Citizens without influence regularly get the short end of the stick
The prime minister’s warning could not have come at a better time. She has asked the police to stay away from harassing innocent people. That was her message at the beginning of the Police Week. Coming so soon after the discovery that an innocent man had been compelled to waste his life in prison for three years, all owing to the ineptitude of the police, Sonali Bank, and Anti-Corruption Commission, one wonders though, if the warning will at all lead to a change in attitude among those whose responsibility is to serve citizens.
The issue is a grave one, and nothing of the seriousness involved in it can be mitigated by a mere expression of apology by the chairman of the ACC. The apology over the injustice done to Jaha Alam -- he is the young man condemned to serve three years in prison for no good reason save the callousness of our police, our bankers, and our anti-corruption watchdog -- should be OK.
But it is not OK and cannot be OK. It is not OK when the chairman of the ACC informs the country that a committee has been formed to inquire into the circumstances behind Jaha Alam’s sufferings. The police, the bank, and the ACC were looking for a man named Abu Salik, accused of defrauding Sonali Bank of crores of taka; and they rounded on the jute factory worker Jaha Alam, convinced or determined to convince us that he was the culprit they were looking for.
His protestations did not matter. That he, a simple and poor factory worker, could not have borrowed all that money was a thought these wise men were unwilling to mull over. Jaha Alam had to pay a price, which he has now done through losing three years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The ACC chief has apologized, of course. He has also let it be known that his organization was not alone in making the mistake of having the wrong man suffer. A simple thought arises here, which is that it was either a misplaced determination on the part of the three bodies involved -- the police, the bank, the ACC -- to prove their efficiency through hauling Jaha Alam to prison.
Or it was, as the High Court move to have the man freed makes abundantly clear, a singular indication of the inefficiency these authorities suffer from. Yes, the apology is there. The larger issue is one of what the state can now do to inquire into the nature of the work bodies like the ACC do.
Here we have an instance of ACC officials investigating a case of embezzlement of money from Sonali Bank. The police say Jaha Alam is Abu Salik; the bank says Jaha Alam is Abu Salik. And the ACC goes along with their assertions without probing the issue in its necessary entirety?
The Jaha Alam case raises the fearsome question of how many other individuals may have suffered or indeed are yet suffering because of the inadequacies in the performance of the ACC and other organizations umbilically tied to the state. In a country where miscarriage of justice has often been the norm, where citizens without influence regularly get the short and sharp end of the stick, it becomes important for the government to undertake a systematic review of the way our institutions work, or do not work.
The PM is right to tell the police that they must not harass innocent citizens. But such warnings assume better traction when they are followed up by measures to have them enforced. Will that be done? Can that be done? These are questions which call for answers, given that we are always enthusiastic about projecting ourselves as a democratic society, with all that dash of transparency and accountability which comes with it.
Democracy remains a mouthful of imprisoned ideas when it does not go beyond being a cliché. That is one good reason why citizens like Jaha Alam suffer. Now that the truth is out in the open, it becomes the responsibility of the relevant parliamentary committee or committees to summon the ACC, the police department, and Sonali Bank to public hearings on the circumstances which led to Jaha Alam paying the price for another man’s crime.
We do have parliamentary standing committees, all of which are entrusted with responsibility for promoting public welfare and, where citizens are forced into a straitjacket of injustice by the institutions of the state, to ensure that corrective measures are taken. Part of those measures is to have the men -- in the ACC, the police, the bank -- who pushed Jaha Alam into wrongful imprisonment answer before the committees, and indeed before the courts on the blunder, contrived or otherwise, they committed on the Jaha Alam issue.
We speak of rule of law, of a social structure which ensures the welfare of all citizens. Successive governments have endlessly held out the assurance that the lives of our citizens matter. Who will explain then why the life of this young man was put through living hell for three years?
For that matter, how sure are we that there are not other citizens -- men, women, and perhaps even children -- wasting away in our prisons through a shameful miscarriage of justice?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age.