Bangladesh Desk, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong
Although people across Bangladesh know very well that the country’s justice system is actually a marketplace where police and court staff sell their services to the highest bidders and perform their jobs in their own interests, people from outside the country find the extent of this justice trade difficult to grasp. Here is one example to illustrate, followed by a discussion of its implications.
F M Abdur Razzak, 42, is the editor of a fortnightly newspaper, Gonomichhil, and is general secretary of the Human Rights Development Centre. He is a law graduate hoping to enroll himself as a lawyer, whom people in his area of Godaipur often called upon to help settle disputes. His paper provides news to a local audience and at times reports on corruption, including among the police. These reports have included allegations that officers of Paikgachha Police Station, Khulna District, have abused their powers.
On 3 November 2008 officers from Paikgachha Police Station arrested Abdur Razzak with another human rights defender, Shankar Kumar Dhali, 40. The police brought the men onto the road with their hands tied and escorting them to create the impression that they had been arrested for some grave crime and so to damage their public image as persons working on public interest issues. They were then kept at the station for five days. They were both severely assaulted at the time of arrest and during this period, and on November 4 and 8 again paraded along the road, to the magistrate’s court.
The charge itself was strange but damning: that Abdur Razzak with his friend had abducted a 13-year-old girl and that the girl was missing. As it turned out, the family of the girl, Khaleda, had mistreated her after her father took a second wife and Khaleda’s mother left the household. After several months of harassment the girl also left the family.
Khaleda’s stepmother made a complaint about the missing child to the Magistrate’s Court at Paikgachha. The court referred the complaint to the police, requesting them to investigate and file a report in court. The police, instead of conducting an inquiry, developed a plot on their own with a view to harassing their two critics.
The families of the two accused made their own investigations and found that the girl was living with the family of a man with whom she had been acquainted called Lal Mian at Mongla port, Bagerhat district, about 125 kilometers from her home. They visited this family’s house. Once the matter was explained, Lal Mian brought the girl to the Mongla Police Station where she made a statement on 12 November 2008, the translation of which is as follows:
My name and address has been mentioned above. Responding to your interrogation, I am telling you that I was in the area around the Mongla Port for approximately three years. I met a dockworker named Mr. Lal Mian, who welcomed me into his home. Ever since then I call him “Bhaia” (brother) and his wife Mrs. Moyna Begum as “Apa” (sister). I do housework for them. About 14 months ago Bhaia and Apa opened a restaurant at the Mongla Port Bus Station. I used to stay with Apa and his family in the restaurant—actually, at a hut adjacent and behind the restaurant. I also do work there. Now and then I go to my father’s house. My stepmother Mrs. Nilufa and my father live in Paikgachha. My blood mother lives in my grandfather’s house. About two months ago my stepmother came to Lal Mian’s house. I went back home with her and stayed there for one month, returning to the Sumi Hotel alone in order to stay with Apa. I have been working at the restaurant regularly. Around 7/8 days ago my stepmother came here to take me with her again but I did not go. About 3 or 4 days ago my (maternal) uncle Mr. Salam and Mr. Kalam too came here to take me with them but I did not go.
Despite this statement the police did not withdraw the charges of abduction. The families of the suspects had to appeal to a superior court in Khulna, which granted bail on November 27. The magistrates had repeated opportunities to examine and close the case on the basis of evidence presented or readily available but failed to do so. The magistrate of the Senior Judicial Magistrate Court of Paikgachha had two occasions to examine the validity of the arrest and detention of these persons when applications for bail were made on their behalf. On both occasions the magistrate postponed the hearings.
The lawyers filed written petitions explaining the innocence of the two suspects. More importantly, the mother of the allegedly abducted girl filed an affidavit before the magistrate stating that she was aware that her daughter had not been abducted but had gone away to some other place. The magistrate failed to act on these and failed in his responsibility to ensure that the suspects were not detained for frivolous reasons. Relatives allege that he too was annoyed with Abdur Razzak because of his publications and acted in collusion with the police to prolong the men’s detention.
