Foreign nationals peril in jails
AROUND one thousand foreign nationals are languishing in different jails in Bangladesh. A significant number of them are there for several years even after finishing their terms or being acquitted. It is learnt that most of such inmates -- classified as "released prisoners" -- are rotting behind bars even without of minimum facilities over there.
For those who have completed sentences, there are mainly two reasons for not to getting released: the foreign missions or governments concerned are not interested in their release and repatriation, and the person concerned is not willing to return back to his or her country of origin fearing oppression or persecution by the State authority or others. The latter one is applicable for most of the Myanmar nationals, sources indicated. They are mainly in jails in Cox's Bazar, Bandarban, Chittagong and Comilla.
According to official and other relevant sources, many of them have been in jail for more than two years. There are even instances of some "released" prisoners in the lock-up for over five years.
There are also nearly 200 convicted foreign nationals and 400 others waiting for trial in jails, sources indicated. They are from Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia etc.
It is difficult for journalists or human rights activists to gather the exact figure. However, according to concerned sources the country-wise break down is as follows: Myanmar- about 600, India- 200, Thailand- 70, and the rest are from different countries.
According to sources, only in Cox's Bazar jail, there are about 500 Myanmar nationals. Out of them about 200 are released prisoners, while 350 are under-trial prisoners (UTP) and 50 are convicted ones. Most of the Myanmar nationals are the ethnic Rohingyas from the northern Rakhine state. They are accused in different cases which include: illegal entry into the country, robbery, smuggling of arms and drugs, and other crimes.
Among the detainees, there are about 130 refugees in Cox's Bazar and Bandarban jails. Most of them are the under trial prisoners. UNHCR has reportedly been arranging legal assistance for them. However, this process is now in a stuck-up as the concerned authority has not been allowing the relevant staff from UNHCR to meet detained refugees or asylum seekers in jail.
According to the provision of the international human rights law, International Committee of Red Cross and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are mandated to visit, respectively, detainees of foreign nationalities and refugees in jails. The concerned staff are supposed to meet them to take note of their desire and necessities. The information would remain confidential and would be used for the interest of the person concerned only (that does not mean to save any one involved in criminal activities, the aim is to ensure proper legal representation for defence of the individuals and to let the law take its own course). The government or local authority concerned is supposed and expected to facilitate this.
However, as mentioned, the scenario is not favourable in Bangladesh. It is alleged that UNHCR is hardly allowed to visit intending asylum seekers and refugees in jails. For example, the concerned authority in Cox's Bazar is not allowing UNHCR staff to meet refugees to facilitate their legal and other assistances. This is fully in contradiction of the norms of the international law.
It is learnt that few months back the District Magistrate (also the Deputy Commissioner) of Cox's Bazar has reportedly instructed the jail authority not to allow any one from UNHCR to meet detained refugees or prospective asylum seekers. However, the authority did not show any reason in this regard. UNHCR has reportedly expressed its concerns in this regard and sought necessary cooperation from the District Magistrate (DM) to fulfil its mandate in terms of protecting rights of the refugees. According to sources the refugee agency sent a formal letter in August last to the DM. However, it has received no positive response till now.
According to the concerned official they are doing this for security reason. However, for sake of security or any other reason rights of the detainees should not be compromised. The authority concerned should be pro-active in this regard to find out solutions in consultation with UNHCR or other human rights organisations for maintaining international human rights norms. Previously, UNHCR staff could meet refugees in Cox's Bazar jail whenever necessary.
Bangladesh is a party to major international human rights instruments, which oblige the State to follow some norms in terms of dealing with detainees, especially with foreign nationals.
Article 11(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to which Bangladesh is a party provides that “Every one charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocence until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
So, the authority concerned should coordinate with UNHCR or other human rights organisations in this regard. Self-decided action or omission of a section of the government officials at the local level could put the country in question in matters of dealing with foreigners in jails.
It is reported that early this year, Bangladesh authority has handed over 172 Myanmar nationals who completed their sentences in different jails. Reportedly, some of them people were not willing to return back to Myanmar fearing persecution by the authority.
Question could be raised here: did the Bangladesh authority listened to the individuals whether they had any asylum claim/need and considered this properly? Presumably, it was not followed.
Article 14 of UDHR says: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” So, the authority should be aware of this principle while the country is a party to the UDHR.
As there is no asylum policy and procedure in place, the government could seek assistance and guidance in this regard from UNHCR. The UN agency has extensive operations in the country.
Under its mandate delegated by the General Assembly, UNHCR has been running an asylum centre in Dhaka in partnership with a national NGO, Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM). The DAM, Refugee Counselling Service Unit (RCSU) provides assistance to intending asylum seekers. (They also run the assistance programme for the mandated refugees). However, the decision of granting refugee status after thorough screening is standard with UNHCR, an official says.
It is learnt that few human rights organisations like Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Odhikar, Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR) have communication with foreigners in detention. Government has also decided to extend legal assistance to foreign detainees through its legal aid programmes. However, their activities reportedly aim to release the prisoners and arrange their return to countries concerned. These activities should be focused to look into the asylum need of the individuals. These organisations and UNHCR could joins hands and arrange release of the detainees and find solutions to their plights. The UN refugee agency should also come forward to look into the human rights need of the detained foreign nationals. For this, the jail staff and immigration officials need to be trained up. The government, UNHCR and human rights organisations could collaborate for the purpose.
It is learnt that the huge number of released prisoners contributed to the overcrowding of jails to the worst. Presently, there is a capacity for around 25,000 prisoners in jails. But prison administrations are forced to cram there over 70,000, as reported by media.
It's also a burden on a poor administration. The government reportedly spends around US $ 10,000 per month on food for the released prisoners, the media reported.
According to some human rights activists, there are problems also from the side of foreign missions. It is observed that sometimes few missions are reluctant to their nationals detained in jails as they are “financially insolvent and socially unimportant."
For example, among the Myanmarese prisoners, as reported by the internet-based news service OneWorld, there are fishermen who trespassed into Bangladeshi waters or were arrested for smuggling. The Myanmar Embassy in Dhaka reportedly shows little or no interest in taking them back despite repeated reminders from the concerned authority.
The writer is a human rights researcher and practitioner.