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July 18, 2003

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A Quick Fix to Delayed Justice

Lavina Ambreen Ahmed, Mustafa Zaman and Shamim Ahsan

Law is an ever-evolving mechanism. New situations merit enactment of new laws. But a legal system, which is overburdened with stalled cases, is surely in need of revamping. In absence of a total makeover the speedy trial tribunal act has been proposed as a solution. It is introduced as an appendage--a separate cell or a special arrangement--that would facilitate a quick penal procedure.
When the majority of the cases are left in the loft of the regular courts, and a handful ones are to be considered under the speedy trial act, the question remains, whether this new law is just a face-saver for the government.
In the context of the sinking law and order situation, the efficacy of this new trial procedure seems a tenable cause to stand for it. After several cases being resolved with an unprecedented quick pace, it has whetted the enthusiasm of the public. People, with expectations have rallied in support of this new tribunal. The act works in accruing quick verdicts. But the question remains, will it be effective, as well as accurate, in meting out justice? Will the verdicts remain the same after being heard in the High Court? These are the questions that are being raised by experts. SWM examines the nature and the ramifications of the Speedy Trial Tribunal..


The Speedy Trial Act was enacted on October 24 of 2002. The new law was put to effect the day the president ratified it. It will remain effective for two years starting from the date of its implementation.

Parents of Rebel and Jewel who were killed in Mohammadpur by Kamal Pasha.

It was introduced to expedite the process of justice. Though the cases that were to be tried under the new law had certain indicators. In the clause six of the act, it is clearly stated that cases involving murder, rape, possession and accretion of firearms, explosives and drugs are fit to be tried in this tribunal.
As the law and order situation has sunk to an unprecedented low, the government has enacted this new law that would speed up the trials of certain cases. The law is hinged upon two things, one is the establishment of the special tribunal and the other is transferring of the cases to this tribunal.

The tribunal can sit at any place according to government directive. Not all cases will be investigated under this system. One of the essential features of speedy tribunal is that it is the government's prerogative to decide which cases merit quick justice. Any case that would be considered to be tried under the new act is transferable from the Magistrate court, the sessions court, or any special court to the newly set up tribunal. Even if the trial procedure had progressed to a certain stage, the case would be transferred to the Speedy Trial Tribunal, which would be considered a sessions court. On trial cases can also be transferred to the special tribunal. If this occurs, the special tribunal will pick up where the regular court has left off. Meaning the evidence gathered during the regular trial would be considered good.

Cases can be lodged directly with the speedy trial tribunals. Cases that are currently being dealt under the normal legal system can also be transferred to the speedy trial tribunal. The punishments meted out to the accused if they are found guilty are the same as that of in the ordinary court system.

In a speedy tribunal, the 'punishments' do not change. Criminals are tried under the country's existing penal code.

The judges in the special tribunals are district judges belonging to the sessions courts. Even retired judges would be appointed to preside on cases under the speedy trial tribunal. Selected by the president, the judge of each tribunal will follow the laws furnished in the speedy trial act. It is the government who will decide where and when a case will be transferred to the special tribunal. And this would be done through pronouncement of a gazette on the part of the government.

The highest punishment meted out to a person tried under this act would be the death penalty or life long imprisonment. If the verdict is either death sentence or serving of a life term or even more than seven years imprisonment, then the trial procedure must be completed within 90 days.
If a case is not determined within this time span, then it would be extended for another 30 days. If this extension seems inadequate, another 15 working days would be set to complete the trial to reach a verdict.

Other categories of crime that will fall under the speedy trial act are as follows: extortion, or forcing something out of someone by intimidation or force to wilfully change the direction or to intentionally damage any vehicle to destroy the property of the Government or any other person mugging, terrorism; obstruction of buying or selling of documents of any organisation; to prevent an organisation or a person from doing his or her work through means of threat or force. Those who are found guilty of these charges will be facing two to five years of imprisonment. Law-breakers may also have to pay fines. And those who abet in such crimes will face the same punishment. If anyone is found to be harassing someone or presses false charges against anyone he or she will be liable to the same punishment as well.