Complaints to superior officers and persons in government about the case have not resulted in interventions. The Superintendent of Police of Khulna district was informed of this incident over the phone several times but did nothing. The Deputy Inspector General of Police of Khulna Range; Inspector General of Police; Ministry of Home Affairs; Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs; Attorney General; Chief Justice, and Chief Advisor of the caretaker government were all advised of what had happened but none have made any discernible response.
Systemic failures and trading in justice
Some of the basic features of this case that speak to the systemic failures of justice in Bangladesh are as follows:
1. The arrest was made without evidence and the allegation against the men fabricated.
2. The police assaulted and deliberately humiliated the accused.
3. The courts receiving the case did not examine the rudimentary facts to determine whether the complaint of abduction was well founded or fabricated.
5. Complaints to superior officers from within the country and abroad had no effect; nor did the subordinate officers responsible for the wrongdoing expect any, because the money collected also goes to their superiors. One of the officers in this case asked, “If we don’t get bribes from you are we to pay our superior officers with our own funds?”
The extent of the justice trade in Bangladesh can be seen through the two tables on the following pages, which outline the amount of money, in taka (one USD is at time of writing roughly 65 Taka) that each family had to pay just to get their loved one released on bail, and the occasions and reasons for each payment, as well as the recipients.
The Sessions Judge’s Court on 12 January 2009 granted permanent bail to Razzak and Shankar on an application filed by a lawyer; however, the complete order was passed after around eight days. The court also ordered that the case be closed and sent the documents to the Senior Judicial Magistrate’s Court. This procedure—getting the court staff to send the documents to the magistrate’s court—also cost at least 834 Taka.
Meanwhile, an objection against the police investigation report was filed with the Senior Judicial Magistrate’s Court by the complainant. The court heard the objection on February 19 and ordered to close the case, which ultimately acquitted all the alleged accused from the charge of abduction. On this occasion, in order to get the relevant staff involved in the process Razzak had to pay 400 Taka to the police officers, including Government Record Officer Sultan and Court Sub Inspector Ishak. Razzak and Shankar had to treat nine lawyers and two assistants to lunch and refreshments after the acquittal, spending 700 Taka. Additionally, Razzak had to pay 150 Taka to the assistants for their service. The court staff also received 700 as an advance for providing the certified copies of the judgment out of an approximate cost of 1800 Taka. The certified copy of the judgment, which might be 22 pages long, is supposed to be provided by around March 15 followed by the full payment. Officially, its cost should not exceed 200 Taka, as the stamp fee per page is 5 Taka plus 2 Taka as a court fee.
Within a rule-of-law system the police operate according to a command hierarchy to which there applies a body of rules and regulations. At important points superior officers are assigned with powers over their juniors. Their duty is to ensure that their part of the system operates according to the body of rules. They generate the impulses that keep the system functioning.
A local police station is the smallest unit in the main hierarchy. Although it is the smallest, it has the closest linkage to the people of a particular area. Its officers have power over their locality and the people under their jurisdiction must depend on their services. Their duties extend downwards into their local area. The superior officers above them are the ones with responsibility to see that those local police perform their tasks as a part of the entire force, motivated by the principles of the organisation and guided by the same rules and regulations as all the other local police at all the other localities.
What happens when superior police fail to perform their duty? Then, as in the case of Paikgachha, a local station becomes disconnected from the body of policing. When this happens, the system of hierarchy, rules and regulations does not extend into the local unit, which is the interface between the police force and the general public. When this happens across an entire system, as in Bangladesh, the whole of the police becomes dislocated from the body of standards to which it is supposed to be connected and upon which it is supposed to depend in its
operations. All that is left are thousands of local units disconnected from one another and from the very notion of justice itself. The only connection they have to superior agencies and personnel is through the payment of money collected from the justice trade.
If there is to be any change in the behaviour of local police stations towards the citizens of Bangladesh then the change must start at the top. Steps must be taken to bring local police stations under viable control of those who hold command responsibility and are supposed to be keeping the policing body intact.
