By Jahangir Alam Akash
Torture is a common feature in Bangladesh. Now torture has become institutionalized. In Bangladesh, it has become common for extrajudicial killings to be sanitized under the names of "crossfire" or "encounter" by law-enforcing agencies. A culture of impunity has also been a common practice by the state since 1975. Here, extrajudicial killings by the joint security forces continue unabated.
I experienced torture firsthand while I was detained at an Army camp during the state of emergency declared by Bangladesh's military caretaker government from Jan. 2007 to Dec. 2008. I want to share with you some of my experiences. Every day, the suppression of the media and freedom of speech is becoming more apparent in Bangladesh. I would like to draw a picture of the destruction of Bangladeshi media from my own perspective.
The people of Bangladesh struggled for 23 years to establish their rights in different sectors throughout the country, then for provincial autonomy, and finally for independence. They owned their victory through a nine-month-long war, after which they found Bangladesh independent. But it is very troubling that Bangladeshis' fundamental rights have been restricted through interference by the Army, at different times. The Army autocrats who rule the country have caused the deaths of thousands of civilians and Army people, even the father of the nation, Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975, but they have always received impunity.In recent past regime of army backed caretaker government, it was common Practice for the joint forces, the Army, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to torture university professors, journalists and writer and human rights defenders including famous dramatist columnist Malay Bhoumic, professor Anwar Hossen Neem Chandra Bhoumic, Harun-ur-Rashid, present vice chancellor of Rajshahi University Abdus Sobhan, ex vice chancellor of the same university and present ambassador of UK Saidur Rahman Khan. No action can to be taken against these perpetrators. Personally, I have also been victimized by the recent past authority for my activities as a journalist, writer and human rights activist. I was tortured for 15 hours. My crime was that I was made several investigative reports about the RAB’s offenses of extrajudicial killings, Islamic militancy and Indigenous and minority torture as well as corruption and political terrorism.
I want to paint a picture of the violation of the rule of law and human rights in Bangladesh. The RAB arrested a terrorist named Benazir on May 2, 2007, on the charges of possession of illegal arms. While arresting him, they shot both of his legs in front of his minor daughter and his wife. Benazir is now crippled with two bullet marks on his feet. He is also detained in the hospital area of the Rajshahi central jail. The RAB did not find any arms in his possession. Another killing was happened in the name of ‘Encounter’ by RAB-5. RAB murdered a local Workers party leader Maznu Sheikh alias Kamrul Islam at Chotobongram in Rajshahi city on May 18, 2007. I reported about these on CSB News and broadcasted interviews of their relatives (wife, mother, brother and localities). In the same time I was published these report on the daily Sangbad and broadcasted in DW Radio.
When Benazir was shot, it was reported by me on CSB News. None of the RAB personnel who were involved in the alleged operation agreed to give statements in front of a television camera regarding the incident. In the evening, I send the report to our head office in Dhaka from our bureau office in Rajshahi. In a news bulletin broadcasted at 1:00 a.m. the following morning, the report was broadcast. Then, at 9:33 p.m. that evening, I received a call from RAB officer Major Rashidul Hasan Rashid. Soon as I As soon as I picked up the phone, the caller asked me why the broadcasting of the news piece about the RAB’s operation was stopped after being aired only twice. In reply, I told him that "it is up to the head office." Major Rashid became annoyed with me and said, "You broadcasted this report intentionally." I replied, "It is my professional duty, nothing more than that." He asked, “Why did you broadcast someone crying and the statements of Benazir’s wife and daughter?” In response, I asked him, “Do you want to know it officially?”
At this stage, Major Rashid became very rude. I cannot mention the words he shouted at me in our language, since the language was very bad. He was outraged and said, “If you fail to give the right answer about why you broadcast the report, then I shall take actions against you.” I said, “I have not committed any crime.” Major Rashid asked again, “Why did the other TV channels not broadcast the same report? You did it intentionally and your actions belong to ‘anti-state activity’.” He also said, “Make sure that you, any of your colleagues, and the CSB News camera are never seen within the jurisdiction and activities of the RAB. If they are, then the RAB will take action against you." After that, he hung up. I complained to the Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International regarding this threat. Then an investigation was commissioned. After giving a detailed report, I signed my written statement, which was received with signature and official chop by the reader to assistant police commissioner in Boalia, Rajshahi on July 3, 2007. Mr. Golam Mostofa, the field officer of the National Security Intelligence questioned me regarding the said intimidation and threats, on July 15, 2007. Then, at around 6:00 p.m. on July 22, 2007, Mr. Moyeen, an inspector of the Special Branch of the city of Rajshahi visited my office and took my statement. Inspector Moyeen also asked about the threat I felt, and I replied that the RAB is involved in extrajudicial killings and I feared that I could become the victim of such a killing. I reported that I have been continuing my work, but I still worried that the RAB or his men might target me for further harassment or intimidation.
