Freedom of expression is handed out like ration cards

ZI Khan Panna

ZI (Zahirul Islam) Khan Panna is a lawyer of the Supreme Court and chairperson of the legal aid and human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra. In an interview with Prothom Alo's Sheikh Sabiha Alam and Monoj Dey, he talks about the human rights situation in Bangladesh, government pressure on the human rights organisations, tightening control of the release of funds for NGOs and human rights organisations, freedom of expression, labour rights, prison torture and more.

Q :

There are at least two sides to the question on the state of human rights in Bangladesh. On one side is the government and on the other is civic and human rights organisations and the media. What, in your view, is the state of human rights in Bangladesh at present?

If the government is a government of the people, it certainly must look after the interests of the people. On one hand the constitution says that we will implement the spirit of the liberation war. On the other hand, when it comes to application of the law, we nurture the mindset left over from the British rule. We consider the people to be subjects. The constitution of 1972 clearly enunciates people's fundamental rights. Yet the 1860 Penal Code and the 1861 Police Act prevails in our country. This penal code and police act were enacted in context of the sepoy mutiny. We  talk about implementing the spirit of the liberation war. The implementation of this spirit was to be through the constitution. When it comes to the application of the law, we imagine ourselves to be British and the people are our subjects. We feel we have the right to rule and exploit in the manner of the British and the Pakistanis.

All police are certainly not bad. But probably a large section of them are probably not properly aware of the fundamental rights of the people. They are not given any training that they cannot abuse anyone, cannot grab anyone by the collar. They learn that once they don the police uniform, they are free to do as they please. Therein lies the problem.

Q :

When the issue of human rights violations is raised, this is dismissed as lies, motivated or as complaints to foreign quarters.

I do not understand what logic lies behind these statements made by those in the government. But BNP would say the same as did Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Now the Awami League government says this. I think it is the chair that speaks the same.

Q :

In recent times, Bangladesh law enforcement agencies have been criticised for human rights violations. But aren't they being granted impunity year after year for their violations of human rights?

Those involved in Operation Cleanheart were also given impunity. But they could not be saved eventually. The court had declared void the law that granted impunity. So the families of those who have died, or those who have been wounded, can now go to court. Those violating human rights in Bangladesh will never get impunity. If they now amend the constitution like Ayub Khan, that's a different matter. We went to court regarding Rubel being killed in custody. It was this government that had appealed to the Appellate Division to reconsider the verdict under Criminal Code Section 54 and Section 167 (arrest without warrant and remand). When BNP was in power, they did not want these two sections to be abolished. Now Awami League doesn't want that either.

Q :

You have long being observing the state of human rights. Many say that the state of human rights in Bangladesh is on a decline. What do you say?

There have been both improvements and decline. There has been improvement in many areas. For example, domestic violence has decreased. Women have learnt to protest. Gender inequality has lessened to an extent. In 2004, there were not even 400 women lawyers. Now there are around 10,000. There has been serious decline in freedom of expression and in the election system.

The constitution says if we are an adult, if you are qualified, you can contest in the election. But the unwritten fact is that if you do not have the capacity to spend millions, you will not be able to contest in the election. Another fact is that the country has been pushed towards a two party system by the law. No matter what resolution is raised in parliament, the party members will say "yes". During the caretaker government, a law was passed so that if an independent candidate wanted to contest in the election, he or she would have to signatures of 2 per cent of the voters. But many do not even secure 2 per cent of the votes. In other words, this is a disincentive to be a candidate for the election.

We have failed to ensure safe food and security for the people. The commerce minister said if they try to accost the syndicates, things may go out of control. Is the government so fragile that it cannot take measures against the corrupt? Then again, if these questions are raised, action is taken against the journalists.

Q :

How active are the human rights organisations in upholding human rights? It is alleged that the human rights activists respond only to certain select issues, and do not act for all strata of society. What is your opinion?

The human rights organisations in Bangladesh have no lack of efforts to protect the human rights of the people. Despite innumerable challenges they strive to reach people from all strata of society. There are the cleaners for example. Human rights activists are working to improve the living standards of the sweepers. Just a few years ago a young man of a lower caste became a lawyer at a bar. He was given a separate table, plate, teacup, etc. We went there and asked why this was so. One of them replied, “His father is a cobbler and cleans our shoes.” I said, you all should be proud that the son of a cobbler has become a lawyer. We explained things to them and they didn’t make a fuss anymore.

Q :

There are extensive allegations of human rights violations against other ethnic groups too.

We are not all Bengalis here, There are people of other ethnicities. We do not want to recognise the indigenous people. We just use them to perform their songs and dances before foreign guests. Yet in 2008 Awami League’s election manifesto declared that that the rights of the indigenous must be upheld. Yet when they came to power, they said there are no indigenous people in Bangladesh. I think that if they are declared to be indigenous, there is a compulsion to implement special rights to which they are entitled.

Q :

The human rights activists also have a lot of limitations…

One of the limitations we have is of funds. Another one is that we are not allowed access to all places. For example, human rights activists are not allowed inside the jail. I have repeatedly said to the court, go and stay in the detention of the police station for seven days. The police take the accused on remand and beat them up, Then the accused simply make their confession before the magistrate, “I, in my sane mind, confess that I…” My question is, if they are going to confess in their sane mind and voluntarily, then why take them on remand? They can simply make a public confession.

