of the commission does not provide a rosy picture about it.
The law clearly states, the commission does not have jurisdiction to investigate the allegations brought against the law enforcement agencies
The UN anti-torture committee remarked that the Commission was not using its mandate in cases of violation of rights by law enforcement agencies. And the UNDP said the Commission was not attentive enough to ensure civic and political rights especially to take into cognisance the allegations of extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, deaths and torture in custody.
On the other hand, ASK’s report, ‘A Decade of National Human Rights Commission Bangladesh: Efficacy, Existing Challenges and Opportunities’ said, “The Chairperson of the Commission made on-the-spot visits to various places where human rights violations took place including Ramu, Banshkhali, Sundarganj and Rana Plaza and gave statements to the media… At that time, the Commission became somewhat of a ‘one-man show’, which was considered as one of the major problems in the development of the Commission. Despite such concerns, the Commission was at least visible in the media while raising concern on various human rights issues; however, later its media presence began to taper off and at one point the Commission’s presence was no longer noticeable.”
Speaking to Prothom Alo, NHRC chairman Nasima Begum, however, said the NHRC has not deviated from its mandate. Replying to a question on why the activities of the commission tapered off in cases of extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, deaths and torture in custody, she said, “The law clearly states, the commission does not have jurisdiction to investigate into the allegations brought against the law enforcement agencies. And, violation of rights does not mean only violation of those rights. Rights could be violated in many more ways though extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, deaths and torture in custody are noteworthy.”
Now the National Human Rights Commission is nothing but an organisation to provide job opportunities to retired government officials in their free time
When she was told that the previous Commission investigated allegations at their own initiative, Nasima Begum said, “Every Commission is distinct.”
Contradicting with the NHRC chairman Nasima Begum, rights activist Nur Khan Liton on 15 July told Prothom Alo that the commission is now in the pocket of the government.
He further said the Commission was not seen taking a tough stand on matters of killing in the name of crossfire or gunfight and enforced disappearance. In the first few years the Commission was seen at least strongly criticising the incidents of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance. The Commission would speak to rights bodies as well. “Now the National Human Rights Commission is nothing but an organisation to provide job opportunities to retired government officials in their their free time.”
What the Commission did in 10 years
The National Human Rights Commission was set up in the country to ensure rule of law, social justice, freedom and human dignity. The Commission began its work on 22 June 2010 with a full-time member, five honorary members and a chairperson. From the inception, the Commission has Section 18 of the act for its limited scope to investigate into the allegations against law enforcement agencies. Section 18 gave the Commission the power of seeking reports only.
However, ASK said rights bodies and lawyers have presented a wider, progressive and bold explanation of Section 18. According to them, this section does not limit the jurisdiction of the Commission in cases of investigation or other roles as the Section 17 of the act said the Commission can begin investigations on its own initiative if it does not get reports or information about any incident in time. The Commission began investigations on its own initiative since 2013.
Even in the second year of its inception, the Commission submitted a detailed report to the president on extrajudicial killing. It mentioned the killing of the son of wounded freedom fighter Md Akkas Ali in an “encounter” by a team of RAB, detention of Tushar Islam Titu by RAB and his subsequent disappearance, shooting Mahmud Bappi to death instead of Quamrul Islam Bappi, not producing an accused before the court despite arresting him, keeping 165 children in jail, killing a person in “gunfight” who was in police custody in Barishal, enforced disappearance of a RAB member following a heated debate with superior, recovery of the bullet-ridden body of Sumon following his detention by some people who identified them as RAB and killing a person, Mahbubul Haque Uzzal, after torture in broad daylight in Chuadanga.
ASK said rights bodies and lawyers have presented a wider, progressive and bold explanation of Section 18. According to them, this section does not limit the jurisdiction of the Commission in cases of investigation or other roles
The Commission played a strong role following the detention of Tushar Islam Titu by RAB and his subsequent missing. Tushar’s relatives alleged that a team of RAB-3 detained him from Dhukuria Bera Bazar in Belkuchi, Sirajganj on 22 July, 2008. He went out to buy some bangles for his wife but did not return. RAB and home ministry denied the allegation. The home ministry even submitted an investigation report on the detention. The NHRC rejected the report and demanded a reinvestigation. It found the second investigation also inadequate. Instead, the Commission requested the home secretary to send comprehensive and full report. On 29 September 2010, a home ministry report acknowledged that some members of RAB-3 and RAB-5 detained Tushar and made him a victim of forced disappearance. The Commission recommended filing lawsuit against the accused. The home ministry informed the Commission that action has been taken as per the recommendation.
