The victim was picked up from a wedding ceremony and was tortured in police custody in 2014
A landmark judgment in the history of the country’s judiciary was delivered by a Dhaka court on Wednesday in a case filed under a new law over a custodial death.
Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Judge KM Imrul Kayes sentenced three former policemen to lifetime rigorous imprisonment over the death of Ishtiaque Ahmed Jony, which took place in 2014.
The judgment came against the background of a case filed under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013, in the presence of three of the accused amid tight security on Wednesday afternoon.
The convicts, former Pallabi police station sub-inspector (SI) Zahidur Rahman, assistant sub-inspectors Kamruzzaman Mintu and Rashedul Hasan were also fined a total of Tk1 lakh, in default of which, they will serve an additional six-month rigorous imprisonment.
Two others, police informants Sumon and Russell, were given seven years of imprisonment and also were fined Tk20,000 each. They will have to serve three months in jail if they fail to pay the penalty.
The convicts were ordered to pay Tk2 lakh each in compensation, which they cannot challenge in any trial court, the verdict said.
ASI Mintu and police informant Russell were convicted in absentia, after 24 prosecution witnesses were examined.
Slain Jony’s younger brother Imtiaz Hossain Rocky filed the case with Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Court on August 8, 2014, while their mother, Khurshida Begum, filed another case with the Metropolitan Magistrate Court.
No fewer than 1,426 custodial deaths took place between January 2017 and July this year, according to a report of the rights group Ain o Salish Kendra.
Of the fatalities, 195 were reported in 2016, 162 in 2017, 474 in 2018, 388 in 2019, and 207 in the first seven months of 2020.
‘Nobody can see torture at police custody except God and arrestee’
While delivering the verdict, Judge KM Imrul Kayes said the plaintiff, Jony’s mother, one paternal and one maternal uncle, and two others testified in court that Jony was brutally tortured in police custody.
“Their testimonies were so important in the case. Whenever any torture takes place in police custody, nobody except the arrestee himself and God can see that,” he said.
But in this particular incident, three more people were picked up along with Jony, who themselves witnessed the torture unleashed on him, the judge said.
Spitting on a thirsty Jony was a human rights violation
Describing the torture by referring to the witnesses, the judge said: “The incident at a certain stage turned so ugly…. SI Zahid along with his two colleagues put his leg on the chest of Jony.”
“But whenever he (Jony), out of immense thirst, sought some water, Zahid spat on him, saying ‘drink it’,” the judge said.
This is not only a breach of the law, but also a gross violation of human rights, he observed.
What had happened with Jony?
According to the case dockets, an altercation took place between police informant Sumon and Jony over some girls being harassed at a wedding ceremony at Irani Camp under Pallabi police station in the early hours of February 9, 2014.
Half an hour later, a team of 25-26 policemen, including SI Zahid, went there and vandalized the stage.
They also picked up Jony, his brother Rocky and a few others from the ceremony, and took them to the police station. The detainees were tortured in police custody.
Later, a seriously ill Jony was taken to the National Heart Foundation, where doctors declared him dead.
On August 7, 2014, a court ordered a judicial inquiry into the custodial death of Jony, after his brother Imtiaz Hossain Rocky filed a murder case.
Following a judicial inquiry, Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Maruf Hossain submitted a probe report to the court, accusing five people of the killing in the case on February 17, 2015.
What the law says
The minimum punishment for custodial death is a life term in jail, according to Section-15 of the law, which has no mention of any highest punishment.
A five-year period of incarceration is the punishment for custodial torture, it says, adding that a maximum of Tk2lakh fine is to be paid by the convicts.
Family happy as years of wait to get justice end
Rocky and his mother were present in the packed courtroom when the verdict was being read out at around 2:30pm. Soon after the verdict was pronounced, they were reduced to tears.
Coming out of the courtroom with tears in their eyes, they said they were satisfied with the sentencing.
“I had to appear in court on at least 400 days, just to continue the legal battle for my brother,” he said.
“We were even offered Tk50 lakh from the five convicts, to withdraw the case. But we continued our utmost efforts to have them tried,” said an exhausted but relieved Rocky.
He also said: “Despite repeated pressure and threats from the accused, their families and associates, we did not backtrack from our stance.”
His mother, Khurshida Begum, said the family wanted the verdict to be upheld if challenged in the High Court.
“Never did we want capital punishment for the culprits. I want them to die a painful death behind bars,” she said.
HRW’s take on the law
On July 29 last year, Human Rights Watch expressed its concern over cases filed under the 2013 law.
Instead of enforcing the law, Bangladeshi police have repeatedly called for the government to amend it to be less prohibitive, calling into question whether Bangladesh’s security forces are serious about ending their torture practices.
In 2015, the police submitted a proposal to the Home Ministry to repeal Section 12 of the Torture Act, which states that circumstances such as war, political instability, or emergency are not considered an acceptable excuse for the commission of torture.
They also proposed that certain law enforcement units – including those with the most notorious reputations for committing torture, such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Criminal Investigation Department, Special Branch and Detective Branch – be excluded from prosecution under the act.