In February 2007, four-and-a-half-year-old Ritu* disappeared from her aunt’s house after going out for a walk in the Badda area of Dhaka.
Ritu’s mother, who stayed in Gaibandha, had sent Ritu to live with her aunt Sheuli in Badda. Sheuli’s neighbour, rickshaw puller Huda Mia, used to take care of the child from time to time.
One morning in February, Huda and his relatives Shawkat Ali, Shafiqul Islam and Nargis Begum came to Sheuli and asked her permission to take Ritu to Huda’s house to look after her for a while. They promised to bring Ritu back within an hour.
But she was not returned. Ten days after Sheuli filed a case at a local police station, a neigbhour of Ritu’s family found her near the Banani Park road with Huda Mia. When approached, Huda fled the scene, leaving Ritu to be found by the police.
Later, police arrested Shakwat Ali and Shafiqul Islam, two of Huda’s accomplices, and they confessed that they had kidnapped Ritu with an intent to sell her to human traffickers who would take Ritu to India.
The accused were produced in front of a Dhaka court within two months after a charge sheet was filed. Trial started shortly, but was stalled due to the lack of witness testimony.
All of the accused were released on bail, and the case proceedings halted. Ritu is now almost 16-years-old, and studies in a local school in Gaibandha.
Cases are filed but fail to proceed
Just like Ritu’s case, trial proceedings of many cases filed alleging human trafficking often get stalled across different courts in the country.
According to the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012, a court must frame charges within 90 days, and trial must be completed within 180 days.
According to section 21(2) of the Act, the government is obliged to set up an Anti-human Trafficking Offence Tribunal to speed up trials, but it is yet to be established. As a result, the cases filed before 2012 are all being tried at Women and Children Repression Prevention tribunals.
In December 2017, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) gathered information from Dhaka courts about the number of cases that have been under procedure for the last 10 years.
26 cases are currently undergoing trial at three Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals of Dhaka, all of them filed at least 10 years back. The oldest pending case is 17 years old.
Of these, six were filed at Airport police station, four at Tejgaon, three at Mohammadpur, one at cantonment, one at Shabujbagh, four at Badda, two at Ramna, one at Kamrangichar, one at Khilkhet, two at Hazaribagh, and one at Adabor police station.
The situation is no better at courts outside Dhaka. A tribunal in Narayanganj has four pending cases, with the oldest one dating back to 2001.
According to sources, there are two cases pending at Kishoreganj Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal, all of them filed more than 10 years ago. A court in Faridpur has four pending cases, while a Munshiganj court has one.
‘Main reason for delay in case proceedings is lack of witnesses’
Arfan Uddin Khan, a former public prosecutor of Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal in Dhaka, said that most of the cases filed against human trafficking take time to proceed because of the lack of sufficient witnesses.
“Most of the witnesses are kept silent with bribes,” said Arfan. “Majority of the witnesses come from poor financial backgrounds, and they are negotiated to keep quiet.”
The former PP also blamed the police, saying that as police are the main complainants in these cases, they soon lose interest in procuring witnesses when the trials start getting lengthy.
“In cities, witnesses and victims often do not have any permanent addresses, which makes it harder for the police to locate them,” said Arfan. “But if the courts had asked them to add the phone numbers in the case dockets, it would have been much easier.”
According to Arfan, the police and the prosecution team are both responsible for bringing the witnesses to court.
“The tribunal judges have the authority to take punitive action against cops if they fail to produce witnesses,” he said. “But courts rarely do that.”
Although he was a public prosecutor, he could hardly cross-examine two witnesses simultaneously, said Arfan.
“Witnesses do not come forward for many reasons, including pressure from the accused,” he said. “As a result, verdicts often go in favour of the accused.”
Ali Asgar Swapan, a public prosecutor in a Dhaka tribunal, once dealt with a human trafficking case dating back to November 2006, when traffickers were arrested from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport with 31 women they had lured there with the hopes of sending them to Lebanon.
However, all of the accused were acquitted of charges in 2016. Ali said that among the 31 victims, only one of them came to testify during the trial.
In 2014, a high-power police committee recommended forming a monitoring cell consisting of representatives from Law and Home Ministries and also from the office of the Attorney General to keep track of human trafficking cases that are currently under trial. However, such a cell is yet to be formed.
Contacted, Law Minister Anisul Huq said the government had progressed well to form separate tribunals at the divisional headquarters. “The tribunals will be set up once all preparations are done,” he said.
*Names were hidden to protect identities