The Commission’s role regarding a few allegations of violation of rights until 2016 was visible. It stood by a number of victims including Limon Hossain, who lost a leg in RAB’s firing, and Abdul Kader, who was brutally tortured by police. It informed the president that many ill motives, for example political clashes, are responsible the incidents of disappearance. People have the right and freedom to think and freedom of expression. The state has to ensure every citizen’s freedom of movement. The Commission further said the government has failed to ensure what the law enforcement could do in cases of enforced disappearance.
On 29 September, 2010, a home ministry report acknowledged that some members of RAB-3 and RAB-5 detained Tushar and made him a victim of enforced disappearance
Retired secretary Kazi Reazul Hoque took charge as chairman of the National Human Rights Commission six years later. In its report in 2017, the Commission mentioned people going missing and extrajudicial killing as lowest form of violation of rights. It identified 22 incidents of enforced disappearance. It also mentioned returning of people to their families as a positive development.
The Commission sent a semi-official letter to the government after nine drug traders were killed on 22 May 2018, asking the government to refrain from using excessive force and ensure the rights of the accused. But it did not have any strong role when allegations of extortion, and torture and killing of a large number of people in “gunfights” in the name of anti-drugs campaign in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf areas arose.
Though the Commission pledged to provide all kinds of legal assistance to the family of Teknaf pourashava councillor Ekramul Haque who was killed by RAB, it did not take any initiative later. The Commission claimed it resolved more allegations in 2018 than other years but in reality it could resolve a very few allegations raised against the law enforcement agencies. None of the seven allegations of deaths in custody were resolved, only one out of five allegations of torture and four out of 13 allegations of extrajudicial killings were resolved.
The ASK report said the Commission faced serious questions for its role in the 2018 parliament elections. At that time, the Commission opened a control room where 52 allegations were submitted. The Commission issued a statement saying that the election was free, fair and participatory even when people died in clashes in the elections.
A new Commission headed by Nasima Begum was formed in September 2019. A total of 391 people were victims of extrajudicial killings between January and December that year. In the next year, 188 people were killed in “gunfights” and “crossfires”. Among them, 112 were killed during anti-drugs campaigns, 24 were killed in custody and six were victims of forced disappearance.
The Commission has confirmed that none of its panel lawyers are giving assistance to victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances
In its report, submitted to the president, the Commission said out of eight allegations of death in custody in 2019 seven were resolved while none of the eight allegations of torture could be resolved. Out of 11 allegations of extrajudicial killings only one was resolved, the Commission mentioned.
However, neither it was clear what the Commission meant by “resolved”, nor did it have any explanation of this.
The National Human Rights Commission, on its role and rights situation in 2018 and 2019, further said, “The Commission, appearing as the main institution for the development and ensuring human rights, has been moving forward smoothly.”
Manpower and budget increase but not work
The Commission began with 28 employees. This has increased to 40 now. Whereas the Commission’s budget was Tk 43.09 million (43,096,000) in 2015-16 fiscal, it increased by 41 per cent in 2018-19 fiscal to Tk 60.76 million (60,760,000). The NHRC has opened branches in Khulna, Gopalganj, Cox’s Bazar and Rangamati. A panel with 153 lawyers has been appointed to give legal assistance but critics have raised questions on whether the Commission is being able to use its manpower and budget up to optimum level.
The Commission has confirmed that none of its panel lawyers are giving assistance to victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Two former chairmen of the Commission blamed bureaucracy for the situation. Former chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque was quoted as saying in the ASK report that during his tenure as chairman of the NHRC, letters issued to the authorities for information were simply sent from one desk to the other in the concerned ministry.
He said at the outset the ministry officials did not understand or did not want to understand that the Commission was an independent body.
The first Commission consisted of a former secretary, Dhaka University teacher, litterateur, executives of non-government development organisations, and a member of the ethnic minority community for her contributions in women’s sports. The same type of diversity was there in the second Commission as well. Though the chief of the Commission was a former bureaucrat, former district and sessions judge, a journalist, Dhaka University teacher, a former VP of Dhaka University and a former general secretary of Asiatic Society were members of that Commission. The present Commission consists of three former secretaries, two former district and sessions judge, former chairman of Rangamati hill district parishad and former vice president of Awami League and a Supreme Court lawyer from law firm Sirajul Haque and Associates.
Chairman of first Commission Mizanur Rahman said bureaucracy has devoured the Commission. Those who were government employees their whole life do not want to touch anything that would be uncomfortable for the government. Since they served the government, either they don’t understand independence or pretend not to understand. It is very tough to make a pretentious person responsible.
* The report, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla online, has been rewritten for English edition by Shameem Reza