So I became a target. I have been charged multiple times with false and political motivated charges and have been arrested, tortured and detained. I was arrested from my house at midnight and tortured in front of my wife, child and rental house owners. I was taken to the RAB-5 office. I was hung from the ceiling with my hands tied with ropes and was beaten mercilessly on my feet and my back. I was kept hanging from the ceiling with ropes around my hands, with the mask on my face. And also they gave me electric shocks. When I was being tortured I was being shouted at with words like: “Will you do the Benazir report again…?” “Litchi garden report again…” ‘Khairuzzaman Liton’s family report again…” Now face the consequences; son of a pig… son of a bitch…” etc. The RAB would like to be able to kill me, and officially call the killing a "crossfire" or "encounter."
RAB sent me to the local police with the charge under the section 16(2) of Emergency Power Rules 2007. I was under medical attention in the Rajshahi central jail for 10 days. As a new detainee, I was sent to the case table in front of the jail house's trial court on my first day. When I went to case table, two fellow inmates had to hold me on both sides. I had no power to walk. I could not even sit properly, but could only put pressure on one side of my rear, when sitting. I broke into tears. Many cases were lodged against me. I felt I was being prepared to be killed in a “crossfire" or "encounter.”
There is more shocking news I have learned about a key perpetrator, Major Rashidul Hassan Rashid, an RAB military officer who played the leading role in the extrajudicial killings of Ahsan Habib Babu, a student’s league leader; Kamrul Islam, alias Maznu Sheikh, a Workers Party leader; Ali Jafor Babu, a prominent businessman; and about twenty others. Some people like Benazir and a jail guard, Shahebul Islam, were highly affected and disabled by their torture. Major Rashid has been recruited to serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Ivory Coast; he joined the UN mission on July 10, 2008. This makes it clear how well the Bangladeshi authorities look into human rights abuses and treat the victims and the perpetrators. Journalist Tasneem Khalil, who wrote an article criticizing the government, was taken by Army members to the facilities of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, Bangladesh's intelligence agency, and was brutally beaten. Now he has been exiled by the Bangladeshi government and lives in Sweden. Cartoonist Arifur Rahman arrested and sent to the jail for made a cartoon. Though, he was freed from jail later. In the regime of BNP-Jammat government journalist Saleem Samad, writer-journalist Shahriar Kabir, professor of Dhaka University and famous writer Muntasir Mamun also brutally tortured and detained illegally. There are so many examples like mentioned above. In Bangladesh still going on extra judicial killings in the name of ‘Crossfire’ ‘Encounter’ or ‘Gunfight’. Though, the present government is democratic. Recently in Gofforgaon upazilla under Mymensing district journalist Biblop was tortured by the supporters of ruling party lawmakers. In last 16 years almost 24 journalists murdered in Bangladesh including Manik Saha, Deponkar Chakraborty, Goutam Saha, Humayun Kabir Balu, Shamsur Rahman Cable, Harun-ur-Rashid Khokon, Saiful Alam Mukul, Sheikh Belaluddin. But yet real investigation and trial has not end. Journalist’s community and the relatives of killed journalists are waiting for justice. In last 38 years since independence hundreds journalists brutal tortured including Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, Atiquallah Khan Masud, Alhaj Zahirul Haque, Probir Shikder, Tipu Sultan.
On the other hand, In Bangladesh, the brutal persecution of the Christian religious minority and indigenous ethnic minorities is going ahead full steam. Until now, the persecution that both communities faced never saw the light of justice. A culture of the denial of justice in Bangladesh is the root of all the persecution against the ethnic and religious minorities, which isn't only affecting a part of the country, but is plaguing the entire criminal justice system in Bangladesh. General Zia and his predecessors introduced persecution against the minorities in Bangladesh. Bangladesh became Islamized under the military regime, rather than being a true parliamentarian democracy. Bangladesh was not born with the blessing of being united beyond ethnic and religious differences, but rather has been Islamized, yet with a secular policy.
The attack on the religious minority brings with it the idea of “Islam in the constitution”. The communal spirit began with political motives and ended in mass destruction such as the attack on present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed back in 2001. The victims of the brutal attack are still looking for justice. At that time also, a bomb attack killed 10 and badly injured 20 others at the Baniarhar Catholic church in Maksudpur, in the Gopalganj district.
In 1998, an indigenous leader, Alfred Soren, was brutally killed by those in power. The day of the attack, the perpetrators looted his house, destroyed his belongings, and set the house on fire. Until now, his family members and the public have never seen the light of justice. Cholesh Richil, an indigenous Christian leader, died in custody on March 18, 2007, following brutal torture at the hands of the army. Richil’s civil rights were grossly violated by government agents. It is puzzling why the government has not yet made a proper investigation to unearth the mystery behind this leader’s death. The perpetrators of this crime should not have impunity. The killing of Richil has not been filed as a criminal case to date. From 1979 to 1981, the indigenous people of Bangladesh became cornered by landless people from the mainland in the process of their rehabilitation by the government. An ill-fated ten-year-old indigenous child, Klanto Chiham, was killed by brutal teachers after being tortured at Maymansingh. A dacoit, or robber, killed a Christian school teacher, Mangsang, at Madhupur in Tangail. A member of an even smaller minority, Dr. Goni Gomes, a converted Christian from Islam, was killed by Islamic militants. The constitution does not give proper identity to the indigenous peoples. This is Bangladesh! We demand that these persecutions stop right now and that the government give all rights due to the minority groups and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Torture has been a familiar and widespread problem in Bangladesh. It is a routine feature of criminal investigations, used by the police to obtain confessions. It is also used for politically motivated purposes against alleged national security suspects, critics of the government, and perceived political opponents, in order to obtain information, to intimidate or to convey more broadly a message of fear. The system of detention is also a kind of human rights violation.