The sorts of questions that need to be asked urgently are: how have those who are supposed to hold command responsibility abdicated this responsibility? Why have other parts of the state failed to hold them to account for this abdication? Is it that disconnected policing is now a fixture of the social control system in Bangladesh? What other explanations can be offered for why police stations around the country are left to run arbitrarily?
The idea of policing in Bangladesh is still very primitive. It appears to be based primarily upon the notion of disciplining a population by terrorizing it. Throughout the world many systems have existed where terror was considered the most important element of social control. What demarcates modern systems of justice from their predecessors is the abandonment of this idea that people can be made to submit to law and morality by being terrorized. This is, of course, not simply a matter of the police but a matter of all parts of the legal system, including the laws themselves, the courts, prosecutors and other agencies.
So if people in Bangladesh want to change the type of policing they have, they need to ask themselves seriously, how many modern concepts of justice have been assimilated into their legal system? Without a doubt, the behaviour of their policemen is very ugly; however, it may be that they are expected to behave in this manner. It may be that the thinking within the establishment is that polite, reasonably well-educated policemen who do their work in a rational manner are unhelpful to the maintenance of order, and that unjust relationships through violence are preferable and even essential. Under those circumstances, while publicly there may be declarations about improving the performance of the police, there may be indirect means by which they are encouraged to be as nasty as they can so that a high level of fear and insecurity may be maintained at local levels.
Perhaps policymakers in Bangladesh have never seriously concerned themselves with the need for modernization of the police. Entrenched bad habits cannot be overcome unless overcoming them is made a national priority. For the system’s victims this is already a top priority. Whether the major political parties are willing to make it one or not will depend on the extent of public outrage and pressure for change. Therefore, people in the legal fraternity, judges, media and civil society organisations need to do whatever they can to generate a national discourse on this terrible system of policing so as to break the silence of the policy makers and motivate a response.
The present situation may also be a result of an unwillingness to give high priority to the control of corruption. Bangladesh is known to be among the most corrupt countries in the world. In any corrupt nation, police always rank highly on the list of corrupt agencies. It is not possible to have a political and a social system that is corrupt and a policing system that is not. A good policing system and a corrupt political system are incompatible. All types of corruption are mediated through the police, directly or indirectly. As all corruption is related to practical affairs of society, the police come into direct knowledge and contact with all corrupt activities. The police often have to be made a partner in corruption in order to keep them silent on various corrupt activities that go on around them. Over time, policemen become safe intermediaries for corrupt exchanges.
The police also suppress complaints. Corruption cannot persist if its victims complain openly and use the law and media to fight against it. Here police muscle power is needed in order to intimidate complainants and discourage the use of the law. The policemen in this way become shrewd at manipulating the legal system as well as the minds of people in order to ensure that complainants are stopped or defeated, including through the distorting and fabricating of documentation and through other measures associated with but contrary to their duties, such as the simple turning away of complainants. If a person is turned away many times she may think it is better to give up such a complaint. People who persist in making complaints may find that even if they are lodged the police do nothing about them. After some time evidence is erased, witnesses intimidated and the complaints buried. When this happens to thousands of people over many years complaint making becomes viewed as a futile exercise and the justice trade goes on with impunity.
From all this it becomes clear that the Paikgachha Police Station has not become disconnected from the policing body by accident, any more than any other police station in Bangladesh. The utilizing of powers of arrest and detention to harass critics and make money is also not sporadic; it has itself become the central feature of the disconnected system. None of the things that happened to Abdur Razzak and Shankar Kumar Dhali can be described as accidental or unusual in this system. The extent of abuse they suffered, the scale of official indifference to their suffering and the amount of money that they had to pay as the only means of escape, even then only partial escape, are all known to countless others across Bangladesh. Where there should be a coherent body of policing and criminal justice connected by superior officers enforcing rules and regulations there is instead only these tables of payments made and obstacles encountered, a hierarchy of traded justice and criminality within the system. Anyone trying to seriously talk about the rule of law and human rights in Bangladesh cannot avoid this reality.