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Current Affairs

Rough Justice

Nader Rahman

“To enjoy the protection of the law, and to be treated in accordance with law, and only in accordance with law, is the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be, and of every other person for the time being within Bangladesh, and in particular no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law”
-- Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Article 31.

With Barack Obama's release of four graphic torture memos by the Bush Administration, the issue of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' has come to the forefront of the world's consciousness. The topic has caused controversy around the world, as even the most ardent supporters of Bush's war on terror have cringed at descriptions of what was inflicted on to the so-called enemies of the state. The issue should have special resonance in Bangladesh as 16 members of the BDR have died in custody while ostensibly being questioned as to their involvement in the Pilkhana massacre. The deaths have been put down to heart attacks, suicides and other illnesses. While the reasons seem vaguely plausible, the truth is probably far more sinister than one could imagine. Alleged torture marks on a few of the bodies of the deceased BDR men points to our very own style of 'enhanced interrogation'. Who is to take responsibility for these deaths, the Army, RAB or the government?

The answer to that question is no one. In a situation such as this, the government essentially has its back to the wall. The army is livid that so many of its officers were killed and as such have vowed to catch anyone involved in the plot. In the mean time the government has had to quietly bite its lip and accept the army's heavy-handed way of dealing with the issue, while at the same time conducting its own investigation. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch recently said, "The (Pilkhana) massacre has shocked Bangladeshis and deserves the condemnation of the entire world, but the government should resist demands and threats from the army for summary justice and ensure that all those detained are treated properly." His statements were made after 4 accused BDR men died in custody, of what euphemistically could be called 'unnatural deaths'.

BDR jawans being taken to Dhaka from Jessore, the only problem is that no one can guarantee their safety while in custody.

At first these stories were hardly newsworthy, a BDR man dying of a heart attack and then one committing suicide, it was not the kind of story that would grab anyone's attention. Only after the cases started to flow thick and fast did people begin to realise that something untoward may have been going on. Relatives of the deceased claimed that the bodies of their loved ones were sore, bloated and contained what seemed to them as obvious signs of torture. Family members of Mobarak Hossain openly claimed that he was tortured to death. News out of the morgue at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital was that his shoulders, wrists, arms and knees were swollen and badly bruised, pointing towards torture. His was not an isolated story, Havilder Kazi Saidur Rahman, another detainee who was reported to have died of cardiac arrest at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital on April 16, was apparently dead by the time he was taken to hospital. His relatives have also complained that torture marks were found on his body. Harunur Rashid Mia, told a Dhaka court on April 22 that he had been detained by the Rapid Action Battalion for seven days and tortured with electric shocks. Aside from these stories family members of all the deceased have claimed that those who died, went into custody in fine mental and physical health, thus making it very unlikely that they committed suicide or died of heart attacks and other diseases, as claimed by the government.

Until there is an independent and accountable investigation into these deaths in custody, the larger issue of the Pilkhana massacre will become null and void. While the deaths in custody are deplorable, the issue of torture tosses up some other interesting issues. While many in America claimed that enhanced interrogation was wrong from the outset as it was against American values, others had different bones to pick with it. They (including Barack Obama and his top aides) claimed that information attained after using enhanced interrogation techniques have almost always proved to be shaky and unreliable. Last year in an interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball, Joe Navarro a former CIA interrogator and author of the cheekily titled book, Advanced Interviewing Techniques said, "the only thing that torture guarantees is pain, it never guarantees the truth." If that really is the case then what can be said about the information being squeezed out of the BDR men in custody? If they are being tortured and information is being attained from them, then exactly how reliable will that information be? If that unreliable information is then used to look into the Pilkhana massacre, then it is more than likely that the conclusions to that investigation will be flawed.

If the allegations are true then aside from violating a host of international human rights laws, the very outcome of the Pilkhana investigation could irrevocably be damaged. The government cannot let that happen. Human Rights Watch came up with an interesting and useful suggestion, they said the government should establish a commission which includes lawyers, human rights workers, and other civil society representatives, to visit and monitor detention centres, to ensure that detainees are properly treated, and document abuse allegations. In a press release from the organisation, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying, "The committee should be set up today and have access to all detention centres 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he went on to say, "To avoid future suspicious deaths, the government should transfer all detainees held by the military to civilian custody and instruct the police and prison officials not to lay a hand on any detainee." The suggestion was simple enough, but one wonders if anything like that will ever be carried out; seemingly this is the country for custodial killings. They have not been punished in the past, one only hopes they will be punished in the future.

In its own way Bangladesh is a lot like the US. For the longest time the US. used extraordinary rendition to pick up foreign nationals abroad, and transferred them to secret prisons where enhanced interrogation techniques were used to essentially torture them. All of this was done abroad, outside the purview of US law and its constitution and was justified as part of the war on terrorism. When it comes to serious crime in Bangladesh, seemingly the same is done. The only difference is that in Bangladesh the interrogation and torture takes place within the country, under the purview of our judicial system and our constitution. It is a sad state of affairs that government should look to rectify, otherwise our constitution will soon just be a piece of paper and nothing more. They say justice is blind; the only problem in Bangladesh is that rough justice is blind as well as mute. Those who suffer from it usually do not live to tell their tales.

In March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a terror suspect and possible mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks was inhumanly water boarded 183 times. This is the person who confessed to a role in many of the most significant terrorist plots over the last twenty years, including personally beheading The Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, yet he is still alive to tell his tale. Why it is that we can't keep our terror suspects alive in custody? Surely they can't be more evil than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In 2005 George Bush openly and embarrassingly said, "we do not torture," one hopes no one in this government will make the same mistake.

 

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