The court has clear guidelines about arresting and interrogating an accused person. The court issued these orders in the Rubel murder case. The Appellate Division gave its approval too. Yet astonishingly, these orders are not followed other than in the case of the war criminals. They are interrogated in the presence of the physician, lawyers and members of the family. When it comes to Article 54 and 167, Awami League and BNP are strangely identical.

Q :

The government has all sorts of measures to control NGO activities. New regulations are being imposed. NGOs are not being able to release their funds, particularly those working on human rights and freedom of expression.

The NGO Bureau is creating problems about releasing funds. As a result our activities are being clipped. Ain O Salish Kendra had a very effective programme of using theatre performers and baul singers to perform awareness raising plays in the various districts. We have had to shut this down. The NGO Bureau’s contention is, what have plays got to so with human rights?

Previously almost all the staff of BLAST and Ain O Salish Kendra were lawyers. If anyone was arrested, the lawyers would stay by his or her side until they were brought to court. This would prevent the accused from being beaten up. We have had to shrink this programme too. There are 50 police stations in Dhaka, we have only three of our own lawyers. It is not that we don’t have donors. We can bring in funds if we want. But intervention by the NGO Bureau creates problems. From January 2020 they have started creating all sorts of problems in releasing funds. I do not quite know why they are doing this. These crises are evolving due to dependence on the bureaucracy in all spheres. The growth of these organisations has come to a halt in the country.

Q :

If we compare things from Ershad’s rule down till now, here does freedom of expression stand? Earlier political cartoons were very normal matters, but that is not at all so now.

This reminds me of a story. The Indian president Pranab Mukherjee once went to inaugurate a cartoon exhibition He went there to see all the cartoons were about him. He enjoyed the matter a lot. He said I can’t help but be amazed that there can be so many cartoons about me. If people forget how to laugh, how can a society run normally?

The tradition of political cartoons has been entirely destroyed over here. Just a few years ago, the day’s events would be brought to us in the cartoons of Shishir Bhattacharya and Rafiqun Nabi. But there is no scope for that anymore. Not only has freedom of expression be curbed, freedom of expression is now being handed out like ration cards. Censorship has certain rules and regulations, here there are none.

Q :

There are allegations that the factory owners were behind the killer of labour leader Shahidul, but it is said that the police are siding with the owners. If they take the side of the influentials before the investigation can even begin, how far can one expect justice?

Justice here is not for the poor. It is for the wealthy. A concept has taken root within the police and everyone that there is no justice for the have-nots. Justice is there for the haves. The police officer in so way can take sides in the Shahidul Islam murder case. That is common knowledge. But if he has any other motive, then that is a different matter.

Q :

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Bangladesh is among the 10 worst countries for workers. How do you view this?

That is 100 per cent correct. You will find evidence of this in the labour court. The labour laws of Bangladesh are not in favour of the workers, but in favour of the management.

Q :

A jail inmate was tortured. How do you view such torture in jail lockup?

I do not understand how Papia and her associates can torture other inmates inside the prison. The blame for this falls on all on the jail authorities.

Earlier we saw the rules being violated and arrangements made for a woman to visit a certain convict in prison. That means if you have money, jail can be heaven. The home ministry is in charge of the prisons. Are they carrying out their responsibility properly?

Q :

On an earlier interview with Prothom Alo, you had said that the fight against corruption should begin from the judiciary. But the judiciary is not an island.

If the judiciary is not free of corruption, then corruption cannot be removed from any country. The judiciary is at the highest point of society, the last resort of the people. If there is corruption there, where will the people go? Until the institutions of the country develop properly, corruption will not lessen. The judiciary may have become independent, but I say it is still under the executive. It may be independent, but not fully.

The political parties are talking about issues such as the caretaker government. But these are temporary or stopgap solutions. No one wants to give power to the election commission. They try to find ways and means to curtail its powers. Another matter is that unless the mindset is independent, it cannot enjoy this independence.

Q :

Awami League claims to take the side of the minorities. But even during the rule of this government, there have been numerous attacks on the minorities.

This is the oppression by the strong on the weak. The land that is forcibly grabbed in Bangladesh, belongs to the poor. Land of the wealthy is not occupied. The topic of Rabindranath’s poem ‘Dui Bigha Jami’ (Two Bighas of Land) is very true even today. Hindus are weak, Buddhists are weak, Christians are weak, Santals are weak, Chakmas are weak, Ahmadiyas are weak. And so they are being attacked.

Q :

You have been working with human rights for some decades now. Human rights in Bangladesh is on a steady decline. Have you ever lost hope?

Why should I lose hope? To me human rights is a continuing matter. There was a time when the suttee system was in place. Can anyone imagine that today? Girls in Bangladesh have carved a niche in football. We began with girls playing football in Dhaka and so there were even posters put up against me. Bu when we see the girls play today, our hearts swell with pride. So things will change. New challenges will emerge ad we must tackle those and go ahead. There is no reason to lose hope.