1 March, 2023
by Sam Biden, Research Assistant
January 2023 Protests
On 19th January, explosive protests broke out in reaction to allegations of police torture during custody that caused the death of a local trader, Rabiul Islam. Mr Islam’s death has been shadowed by contradiction, misleading information and official dismissals at the hands of the Bangladeshi Police Forces, often conflicting with witness testimonies. Per the Gazipur Metropolitan Police (GMP), Mr Islam was supposedly released from custody the same day he was arrested. After his alleged release, he was hit by a truck during his journey home, being transported to Shaheed Tajuddin Medical College and Hospital where he was pronounced deceased. The GMP Commissioner confirmed these series of events, yet they have not been verified. Verification is challenging as none of the CCTV cameras at the police station were working while Mr Islam was detained. Additionally, after Mr Islam was pronounced dead, 3 key members of the GMP were dismissed, including two assistant sub-inspectors as well as the Officer-in-Charge at the Bason police station where Mr Islam was held. These rapid dismissals are typical of the Bangladesh police and security forces as a punishment for the use of torture, often being the most severe punishment given. Mr Islam’s wife testified that their neighbours claimed that police forces demanded 500,000 Taka, roughly equivalent to £4,000, for the release of Mr Islam. A total of 85,000 Taka was offered to the police in return for Mr Islam’s freedom, yet was rejected after Mr Islam’s wife signed a document stating he would be released regardless.
As well as Mr Islam, two more civilians claimed to have been tortured in mid-January as well. Abu Hossain Rajon, a lawyer, claimed he was detained for a week at Hartijheel police station where he was tortured during interrogation: the accused police force has denied this. Raghunath Kha is a journalist who claims a similar experience. He was arrested on 23rd January following the protests, being blindfolded and taken to the Detective Branch Office where he was allegedly electrocuted for 30 minutes in order to obtain information.
Prior Instances of Torture or Arbitrary Detainment
The Bangladeshi police forces are not short of previous accusations surrounding torture and false imprisonment.
Earlier cases of torture during police custody are all too common. Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny is another victim who was tortured to death in police custody in 2014. Alongside his brother, Imtiaz Hossain Rocky, he was subjected to intense torture, causing the death of Ishtiaque in hospital shortly after. The three officers who administered the torture were sentenced to life in prison while the officers in charge were given 7 years each. These convictions are the only instance in which members of the police or security forces have been handed sentences for torturing inmates. Rajob Kor, a jewellery artisan, was taken from his residence by Kotwali police in Dhaka where he was beaten with a bat, stomped on, had his fingernails extracted and was electrocuted. He claims that much of his jewellery was taken as well as money he’d saved up for his mother’s eye surgery. Another alleged case involved an unnamed 15-year-old boy who was kidnapped by police forces and coerced into admitting to a crime he was not involved in regarding the theft of a motorbike. Police blindfolded him and pointed a gun at his chest while they questioned him. Additionally, witnesses claim he was physically abused in front of a crowd of 100 people. Eventually, the boy was admitted to prison and held for 3 days before facing a criminal trial for theft, yet no evidence apart from his coerced confession was presented and his claims of torture were denied during proceedings.
The cases of Mir Ahmed Bin Qasem and Hummam Qader Chowdhury are prime examples of false imprisonment. Both men were arrested in early August 2016. These arrests were not subject to any warrants, relevant charges or due process and both men were denied lawyers and visitation rights. Mr Chowdhury is a senior member of the opposing Bangladesh National Party, a fierce rival to the current elected government headed by the Bangladesh Awami League. Witnesses claim that plain-clothed men, some of whom were armed, dragged Mr Chowdhury from his car while on his way to a hearing. Mr Qasem was arrested from his home, also by plain-clothed officers. Neither party who arrested the men identified themselves as police or security forces. Authorities denied that either of the men were in custody even though many credible sources showed they were being held at the headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion in Dhaka. Both families of the men filed for a general diary enquiry to obtain information about their location or charges, but these requests were denied. Both Mr Chowdhury and Mr Qasem may have been targeted for their political affiliation as they are both sons of war criminals: Mr Chowdhury’s father was executed for war crimes in 2015 due to his actions during the Bangladesh Independence war, while Mr Qasem’s father is currently incarcerated and due to be executed.
False imprisonment is not restricted to political adversaries. Bangladesh has a history of applying the same treatment to migrants. In 2020, a total of 370 migrants were arbitrarily detained over a two-month period, often being detained in waves as they entered the country. One such wave involved the arrest of 32 migrants for alleged criminal activity abroad that resulted in time served in Syria: this accusation supposedly was ‘tarnishing the image of the country’. Despite the migrants serving prison time in Syria, no credible evidence of any criminal activity was found regarding their cases nor were any official charges made against anyone concerned. These experiences were replicated with other mass arrests. In July 2020, 219 migrants were arrested in similar circumstances after returning from Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. No charges were brought against them and police stated they were being held for ‘various offences’, yet never specified what these offences were.