A speedy trial tribunal handed down Tonai Mollah life imprisonment in the Advocate Habibur Rahman Mondal murder case.

As for the procedure of the trial, the criminal act laws would be followed as far as possible. In this regard the law that has created much hype-n-hoopla in the public consciousness and whipped up a frenzied reporting spree in the media, has more to do with speeding up of a process that is caught in procedural jam. The cases, even the hyped up ones, used to take a long time to wrap up. As the journey through the loops of filing of a case, compilation and filing of the evidence by the police, hearing and deliberation is never as smooth as it should be. The Speedy Trial Act is conceived as a solution. This act cuts the long and sinewy journey short. It also alleviates the system that has almost become crippled with more than ten lakhs cases standing in queue.

How does the speedy trial system work? The investigating police officer working on a particular case has to hand over the accused to the court within 24 hours along with the FIR (First Information Report). Then the police officer has to submit the detailed report explaining the alleged involvement of the accused to the court in the next seven days. The accused is then given 30 days to deny the charge against him and plea his innocence.

In the instance in which the main accused cannot be captured by the police, the FIR has to be produced to the court in seven days. If the court feels that there is not much chance of apprehending the accused, it can order him to surrender in seven days through a public notice in a Bangla daily. In this kind of situation the court has to continue with the legal procedure without the accused and complete the case in 60 days time. Once the investigation is complete, the court has the right to issue bail to the criminal if it feels so.

Although the public has welcomed the introduction of speedy trial tribunal, some have expressed their doubts about the efficacy of the system too.

'The Speedy Trial Tribunal Act 2002' was implemented from last October. And within eight months of its implementation, verdicts were given to more than 100 cases of murder and rape. According to an Ittefaq report published on June 30, 27 persons have been punished with death sentence, and 52 convicts were awarded with life imprisonment.

Some of the most talked about cases that have been resolved include ---Principal Gopal Krishna Mohuri murder (4 received death penalty, 4 life imprisonment), Farida Begum murder in Dhaka ( 2 life imprisonment), Housewife Halima rape case (4 get life imprisonment), Sutrapur double murder (16 death sentence and 3 life imprisonment), Narsigndi Awami League leader Rabiul Awal Khan Kiran murder (1 death, 7 life), Advocate Habib Mondol murder (2 death, 13 life), Jhenidah Selim murder ( 3 death sentence), Bagerhat former UP member murder (16 life imprisonment), Fahima suicide case ( 1 death, 2 life imprisonment), Rushdania Islam Bushra rape and murder case (3 death, 1 life), Don, Ribel and Jewel and Ratna.

Don, a child victim of dowry violence.

The Government has the prerogative to transfer any case to the speedy trial tribunal that it feels need to be resolved quickly. But the speedy trial act gives any citizen the right to file a case of harassment or mugging in the police station.

On July 17, 2002, nine year old Trisha of Gaibandha drowned while running away from a group of mastaans on her trail. The rowdy young men who used to tease and torment her regularly on her way home from school, pursued Trisha relentlessly that day and when she reached a point where there was nowhere to escape, the frightened child jumped into the pond. She didn't know how to swim but instead of rescuing her, the men just stood there and watched her drown. Following Trisha's tragic death, a massive public outrage in Gaibandha as well as all over Bangladesh took place. The protest movements helped to speed up the legal process and verdict in Trisha's case was delivered in only 73 days by the District and Sessions court on September 30,2002. The charge of murder was pressed directly against three of the accused Mehedi Hasan Modern, Md. Shahin, and Ariful Islam Asha and they were given death sentence.

The verdict delivered Trisha's case restored the ordinary citizen's faith in the legal system and paved way for a new process known as the Speedy Trial Tribunal system.

