Professor of law at Dhaka University, Mizanur Rahman, was the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) two terms, for a six-year stretch from 2010 to 21 June 2016. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he speaks about the state of human rights in Bangladesh and the role of the human rights commission.
“The responsibility of a state is to protect the rights of its citizens. The state is an extremely powerful institution and an individual is helpless. A national human rights commission is essential in order to stand by the side of these helpless individuals.”
This view was expressed by professor of law at Dhaka University and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Mizanur Rahman. He was explaining the relevance of the human rights commission in Bangladesh.
Expanding on the issue while talking to an interview with Prothom Alo recently, Mizanur Rahman said the need for human rights commissions was felt throughout the world. And in a country like Bangladesh, beset with poverty, discrimination and deprivation, the common people view the police to be the government and the police wield the power. The existence of a human rights commission is extremely necessary to ensure that the police and those holding state power, dispense their duties in accordance to the law.
The question then arises as to whether the state violates the law and, in that case, what is the commission’s role.
The former NHRC chairman said that legal sciences say human rights are violated by the state. There is the criminal code and also the process for trial and punishment. If a victim goes to the police station and the police does not accept his case, then this is tantamount to the state aiding the criminal. At that very moment the question arises of the state violating human rights. When the state violates a person’s rights in this manner, it is the responsibility of the human rights commission to stand by that person.
The most allegations of human rights violations are directed at the law enforcement agencies. In that case, what can the human rights commission do?
Mizanur Rahman agreed that most of such allegations were against the law enforcement. “You could say around 90 per cent of the complaints lodged with the human rights commission is against RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), the police and other law enforcement agencies. However, the hands of the commission are shackled in such a manner that it can do nothing more than make recommendations. Other than that, it can carry out lengthy negotiations with the government and if allegations are proven in official investigations, it can eventually go to the court.”
However, he hastened to point out, going to court entailed a complicated process.
If allegations of violating human rights arose against the law enforcement agencies, the commission could ask the government for a report. If the commission is not satisfied with the report, it can submit its recommendations to the government. Then within six months, the government will notify the commission about the steps it has taken in light of the recommendations.
“If investigations prove that allegations are true,” continued Mizanur Rahman, “the commission could recommend to the government to take up the case. And eventually the commission itself could stand up for the injured party.”
He then raised a question himself, indicating the limitations of the commission. “How far can the commission go with this limited power? The commission cannot exert actual independence with such legal limitations. If the commission is to consolidate its position and earn international recognition, there is no alternative but to amend the law.”
But if the human rights commission can go to the High Court, why does it not do so?
When faced with this question, the law professor replied that while they could certainly go to the High Court, the procedure was extremely lengthy. And the commission did not even have the funds for writ petitions. In order to win a case, good lawyers were required, panel lawyers were required and they had to be paid well. One could not expect good results with shoddy fees.
The former chairman was then asked if he agreed with certain comments that described the commission as ‘a toothless tiger’ and a ‘retired bureaucrats club’ and that it ‘slept with its eyes open’.
“There is a degree of truth to these comments,” he responded, adding that it was imperative to amend the relevant laws. Referring to the Khadija murder case, he said, “The High Court rejected the commission’s conjectures in this regard and had been accused of being bungling, inactive and irresponsible.
Extrajudicial killings demean the judiciary and make is irrelevant
Concerning the comment about being a ‘retired bureaucrats club’, he said, “It would be best not to place such people who have spent all their lives with heads bent and weak spines in government service, into such a challenging position.”
As to the functions of the commission members and their scope to carry out their duties, Mizanur Rahman observed that five of the seven members of the commission were honorary, gratis. The chairman and one member were full time. So the question is, how much time would an unpaid member be willing to contribute? Why will he want to spend his time gratis? He is a respectable person of the society and has various preoccupations. Due to budget constraints and no financial independence, it is not possible to pay a member a decent honorarium. That is why, even if it means making the commissioner smaller, all members should be full time. Again, the selection committee that appoints the chairman and the members, is entirely controlled by the government. More representatives of the civil society must be included in the committee.
Concerning other limitations of the commission, its former chairman said, “The human rights commission’s budget comes from the law ministry, so how can it have administrative independence? The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Election Commission (EC) have their own secretariats, but the human rights commission has to do everything through the law ministry. Everything is makeshift.
