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Saturday, 02 February 2008

Fakhruddin Ahmed’s government – which incidentally promised accountability and decency in governance after its assumption of power – has seen at least 176 deaths in custody, some of them so terrifyingly gruesome that even a written account is too graphic for consumption

Mahtab Haider

The home ministry’s recent directive to the law-enforcement agencies that cautions them on deaths of detainees in their custody, though it may well end up being empty rhetoric, deserves praise.

Praise because it is this government’s first open admission that the phenomenon of extrajudicial killings is not only continuing unabated but also that a senior adviser in the military-controlled interim government, former general MA Matin, finds the trend significant enough to discuss it with top officials from the law-enforcement agencies, and then issue a directive to this effect.

There is, of course, sufficient cause for the government to be concerned.

The impunity that the law enforcers have traditionally enjoyed during the political regimes of the past have now increased manifold in an era where ‘joint forces’ are carrying out similar operations. Extrajudicial killings, i.e. killings of detainees who do not face trial, is now a decades old phenomenon in Bangladesh that enjoys widespread popularity and endorsement in Dhaka’s elite circles who believe with conviction that ‘criminals’ – those that do not belong in elite circles – deserve a swift and fatal retribution rather than undergo trial in the judicial system that is blamed for being ineffective.

The Rapid Action Battalion has been the principal judge-jury-executioner institution responsible for a bulk of the deaths that have taken place in custody. Since its creation in 2004, RAB has been responsible for more than 400 deaths of detainees in their custody, reported almost daily by newspapers which report them variously as deaths couched in more gentrified terms as ‘crossfire’, ‘encounters’ and ‘shootout’.

The reason that there is a growing pressure on Fakhruddin Ahmed’s government – which incidentally promised accountability and decency in governance after its assumption of power – is that between January 11, 2007, and its completion of a year in power in 2008, there have been at least 176 such deaths in custody, some of them so terrifyingly gruesome that even a written account is too graphic for consumption.

Adivasi leader Choles Ritchil’s name inevitably ranks high in a long list of gruesome deaths in custody that has stained this government’s first year in rule. Ritchil was picked up on March 20 last year and tortured to death in the army’s Kakraid camp in Tangail’s Madhupur, according to the Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar.

An excerpt from Odhkar’s fact-finding report on Ritchil’s death reads as follows: ‘Then, they went to the room where Choles Richil was kept and beat him again. One of the army personnel told others to bring pliers, red chilli powder and a blade. Choles was crying and saying that he could not bear it any more. The army personnel beat him until about 6 pm.

About at 6:20 pm the army told Tuhin and Piran to leave the camp and also told them to see Choles Richil for the last time. They were told they would collect the body of Choles later.

Tuhin and Piren went to the room where Choles Richil was kept. They found him lying face down on the floor, his body covered in bruises. Tuhin called: ‘uncle, uncle’.

Choles Richil did not reply but looked at them. When Ritchil’s body was returned to his family members and taken to a local hospital where he finally died, he had nails missing and multiple bruises and cuts all over his body – facts confirmed by multiple witnesses including community leaders and the clergy of the local church.

The tragedy of a government comprised of the good and the great of Dhaka is that torture of detainees has become a hallmark of its law enforcement policy.

‘On February 20 last year, a ward commissioner of the Charfashion union parishad Khabirul Islam Dulal was arrested by 11 members of the Navy,’ according to Odhikar.

The rights group reports that Dulal, arrested on suspicion of possessing illegal weapons, was first taken to his own house and allegedly tortured in his front yard, his chest bruised by boots, in front of his two children aged three and five.

He was allegedly force-fed chilli powder and salt. When he begged for water, his hands were tied and he was thrown into a nearby pond before being fished out, stripped naked and beaten mercilessly. When he was taken to a nearby thana health complex, the doctors declared him dead.

While these cases have been well documented by Odhikar – which has shown courage in investigating custodial deaths when most other rights groups have curried favour with the government by looking the other way – the climate of fear in which these rights activists and the media is operating is making the task of exposing these crimes doubly difficult.

At least two senior human rights activists at Odhikar have so far faced intimidation and assault at the hands of the law enforcers. Odhikar’s acting director Nasiruddin Elan was taken to the naval headquarters on May 3, 2007, where senior members of Naval Intelligence allegedly threatened him with death. Hasan Ali, Odhikar’s human rights defender in Kushtia, was not so lucky.

He was picked up by the local police from his house on December 4, 2007 and beaten severely with batons by high-ranking police officials, before being released without any account or explanation on what his crime had been.

It was against this backdrop that Irene Khan, the chief of the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, who visited Dhaka in early January, flagged the impunity that law enforcers are enjoying even after they mete out such treatment to detainees.

‘Abusive military and police personnel must no longer be shielded from accountability, including prosecution,’ said the Amnesty brief at the end of Irene’s visit. She rightly pointed out that this practice has persisted throughout successive regimes of the past and continues to do so with the same culture of impunity under this regime.

In demanding that the culture of torture in detention and extrajudicial killings be brought to an end, it is not the military-controlled interim government’s humanity that needs to be appealed to.

The actions of any government as a whole or individual state actor is compelled to be bound by the principles laid down in the country’s constitution, in which Articles 31, 32, and 33 outlaw such treatment of prisoners and detainees, stating clearly that ‘no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law.’

And the law demands that a detainee be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of his detention and that only the courts of law have the jurisdiction to mete out punishment.

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