Thirteen-year-old Fahima was forcefully grabbed by three neighbourhood mastaans Shumon, Nasir and Halim near her house in the Tolarbagh area of Mirpur at around 9:30 pm on March 3, 2002. She was raped by Shumon. Deeply traumatised by the experience, Fahima committed suicide the same night at her house. Fahima's father Abdul Jabbar had filed a case in Mirpur thana under the “Prevention of the Repression of Women and Children Act 2000”. The hearing of the case was pending for almost ten months due to the absence of any eyewitness. The case was transferred to the speedy tribunal on May 18. And verdict was given in only 41 days. The court found Shumon guilty of violating teenaged Fahima with the help of Nasir and Halim. Shumon was awarded with a death sentence, according to section 9(2) dealing with rape, under the “Prevention of Repression of Women and Children Act 2000”. The other two accomplices were given life imprisonment as stated in section 9(2)/30 (abetting in rape). Moreover, Nasir and Halim have to give the victim's family Tk 1 lakh each as compensation. The failure to produce the fine will extend their sentence to another two years.

Sabequnnahar Sony, a student of Chemical Engineering department of BUET was killed on campus in broad daylight in crossfire between two rival student factions of BNP on June 8, 2002. The case was handled by CID and after six months of investigation, the charge sheet was produced to the court on January 1, 2003 in which, 15 people were named as being involved the killing that lead to Sony's death. On January 19, the case was transferred to the Speedy Trial Tribunal. The verdict of Sony's case was declared on June 29 this year. The court awarded death sentence to Mokammel Hayat Muki, Mushfiquddin Tagar, Nurul Islam Sagor alia Shooter Nuru. The criminals also have to pay a fine of TK 10,000 each. The others who were involved in the crossfire namely, Mukul, Dulal, Earu, Masum Billah and Masum have been given life imprisonment and have been ordered to pay TK 5,000 each as compensation. Failure to pay the fine would extend their jail sentence to another year. Among the 15 names of the accused stated in the charge sheet, seven of them were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Eventhough Mushfiquddin Tagar has been arrested, Muki and Shooter Nuru are still absconding. Muki and Tagor's gangs were engaged in an armed battle to win 'control' of the BUET campus and its surrounding areas. The court found the culprits guilty under the Penal Code's 300 (4) and section 301 relating to murder. They were punished under Section 302 and Section 34 for murder.

Police taking Mohammad Ripon to the Dhaka Central Jail after a tribunal sentenced him to death for killing a five-year-old child Don.

Rushdania Islam Bushra (Phool) was raped and then killed in her own home by her own relatives on July1, 2000 in Dhaka. She was an Honours student of Marketing at City College. The case dragged on for three years and finally the case was shifted to the speedy tribunal. On June 30, the vedict was declared. Three of the accused in the Bushra murder case were given death sentence. They are former Awami League leader of Dhaka city unit M.A.Quader and his two brothers-in-law Sheikh Showkat Ahmed Ruhuland Sheikh Kabir Ahmed. Kabir has disappeared since the day Bushra was killed. The court also ordered the convicts to pay TK 1 lakh each as compensation to the victim's family. Runu, M.A. Quader's wife was awarded with life imprisonment and a fine of Tk. 1 lakh. She would have to serve an extra two more years for failing to pay the fine.

Another accused, Kaniz Fatema Hena, sister-in-law of Quader and Sufia Begum, the domestic help were cleared of charges against them in connection with the rape and murder. Bushra was the only child of her parents. Her father Serajul Islam was a retired Assistant Police Commissioner of police. He was undergoing treatment in the US, at the time of the incident. He passed away last year. The motive behind killing Bushra was to take hold of the house which belonged to Bushra's maternal uncle. Bushra would have been the likely person to inherit it.

The accused in the Don murder case Ripon, was sentenced to death in the Speedy Tribunal-1 on July 2, 2003. On August 19, 2002, Ripon killed his brother-in-law Rubel Ahmed Don for dowry and property, pushing him into a drain where the 5-year-old met his death.

