Foreword: Short stories about home truths in Bangladesh

Basil Fernando, Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong

In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Bangladesh and meet with victims of torture getting assistance from the Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights, and the Task Force against Torture. Some of the stories I heard included the following.

There was a man who came home one day and could not find his daughter. He searched everywhere. After he came again the next day, he found her body in the yard. Soon the police arrived and arrested him as the murderer. He was produced in court, was refused bail and sent to remand. In fact, his daughter had been killed and he had been set up by a wealthy family that was trying to oust him from his land. After strenuous efforts by local human rights defenders, he was released, but no charges were ever laid against the powerful neighbour.

Another man participated in a peaceful demonstration together with many others. When the police attacked the crowd, some tried to escape through a barbed wire fence. The police hit the man with a sharp instrument, which cut a major artery in his leg. He was taken to hospital, but did not get good treatment. Later he received treatment from outside support groups, but will have a permanent disability. No action was taken for the causing of this injury, nor any compensation paid.

There was also a young man who took his sister to school but did not return, causing anxiety to his family. They made inquiries, but obtained no satisfactory replies. Later he was found seriously injured at a police station. He was sent to court and charged with murder. Only after eight months of effort could he get bail and receive proper treatment. However, he was subsequently rearrested and kept incommunicado, where the police threatened to record that he had been carrying a gun. After more interventions he was finally shown to his family while in detention: he could not walk properly due to injuries, and had to be supported by two officers. The police sought to produce him in court and accuse him of possessing a bomb. Only with much more strenuous intervention by local groups could he prove his innocence.

This next story became quite famous after a lot of media attention. The brother of a rich industrialist was brought to court on a domestic dispute charge. During their investigations, the police found out about the rich brother. He was also arrested and brought to the station. The police demanded a large sum from him in order that he would not be implicated in his brother’s case. He resisted, thinking that his influence would save him from the police. He was wrong: the police tortured him severely. He was also threatened that he would be made the victim of a “crossfire” killing. He agreed to give less than half of the money demanded, and got his parents to come and pay it. However, the police said that since only half was paid he would not to be made a crossfire victim but the case against him would not be withdrawn, and he was kept in remand.

In another story, a man was asked by a village friend to get a job for his son in the capital, where the latter was working as a rickshaw puller. Shortly after coming to Dhaka, the boy left without telling the man. He tried to find the boy without success, but did obtain a letter from the boy, saying that he was well and that he had gone to find a better job. He informed the parents, but they complained to the police that the man had kidnapped their son. The local political party leaders suggested that the parents file a complaint. After arrest, the rickshaw puller was brutally tortured. He lost teeth and had many injuries all over his body. He was produced in court and sent to remand without bail, where he remained for four months. During this time the missing boy wrote to his mother, saying that he was alright. However, the family did not withdraw the complaint against the rickshaw puller. When a local journalist heard the story, he and some colleagues tactfully met with the mother and learnt where the young boy was staying. At last the boy was brought to court and he testified that he had not been kidnapped, whereupon the man was released.

What do these stories reveal to us? In them, we see the bonds between the influential and powerful on the one hand and the police in Bangladesh on the other. We see the incapacity of the police to perform even the most basic investigative functions. We see the relentless and uncontrolled use of force by the police and paramilitary forces in Bangladesh, and the lack of legal avenues to canvass against their brutality. We see the deliberate substitution of poor innocent people for the real culprits of crimes, who may have never been caught, may have paid bribes to be released, or may in fact be the police and their accomplices. We see the use of torture to extract fake confessions from such victims, whom the police themselves know to be innocent. We see how the police “fish” for money or other leads: arresting people without any specific idea and assaulting them in the hope that something will turn up. We see how extortion and fabrication of charges against innocent persons are intimately linked in Bangladesh. We see how the courts are no check on the jailing of persons against whom there is no substantial evidence. We see how anyone can be made a target of these perverse strategies.

This report, “Lawless law-enforcement & the parody of judiciary in Bangladesh” (article 2, vol. 5, no. 4, August 2006) is full of such stories, which reveal to us many other things also. They reveal to us about the country’s politicised and decrepit prosecution service, its total lack of witness protection, primitive forensic facilities and a whole range of other obstacles that together are all but insurmountable for the victim of human rights abuse seeking to obtain redress against a state agent.

And yet, these are still only the barest details and but a handful of cases. With a population of over 150 million, the probable incidence of abuse in Bangladesh remains beyond our imagination. Torture victims, for instance, mostly remain silent: frightened to speak out, and unable even to rely upon the support of their own families, to whom they may become unwanted burdens. Most such families are themselves in difficult circumstances, let alone having to cope with a problem like torture. A nation that is daily struggling with deep poverty and hardship is psychologically unprepared to assist torture victims. And fear and silence are normal among people who at no stage in their lives have known functioning law-enforcement agencies and fair courts.

