On 9 September the Dhaka metropolitan sessions court sentenced three members of the police force to life imprisonment and two ‘sources’ (informants) to seven years imprisonment under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act. According to media reports, this is the first time that any member of the law enforcement has been declared guilty by the court under this law.
From 1992 to 1996, Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) had been ASM Shahjahan. In 2001 he was an adviser to the caretaker government. He passed away in 2019. I became acquainted with him after his retirement.
Around eight or nine years ago, we had both been consultants to the UNDP office in Dhaka. I had a lot of discussions with him at the time. During discussions, one day he told me that in the four years that he had been IGP, only one citizen had been killed by the police – the young girl Yasmin in Dinajpur.
The young girl had travelled by bus from Dhaka and got down at a place called Doshmile near Dinajpur town. Her house was not too far away and she would make her way there alone. A police vehicle drove up and the police offered to give her a lift home. Instead of taking her home, they raped her and left her dead body lying on the road.
I had just returned from a long stint abroad. I remember that I had gone along with some of my colleagues to Dinajpur. ASM Shahjahan said three members of the police force were proven to be guilty under the criminal law for that one instance of murder by the police during his term. They were sentenced to hanging and life term imprisonment.
Many years have passed since then that now during the term of almost all the IGPs, a few hundred citizens are killed by the law enforcement. We have given these killings different names at different times: crossfire, encounter, gunfight, self-defence and more.
Most of our laws have no preamble. But the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013 has a good preamble. It reminds us that Article 35 of our constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment. In other words, no person in Bangladesh can be subjected to torture, or cruel and inhuman punishment or treatment.
It has been about six weeks since retired major Sinha was killed and in that time the media has not seen any so-called extrajudicial killings taking place.... none of the arrested criminals, yaba dealers and their associates have attacked the law enforcement. The associates of the accused have suddenly become so respectful towards the law enforcement that they desist from attacking them. The members of the law enforcement also did not have to defend themselves, there has been no crossfire or encounters.
The preamble of the law goes on to say Bangladesh is a party state to the UN convention against torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, adopted in 1984. This convention is known in short as the ‘Convention against Torture’. So the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013 has been enacted for the implementation of our constitution and this convention of the UN. Even if very late, the law has been applied, the accused have been proven guilty and their sentence has been declared in accordance to the law.
A good side of this law is that the persons tortured by the law enforcement will not have to go to the police station to complain. The victim can go straight to the court to file the case. The law states that if anyone goes to the court and complains, the judge will immediately record the complaint and have a registered physician conduct a physical examination of the complainant and within 24 hours prepare a report on the injuries and signs of torture in the complainant’s body and also mention the estimated time of torture.
The law gives all necessary authority to the court to arrange a physical examination of anyone approaching the court with complaints of torture by the law enforcement agencies.
It has been about six weeks since retired major Sinha was killed on 31 July and in that time the media has not seen any so-called extrajudicial killings taking place. In these six weeks, none of the arrested criminals, thieves and robbers, yaba dealers and other accused and their associates have attacked the law enforcement agencies. The associates of so many accused in various cases have suddenly become so respectful towards the law enforcement that they have desisted from attacking them. And so the members of the law enforcement also did not have to defend themselves, there has been no crossfire or encounters.
We have been condemning extrajudicial killings for many years, much has been written too, and local and international human rights organisations have been calling upon the government to move away from extrajudicial killing. So it is now crystal clear that these killings were pre-planned.
There are no records of how much extortion has been carried out by the police, using crossfire as a threat. But now there are cases being filed against quite a few members of the law enforcement agencies for repression, oppression, injustice, harassment, torture and planned killing. It has been obvious for quite some years now that today or tomorrow, these cases will go to trial. There are many such instances around the world.
A section of the law enforcement agencies had gone out of control. In various countries of the world, many citizens were subject to torture and killing by the law enforcement. In many countries the trials of such incidents have begun, even if it has taken 10, 20 of 30 years. In those countries, the army chiefs, police chiefs and many members of the law enforcement have been punished.
In our country too, the powerful heads of various forces and agencies have been sentenced to various terms in prisons, including life sentences, in the 21 August grenade blast case and the 10 truck arms case, and they are now behind bars. The state minister for home affairs of the last BNP government is among them too.
The most killing by members of the law enforcement in the name of anti-drug drives is taking place in the Philippines. After its present president Duterte came to power, in a matter of four years or so, around 10,000 people were killed by the law enforcement agencies on charges of involvement with illegal narcotics, according to media reports. One day these killings will be tried in that country too. Unless justice is done, countries, states and societies will collapse.
The verdict passed on 9 September, and, before that, the investigation into the retired major Sinha’s killing, has set us on a new journey. This gives us hope. But it is unfortunate that when the ministers continually say “no one is above the law,” were immediately understood that there are many in the country that they are above the law.
The 9 September verdict is much more powerful than the ministers’ declarations. We hope this powerful verdict gives courage to the families of the victims who have been killed in custody by the law enforcement, and also that the members of the law enforcement who have been involved in such crimes so long, will not remain above the law. One day or the other, they will be tried and punished.
Shahdeen Malik is a lawyer of Bangladesh Supreme Court and teaches law at the University of Asia Pacific. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir