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The ugly truth about custodial deaths

  • Published at 12:39 am May 30th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:40 am May 30th, 2018
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

A recent review of deaths in custody revealed a significant increase in the number of people dying in police custody over the last few months in the country.   

Since 2014, a total of 285 people were reported to have died in custody, including 119 convicts and 166 under-trial prisoners, according to Ain o Salish Kendra, a non-government legal aid and human rights organization based in Dhaka.

Expressing their concerns regarding the rising number of custodial deaths, rights groups say incidents of custodial torture are on the rise because of the unbridled attitude of law enforcement agencies.

On May 6, for example, Ashraf Ali, alias Aslam of Madarganj upazila in Jamalpur, reportedly died in the custody of the Detective Branch. Several injury marks were found on different parts of his body, including his hands and legs.

“We found some injury marks on the hands and legs of the deceased,” said Dr Sohel Mahmud, head of the forensics department at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), who oversaw the autopsy.

Despite the forensic examination report, the Detective Branch outright rejected the claim that the 45-year old was tortured to death in custody, and said Aslam had a hernia and he might have died due to that.

Zakir Hossain Milon, acting president of the Tejgaon thana unit of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, BNP’s student wing, died on March 12, six days after his arrest.

BNP alleged that Milon had suffered “brutal torture during remand” and succumbed to his injuries. Refuting the allegation, police said Milon had fallen sick in jail and was declared dead at DMCH. 

This correspondent reached out to some officials of security forces to discuss the matter. They admitted they often apply force during interrogation to glean information. They, however, claimed their application of force is not at a level where a detainee can die.

Influential quarters and custodial torture

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a rights organization based in Hong Kong, has noted that “custodial torture has been institutionalized” in Bangladesh.

“The notion of law enforcement does not exist without the use of torture at the core of its functionality. Crime investigation and torture are synonymous in the country,” the ALRC said in its latest report to the 37th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The report titled “Bangladesh: Law on torture is useless in a broken justice mechanism” states that influential political, bureaucratic, and financial elites “keep the police involved in torture so that the practice helps gain their desired benefits.”

“Thus, they encourage the police, which carry the colonial torturous legacy, to continue torture in exchange for administrative blessings and financial proceeds as bribes,” it adds.

Anti-torture act not in use

On October 25, 2013, parliament enacted a law, the “Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act-2013,” to prevent torture and deaths in custody. However, since adoption of the law, the government has not used the law, notes the ALRC report.

“Fewer than 10 cases of torture have been registered since the law was enacted. Among the registered cases, investigation has not led to any prosecution in more than four years. By contrast, numerous incidents of torture routinely occur throughout the country.”

Police want anti-torture act amended 

During Bangladesh Police Week-2018 in January, police officials requested Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to take measures to amend the anti-torture act so that security forces responsible for custodial torture do not have to suffer, in case the law is ever used assertively.

“Even if someone dies in custody from psychological stress, the police are being blamed for this. It is difficult to get a confession from a criminal unless the person is pressured psychologically,” a high-level police official told the prime minister at the event.   

“As cases filed under this act are non-bailable, a police officer will not be able to secure bail, if accused in a ‘false’ case.”

The existing complaint management system

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia said if a complaint about custodial torture is found to be true, then the victim’s family can move a court that will subsequently order a judicial inquiry into the allegations, allowing the plaintiff to seek legal action against the cops responsible.

When a detainee or inmate dies in custody, an inquest report is prepared in the presence of a magistrate. Then an autopsy is performed on the deceased. If both reports reveal the detainee has died in custodial torture, then necessary actions are taken against those responsible, he explained.

“If no sign of torture is found, then he or she is immune to prosecution.”

Asaduzzaman further said: “If there are complaints against any senior officials of this force, then we form a committee to investigate the matter. If he or she is found guilty, action is taken against them according to the law.”

Why victim families stay mum

After interviewing several families and relatives of such victims, it was found that the families in most cases choose to keep mum and display strong reluctance in seeking legal action against accused members of security forces, while some do not even know about the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act.

Most of the time, law enforcement accused of custodial torture gets away with their offences as families refrain from seeking punishment, fearing reprisal.

‘Stop using law enforcers for political gain’

Speaking of the negative consequences of custodial deaths and impunity, Nur Khan, a rights activist and former executive director of Ain o Salish Kendra, said when law enforcement agencies are “politicized and their members are used for political purposes,” law enforcement thinks they are above the law and they do whatever they want.

“They feel there is no one who can hold them accountable for offences they commit. Therefore, no visible action is taken against the accused members despite the fact there is a law in place,” he said.

“Incidents of custodial torture are on the rise because of their unbridled attitude.”  

He stressed the need for reforms to the entire law enforcement system and a purge of errant officials.

“If allegations against an official are proven, he or she should be terminated right away. We will be able to address the growing concerns over custodial deaths only when we can make sure law enforcement agencies are not used for political purposes,” he said.

Echoing him, Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Karzon, a professor of law at Dhaka University, said custodial torture was often carried out for political objectives to suppress opposition forces.

“The longstanding malpractice cannot be stopped overnight. If we really want to stop it, there have to be some initiatives and political will from the government side,” he said.

“When an incident of custodial death is reported, the authorities concerned should conduct a thorough investigation and take quick steps to bring the accused offenders to book. Only then can this form of torture be prevented.” 

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