That the basic institutions for maintenance of law and administration in Bangladesh are in a serious state of collapse cannot be denied. It follows that agencies which are responsible for the prevalence of killings, abductions and torture, notably the police and special paramilitary groups, take advantage of conditions and become increasingly corrupt and dangerous. The overall effect is to generate heavy demoralisation and cynicism about state agents, especially the police and their cohorts.

The popular view of police in Bangladesh today is that they either use investigations to make money for themselves or conduct illegal services on behalf of politicians, or both. This opinion is heard everywhere, and among people in all parts of society. It is also accepted as normal that the police demand money from complainants, from alleged perpetrators and from third parties. And in order to raise money, police torture people and threaten them with death. To escape torture or death, people pay. Those unable to pay are in fact tortured, may have cases fabricated against them, or perhaps fall in “crossfire”.

Crossfire: one of two closely-related expressions which above all others bring abject fear to people in Bangladesh. The other is “Rapid Action Battalion”, which refers to a joint military-police unit that has since 2004 brought terror to the country. Its legal function is to act as a special anti-crime unit. Its actual function is to arrest and kill at random: hence, “crossfire”. Like the expression “encounter killing” used elsewhere, “crossfire” is a term that people employ with their tongues in their cheeks. The sinister connotations associated with it imply the powerlessness of people in Bangladesh to respond to extrajudicial killings, of which anyone could be a victim. As one senior lawyer expressed to me, the word “crossfire” is itself a form of mental torture: “One is living with the fear all the time that he or she can be the next victim of crossfire.”

In Bangladesh today, the prospects of punishing the perpetrators of “crossfire” killings, torture and other grave abuses is remote, to say the least. Sometimes internal inquiries may lead to transfers or dismissals, and very occasionally, limited action in the courts. But legal redress cannot go far, and nor can it be expected to do so for some years to come. Torture, for instance, has not yet been made a crime in Bangladesh. There are also no independent mechanisms for investigations of complaints against police or other state agents: not even a national human rights commission. At present to get the most rudimentary investigation opened often requires a huge effort through the media, demonstrations and lobbying. After that, the entire legal process is so slow that it is almost unendurable for the average litigant. There is no witness protection scheme to shield victims from the inevitable pressure and harassment by the accused. Nor has the state acknowledged its responsibility to rehabilitate victims. Compensation is undermined by the lack of a specific fund for that purpose. And the slowness and inefficiency of all levels of bureaucracy makes the pursuit of complaints very difficult.

So the boundaries of freedom in Bangladesh are clearly demarcated by the use of crossfire, torture and other potent threats. This use of terror for social control–optimistically referred to by the state as “law and order”–is not only a human rights issue: it is also a fundamental development problem. Widespread loss of faith in rational state behaviour hampers all possibilities of social progress. When money-motivated police or politically-driven officials constantly upset the lives of millions, successful ventures fail to develop. Fear kills initiatives, including those for investment. All strategies are warped by panic and corruption. Qualified people who want to live decent lives find no prospects for prosperity or its enjoyment in Bangladesh. Either they adapt to the utterly corrupt institutions and agents around them or they leave.

People from all walks of life in Bangladesh are opposed to what is being done to their country. However, neither of the two major political parties has demonstrated the interest or capacity to find a way out. Instead anti-terrorist bombast is used to attack opponents and stifle public criticism. New units like the Rapid Action Battalion are deployed with increasing casualness and increasingly bloody consequences.

What can be done by people in Bangladesh concerned about human rights? One thing is to start with giving some kind of relief to victims. Without relief to the most desperate persons in society, who also belong to the poorest groups, it is not possible to prevent gross rights abuses in Asia. Throughout South Asia especially, city-based organisations with little or no connection to victims talk of campaigns for the prevention of abuses. Such campaigns cannot proceed much further than “awareness-raising” on international laws and so on. Rather, the prevention of grave abuses depends upon close contact with the victims. This allows for the possibility to change attitudes slowly, to break open the silences around abuses, and it is from there that other changes may flow. So long as victims and their families do not protest, there is no reason at all for perpetrators and the leaders of the institutions to which they belong to change their behaviour. All ventures that do something to break the isolation of victims and their families–even in small numbers–and provide a way for persons who are thoroughly unhappy with the present state of affairs to come forward and engage with them, doing whatever they can to contribute, will ultimately challenge the institutions which at present are responsible for torture and other gross abuses in Bangladesh.

The prevention of torture, extrajudicial killing and other grave abuses of human rights in Bangladesh is a gigantic task which will take huge efforts for years to come. It is a task that must involve persons at all levels–local, national and international. While it is work that may produce some limited results from the beginning, it is through consistent and unrelenting pursuit of the same objectives that it will obtain more lasting benefits.

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