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Dhaka Tribune

How a hotline is helping people with legal aid

The six-month-long pilot project was inaugurated on March 3

Update : 07 Dec 2023, 05:44 AM

The national emergency helpline provides three distinct services – police, fire, and ambulance.

As the national helpline has no dedicated legal aid service, Project Shetu, set up by Justice Vision Foundation (JVF), has been working with the national helpline provide legal counselling and assistance to those in need as a pilot project.

The six-month-long pilot project was inaugurated on March 3. 

Dhaka Tribune obtained detailed records of the calls and complaints received and the assistance provided over 76 days of operation.

How does the service work?

The national emergency helpline – 999 – has allocated three other emergency numbers to Project Shetu for use. When a caller asks about legal issues, 999 refer them to one of the Project Shetu. These calls, referred as “case calls” by the 999 service, provide the caller to a network of over 200 volunteer lawyers.

Before proceeding, a team of volunteers vet the call to assess its genuinity and determine viability and urgency.

The lawyers take the case pro bono if the complainant is needy, and charge only half the usual cost if they can somewhat afford to pay.

When the issue is about police stations reluctant to register a GD or case, the lawyers address them by visiting the pertinent police station. In many situations, the lawyers try to arbitrate between both parties and involve local leaders like the chairman or ward councillor. And in extreme situations, when neither arbitration nor police involvement is satisfactory, the lawyers file cases directly with the courts.

Between March 3 and May 18 this year, 58 cases were filed with the courts.

Divorce and remarriage in Gazipur

Around 50% of all recorded cases originated in the Gazipur district, 10% from the Dhaka division excluding Gazipur, 15% in the Rajshahi division, and the other 15% were from all over the country.

Project Shetu looked into the unusually high number of complaints – mostly regarding domestic abuse, women and children repression, and dowry – from Gazipur.

They found that there was a tendency among the RMG workers in the area to engage in multiple relationships. Many female RMG workers were found to have married four or five times, and male RMG workers were married seven or eight times. Project Shetu observed that due to a high concentration of RMG factories in the district and employee turnover, divorces and remarrying are frequent phenomena, according to Project Shetu Director Sayeda Ferdous Ahmed, who is also chairman of the Justice Vision Foundation.

Cybercrimes in Barisal

Project Shetu reported that the majority of complaints over cybercrime came from Barisal. Likewise, most cybercrime cases that were filed also originated from Barisal.

From the case details, it was noted that the victims were mostly lonely housewives with husbands elsewhere or teenagers with jilted ex-boyfriends. Most victims were aged 14-26. 

Married women who seek company to cope with loneliness, and young girls with vengeful ex-boyfriends – both groups are frequent victims of blackmail at the hands of predators masquerading in society. For the women, having their husband send them money on a regular basis make them lucrative targets. The much younger girls, however, suffer from intimate photos and videos uploaded to the internet.

Furthermore, the conservative nature of society and the scandalous nature of the crime prevent the victims from asking for help from their families. 

How are cybercrimes dealt with?

Cybercrimes by nature are murky grounds for many prosecutors and judges to delve into, considering they are a relatively new by-product of the internet. The Information and Communication Technology ACT passed in 2006 was overhauled and a more up-to-date, nonetheless controversial, Digital Security Act was passed by the parliament in 2018.

The fact that there is just one cybercrime tribunal in Bangladesh only drives the point home further.

The lawyers go to the police, whose cybercrimes unit then take down the offensive content, which can take up to seven days.

The online removal is not a permanent solution, as the perpetrators can re-upload faster than they can be removed.

Uncertain future despite success

Mohammad Tabarak Ullah, superintendent of police (Telecom & Information Management), attached to the National Emergency Service, told Dhaka Tribune: “When the callers ask us where they can find legal aid, we refer them to Project Shetu or 109, a dedicated hotline for issues regarding violence against women and children. 

“We would like for victimized women to receive the legal assistance they seek. We partnered with Project Shetu as they were able to provide the necessary service. The pilot project has been going well, but we cannot really say how things will be after the project concludes.”

Advocate Salma Ali, a rights activist and executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, said: “I’ve received several calls pertaining to this nature. The alarming rate of cases from Gazipur is eventually going to blow up beyond reasonable proportions soon. Many women, even those who seek legal aid, are reluctant to admit how many times they have been married. 

“The men file cases to prevent divorces, hoping that arbitration can hold the marriage together so they do not have to pay the dowry. And the women file cases in order to realize their dowry. Some men believe that if a woman asks for divorce, the husband is not required to pay them anything. The confusion leads to lawsuits.”

The lawyer noted that the BNWLA has found that the majority of people involved in these cases had moved to Gazipur from northern Bangladesh in search of work.

She suggested that the RMG workers be provided dormitory facilities and personnel training on how to interact, who to interact with, what to avoid, etc to prevent untoward incidents.

Advocate Salma Ali also stressed for the implementation of the Sexual Harassment Guideline.

Magnitude of violence

Sutopa (pseudonym), a 26-year-old woman from Dhaka’s Gulshan, inherited a vast fortune from her parents. But her mother had remarried, and after her death, the stepfather conspired with Sutopa’s husband to appropriate her property by getting her committed to a rehabilitation centre after labelling her a drug abuser.

Her business partner contacted the national emergency service and informed them of the plight. Project Shetu’s actions saw the heiress released from rehab. Currently, they are litigating against the stepfather and husband.

In Rajshahi, an eight-year-old boy called 999 after his uncle cut off his mother’s left breast when she refused his advances. The boy’s father was working abroad, and was contacted by Project Shetu.

The issue was not brought before the court or the police. The husband, concerned over the reputation, asked for arbitration and the legal team provided the required counselling to resolve the issue without involving the law. The woman was provided medical treatment, and her brother-in-law faced no action.

Tamanna (pseudonym), a 20-year-old from Dhaka’s Rampura, divorced her husband because he would abuse her during sex. He was a large 102kg man and she was less than half his weight at 49kg. Unable to fend off his beatings, she sought freedom in divorce.

But Tamanna would find no respite as her husband had recorded videos of their intercourse without her knowledge. He threatened to upload the videos online, and she contacted the emergency helpline.

Project Shetu saw to it that a GD was filed and the case was turned over to the DB.

Project Director Sayeda Ferdous Ahmed said the High Court is now quite familiar with Project Shetu.

She said the High Court has advised to engage in more counselling and raise awareness for the widespread domestic violence. 

The lawyer said the non-profit project is funded entirely by the volunteers themselves, but always open to donations.

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