On July 5, 2003 two of the four accused in the Ratna murder case were given death penalty while the other two were given life imprisonment. On August 9, 2003, little Ratna was slaughtered by her neighbour Rubel, assisted by Yunus, Ibrahim and Zakir, following a trivial scuffle between Ratna and Rubel's younger brother Imon the previous day. After the case was sent to speedy trial tribunal on March 3, 2003 it was disposed in forty one working days.

In another sensational cases, one of Dhaka's 23 top terrorists Kamal Pasha was sentenced to death for murdering two brothers Jewel and Rebel in Mohammadpur on July 3, 2003. The special tribunal found him guilty under Section 302 (murder) of the Penal Code. The principal witness of the case was the victims' mother Hanufa Begum. Kamal Pasha called the two brothers in half an hour's difference from their house and shot them dead in two different places in Mohammadpur.

SM Kamruzzaman Faruq, after another tribunal handed down death penalty to him for killing his wife.

Advocate Salma Ali, Executive Director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) in an interview with daily Prothom Alo, said that the trials were conducted efficiently under the Speedy Tribunal, conforming to the existing laws. She also believes that the families of victims finally got justice. “ If culprits are captured and if exemplary punishment is meted out to them as quickly as possible, not only can victims of abuse, murder hope to get justice, but the number of such crimes would also come down.”

Even though the Speedy Tribunals have delivered the verdicts, the families of the victims are still not completely satisfied. Unfortunately, the cases will now go to the High Court which does not have any mechanism to deliver justice as quickly as the speedy tribunals. Salma Ali feels that the High Court needs to consider changing the system as well as increase the number of judges to ensure that serious cases don't get stuck for an indefinite period. She also expressed her hope that the time factor does not cause the speedy tribunals to lose objectivity so that no innocent person gets convicted.

The setting up of speedy trial tribunals has been met with mixed reactions. While the public has greatly appreciated it, some scepticism nevertheless exists. Eminent lawyer Dr. Shahdeen Malik explains why he doesn't agree with the general notion that this speedy tribunal law is a good one.

He reflected on what the relatives of the victims expressed after the courts gave their verdictsall of them wanted to see the immediate execution of the convicted criminals. But chances are that many of those verdicts may be altered on appeal. Many death sentences may not be confirmed or some punishments may be reduced by the High Court Division. At this point, near and dear ones of the victim may feel betrayed by the changed decision of the High Court, particularly in view of the hyped up expectations generated by the media and to some extent, by the government. The ordinary people are not aware of the strict scrutiny which law mandates, before a person's life is taken away by carrying out the death sentence. If verdicts in these much-publicised cases are over-turned by the High Court, most people may not understand the legal process involved and may have doubts about the functioning of the higher courts of appeal. This certainly will not augur well for our judicial system, apprehends Malik.

Not all types of cases are considered worthy for speedy trials. In fact the main reason behind forming such special tribunals seems that these would deal only with the 'sensational' or 'much-publicised' cases. Malik finds the perception of 'choosing on the basis of media-coverage' itself questionable. "I find it unjustifiable that one particular murder case is being resolved early simply because it made newspaper headlines and/or was shown on television news leaving hundreds other similar cases to be dealt with by the same old sluggish system", Malik argues.

Sony's family members, offering prayers at Sony's memorial on the BUET campus after announcement of the judgement.

No doubt the bereaved family members or close relatives of the victims will greatly appreciate this special arrangement. But they are and will be very small in number in comparison with those who won't be entitled to such privilege of seeing their cases of murder of their loved ones come to quick conclusion. Consequently, a large section of people whose cases don't or won't qualify to be taken up by the speedy trial tribunals might feel ignored and frustrated, Malik observes.

Again, since these speedy tribunals will hear the sensational cases, it is not absolutely impossible that judges will be influenced by strong public pressure, Malik points out. He recalls the highly publicised Rima murder case where the trial court handed down death penalty to Khuku (girl-friend of Rima's husband Munir) along with Munir. It was presumed that the immense public following fanned by vigorous media coverage may have led to the outrageous decision of giving Khuku death penalty. Khuku was, of course, acquitted later on by the High Court.