Article 35 (5) of the Constitution of Bangladesh clearly said that, No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment - thus, it is a fundamental right of all Bangladeshis that they are protected by the Constitution against torture. There is a biggest difference between the constitutional provision and the belief of the general people. This experience started on the very day when the nation adopted its constitution as the supreme law of the land immediately after the independence of the country from the colonial regime. That same difference of allowing torture to persist without any credible scope of justice to the victims remains after 38 years of independence. The police, along with its other branches such as Special Branch (SB), the Detective Branch (DB) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), are not the only agencies that practice torture. The paramilitary forces the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) the armed forces, especially the Bangladesh Army, and the intelligence agencies like the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) of the country, all maintain special torture cells of their own. There are temporarily created cells like the Joint Interrogation Cell (JIC) and the Task Force for Interrogation (TFI) Cell and they are notorious for their brutality.
There is little support for the people they are supposed to be protecting. The law enforcement agencies and the security forces care little for the ordinary people of Bangladesh. The personnel, who serve in the police, armed forces and the paramilitary forces stand face to face before the people treating the commoners as criminals in general and subject them to torture in the name of maintaining law and order in the country. In reality, a country likes Bangladesh where a fair trial is beyond imagination of the justice seekers it is absolutely impossible to get a legal remedy against a perpetrator of torture.
Human rights organization The Asian Human Rights Commission informed us that, in Bangladesh 629 police stations in the country. If a single person is tortured per day in these police stations then an alarming number of 229,585 persons are being tortured in Bangladesh every year. Torture at the hands of the state actors regularly causes permanent and temporary disability of persons and amounts to hundreds of deaths every year. But, despite the recurrence of these grave incidents it repeatedly fails to shake the conscience of the policymakers of the nation. The governments of various regimes do not feel any responsibility to bring to an end this brutal practice. Ironically, the political parties of the country pledge to uphold rule of law and human rights before every general election and then turn a blind eye to abuses by the police once they are elected to power.
Bangladesh's parliament is in session for the second time after a new government led by the Bangladesh Awami League assumed office this year. A draft Bill urging the need of punishing torture and custodial death as a crime has also been in place since 5 March 2009. The Bill was registered by a Member of the Parliament, Mr. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, of the ruling political party, as a Private Member's Bill as the government did not clarify its position regarding the issue. A ruling party with more than two thirds majority in the parliament can eliminate torture and allow thousands of victims to get justice from the courts of law in order to fulfill the government s commitment to the people thereby meeting their constitutional obligations.
We general people of Bangladesh urges to the Parliament of Bangladesh to prove its commitment that they want to end the practice of custodial torture and the culture of impunity on their own soil. We also urge the parliamentarians to legislate the draft Bill in order to open the doors of the judiciary for the victims of torture.
The victims should have easy access to the complaint mechanism and protection from threats and intimidation. The burden of proof should be upon the perpetrators of torture with an obligation of compensating the victims for their sufferings if the perpetrators are found guilty. Article 46 of the Constitution must be repealed as it is used to offer impunity to the perpetrators of torture. Sections 132 and 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure must be repealed immediately. Section 132 allows the state actors to abuse their power in the name of good faith without any checks and balances, and Section 197 denies the independence of the judiciary. The peoples also urge the civil society, including the media and the rights groups of Bangladesh to initiate movements against the practice of custodial torture and impunity by demanding the criminalization of torture.
Freedom of the press should be granted in Bangladesh's constitution; it is granted in Art. 39 (b), but it is not binding upon the government. Therefore, we should fight to establish the rule of the constitution. The judiciary should be independent in practice, and all kinds of killings by the government machinery should be stopped. No persons should be tortured by law-enforcing agencies. No rule or ordinance that is contradictory to the main theme of constitution should be formed or passed. No accused persons should have impunity. The U.N. charter should be followed strictly and, in this regard, the international organization should act impartially and independently.
I think that, to establish freedom of the press and to protect human rights that are the first and main step to establish the rule of law and to develop a country, the culture of democracy should be practiced continuously and strictly in Bangladesh. In this regard, a forum for regional or global cooperation should be formed, should be active in creating a few rules, and should be strictly maintained. It is necessary to give punish those who are perpetrators and should Bangladesh government stop Impunity for the greater interest of democracy and peace.
Writer: Exiled Journalist, writer and human rights activist and for politically persecuted a guest of Hamburg Foundation.
Jahangir Alam Akash
Journalist, Writer & HR Defender