Coming to the human rights commission’s role in the case of photojournalist Shafiqul Islam alias Kajol and whether the commission can go to the High Court in this regard, Mizanur Rahman says, “In a case like that of Shafiqul Islam, I would certainly go to court. It is not possible to go to court in all cases, but there has to be a leeway of ‘pick and choose’.”
He said, “The inhuman treatment of Shafiqul Islam in the name of the case against him, investigations and trial, is not acceptable. Earlier the commission managed somewhat to address the torture of Limon and another student of Dhaka University. In the Tonu murder case, we visited the spot and held a press conference in this regard. We know we would not be able to do much, but there were reactions within the law enforcement agencies. We could not take things up to a level to ensure punishment, but we spoke out and tried to keep the concerned quarters under pressure.”
As to whether extrajudicial killings would continue and what role the commission could play, he said that extrajudicial killings simply could not take place in a civilised society. “In every annual report, we called for a halt to extrajudicial killings and reminded the state of its responsibilities in this regard.”
“Extrajudicial killings demean the judiciary and make it irrelevant,” he said, adding that the home ministry or law enforcement agencies claimed that there were no extrajudicial killings, but ‘gunfights’. They claimed the shots were fired in self defence. He said only if the court maintained that this was an act of self defence, then would it be taken as credible.
He said it was significant that such killings came to a halt after the killing of retired major Sinha. “I think we have reached a turning point and the government has realised this. The strategy adopted to control crime and drugs was not right. Such a strategy does more harm than good. The OC who was awarded for such actions, now is in the dock for the same.”
Commenting on the government’s evaluation that such action is inevitable and has reduced crime, the university professor said such killings create a crisis of confidence within the public. This is not warranted for the state or the overall law and order situation. The protector must remain the protector. People will not accept otherwise. Also, he asked, has crime, drugs or human trafficking reduced at all with this ‘crossfire’?
So what about the many law enforcement members who have been involved in extrajudicial killings?
“A big change must be brought about in the law enforcement’s method of action. Those who have been involved in such actions, must undergo training and orientation. It is essential to inculcate the understanding in them that the law must be followed, no matter what situation may arise. It was thought that the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, those guilty of crimes against humanity, would never be tried and punished, but that has happened. Over the past one year, it has been astonishing how certain persons have had to face justice. There is legal action against serious crime in the country. So a halt must be made the evasion of justice.”
Whatever I have done for human rights, or at least tried to do, was by sheer effort on my part. I rushed to the spot of any incident and spoke openly. This created pressure on the criminal or the law enforcement agencies.
Concerning freedom of expression in Bangladesh, Mizanur Rahman said that there is no doubt that the space for free expression was steadily shrinking. Freedom of expression required democracy, good governance, a functioning opposition and more. All this was lacking. The role of the human rights commission in this regard is more important than ever before.
How did Mizanur Rahman himself perform at the helm of the human rights commission? Many accused him of all talk, no action.
He says, it is for the people, the media and others to evaluate my success or failure. All I can say is I tried my best amidst all limitations. I rushed forward wherever an incident took place. I was well aware of the commission’s legal authority and jurisdiction. It is a faulty commission, the laws are weak and cannot be enforced, the commission does not have its own secretariat or budget, and it does not have an adequate workforce. How can a commission function with such limitations? So I tried to keep the commission active through various activities, research, reports and statements. This took the commission to the people. The media was a big support in this regard.
What about the commission being called a ‘one-man show’ when Mizanur Rahman was chairman?
He responded, “Actually I did not know about the functioning of the commission, that its laws were so weak, it had no code, its workforce was inadequate and it was fully dependent on the ministry. I did not understand how to run this. The most allegations that came in were against the law enforcement agencies, yet the law delivered the message in a sense that nothing could be said against them. There could be no direct investigation against them. That is why I adopted the strategy for primary fact finding. Even so, when we went fact finding about human rights violations by a police station’s office-in-charge, the superintendent of police of that district said the commission cannot do this. Actually the commission could not, but we tried in a strategic manner. Whatever I have done for human rights, or at least tried to do, was by sheer effort on my part. I rushed to the spot of any incident and spoke openly. This created pressure on the criminal or the law enforcement agencies.
Why is the commission silent?
“I was the chairman of that commission,” he replied, “So please don’t ask me to evaluate it now. Leave the evaluation to conscious citizens, the media and the victims. I can say this much, even if the commission has less power, at least the people are aware of the institution now. It has offices in Cox’s Bazar, Rangamati, Khulna and Gopalganj. It should have offices in every division.”
*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.