Clockwise:Sentenced to death, Yunus, left, and Rubel, middle, and imprisoned to life, Ibrahim, right, being taken out of court after the verdict in the baby Ratna murder case; Police take death-penalty convicts M Abdul Kader, left, and Sheikh Shawkat Ahmed Ruhul, right, to the Dhaka Central Jail after a tribunal announced its verdict on the killing of Rushdania Islam Bushra, a college student; Police take five convicts to Dhaka Central Jail after a speedy trial tribunal sentenced them to death for killing Jubo Dal leader Mizanur Rahman; Kamal Pasha, at the court.

Awami League, the main opposition in the Parliament, has opposed to the law. According to them, since it is the government's prerogative to decide which case will go to the speedy trial and which not, the government can use it to harass their political opponents. They termed it a publicity stunt, a calculated ploy of the government for gaining popularity.

Malik believes that such 'quick fixes' like speedy trial or special tribunal might look very effective in the beginning but they never bring about any qualitative change in the long run. Moreover, we haven't had a government which did not try to fix a time limit for completion of trials and initially some cases were concluded speedily. But, it was back to square one, after a few months. Because, an effective judicial system is not confined to only court-room activities, it depends on a lot of support services in order to function smoothly and quickly.

Investigation into criminal cases too is the most vital component of the entire criminal justice process. Unfortunately, the police department neither has sufficiently trained officials for conducting investigations, nor has the essential equipment and resources for this purpose.

Consequently, criminals often manage to get away by taking advantage of the loosely conducted investigations by the police and the resultant inadequate evidence. Besides, Malik points out, one main reason why cases drag on for months is inadequate manpower of the police. The lawmaker finishes his or her job only by making laws, it is the field level police officials who have to translate those laws into action. Instead of enacting new laws the government should address the problems that ail our police department. A competent police force with enough skill, expertise and resources will certainly contribute to the proper implementation of the already existing laws.

Viscera report, for example, is another thing that keeps cases stuck for months. There is only one such lab in the country with a very limited personnel and outdated equipment and testing facilities. This lab has to handle hundreds of cases referred to it from all over the country. Moreover, often the testing officer has to testify in person before the courts and verify that the court has received his report, not from someone else.

Rahid Hasan Sumon and Sajid Hasan Sujon, the two brothers convicted in the Sutrapur double murder case, being taken to jail after their death sentence

Shahdeen Malik says, such quick fixes won't bring about any qualitative changes. "Look at history, every nation has tried such quick fixes, but they never worked. Neither will such rigorous punishment given in these speedy tribunals deter others, on which the government seems to be giving so importance. If the death sentence had deterred others hangings would have been in vogue in every country. But the death sentence is being abolished by an increasing number of countries and the number of countries without death sentence is close to 70 now," he pointed out. “These matters of crime and punishment are not just legal matters but social and political as well”.

We live in a society where people have hardly much faith in the criminal justice system. General people here have a belief and to a great extent justifiably so, that some people are above law and they can get away no matter what crimes they commit. As long as 'certain people' or 'a certain class" continues to enjoy such 'impunity' from law, people will never have their faith on the judicial system. The situation is such that is always a chance that you can get away with your crime provided you have political backing or enjoy the blessing of someone high and mighty," he explains.

It is this culture of impunity, of being above law, which has to be addressed and not the speed with which a few 'selected' cases are concluded. These sensational cases in the speedy tribunals are making news, but do we know the number of accused who are routinely being absolved of any wrong doing by having their cases withdrawn or allegation against them dropped by the government. "The bottom line", Malik concluded, "is that there is no quick fix to the problem of crime and anyone who thinks otherwise probably has not had sufficient time to look into the issues dispassionately, nor is aware of the vast literature or the experience of other countries which had embarked on such a path with, ultimately, more damage.


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