Facilitation of Torture and Arbitrary Detainment
Bangladeshi police and security forces are awarded the majority of their powers from the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP). In particular, Section 54 of this legislation grants a wide array of arrest powers with few barriers to use. Warrantless arrests and poor guidelines surrounding the need for reasonable suspicion are two enabling factors. ‘Reasonable suspicion’ and ‘credible information’ are both mentioned in Section 54, yet their utility parameters are not defined, leaving their use as subject to the interpretation of each enforcement officer or member of the judiciary.
These broad powers are supplemented by special powers found in other legislation, particularly the Special Power Act 1974 (SPA) and Evidence Act 1872 (EA). One provision of the SPA allows for the arrest, detainment and charging of an individual even if an offence has not been committed. This is predicated on the assumption, supported often by no evidence, that the individual has the intent of committing a crime that has not yet taken place. This assumption is based on similar parameters as the CCP, often at the discretion of the arresting officers. The EA only enhances these powers, allowing for the use of involuntary confessions to obtain incriminating evidence that is admissible in court. For example, an individual arrested on drug trafficking charges with little evidence may be tortured in order to obtain incriminating evidence, such as drug money or drugs themselves. This can then be used against them in court. While they would still be technically guilty of the offence, the procedure that allowed for physical evidence to be obtained would be unlawful.
CAT concluded their report on the state of torture in Bangladesh in 2019, highlighting many issues mentioned that still continue 3 years on.
1. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment
This section focused on torture and ill-treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials. The Committee noted that only 17 cases of torture had been filed against those concerned, with little public information surrounding each case. As of today, only one of these cases has resulted in a conviction for those accused of torture. These figures are shocking alone, yet worsened by the poor implementation of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act (TCDA) enacted in 2013. The TCDA incorporates prosecutory and investigatory provisions regarding torture. This includes the listing of government agents as individuals who may be prosecuted, full documentation of allegations, complaints and reporting procedures as well as protection mechanisms for victims. It was noted that attempts were being made to have law enforcement agents omitted from liability, yet this change has not been made.
2. Inadequate investigations of torture
The Committee notes that the incorporation of legislation and international rules is not being properly applied as to allow for accountability regarding torturous complaints. Law enforcement agents have consistently refused to report or ignore complaints of torture made by the victim or on their behalf, further worsened by harassment, threats and violent retaliation at the hands of law enforcement agents. These issues are not handled by a central, impartial authority but by the law enforcement agencies themselves, often involving those accused in the investigative process, causing major issues surrounding conflicts of interest. Additionally, the outcome of these internal investigations has never been published nor provided to the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission, a public body aiming to uphold and enforce human rights principles from the OHCHR.
3. ‘Rapid Action Battalion’
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is a conglomerate of enforcement agencies that focus on anti-crime/terrorism, consisting of the Bangladesh Army, Police, Navy, Air Force, Border Guard, Civil Service and Ansar, formed by the Armed Police Battalion Act (APA).
The RAB has been credibly accused of torture, arbitrary arrests and detainment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of inmates or those in custody. They are granted strict protection from the APA, specifically, section 13 which exculpates members of the RAB for actions done or intended in ‘good faith’. This ‘good faith’ is often utilised in a protective manner such as the improprieties regarding ‘reasonable suspicion’ mentioned prior, offering interpretations in favour of the perpetrator. In 2017, an anonymous senior official of the RAB stated on public radio that the force was responsible for framing people for crimes by placing weapons on them after the fact and the rampant torture and murder of civilians at the command of their superiors. These claims have not been investigated as required by the Bangladeshi government, showing a clear lack of initiative regarding investigating these kinds of allegations or claims.
Law enforcement agencies and their officers are still either complacent or active in the widespread abuse of human rights against civilians and migrants. The Bangladeshi government has overall aimed to improve the situation with the enactment of specific legislation to handle key issues, especially torture. Despite this, they have failed to supplement this with internal mechanisms and training to ensure accountability can be handled outside of the law enforcement agencies themselves where clear conflicts of interest continue to dampen any hopes of meaningful restitution for the victims. Alongside this, judicial intervention is heavily limited, often being used to grant approval to the actions of law enforcement officers with a particular ignorance towards allowing coerced confessions to be used in court.
Highlighted areas from the CAT have also not been correctly implemented. Poor investigative mechanisms, conflicts of interest, an epidemic-level use of torture and enforced disappearances as well as a protective relationship between the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and Bangladeshi government shows any meaningful aims to eradicate these issues only exist in a theoretical format.