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            Volume 10 |Issue 34 | September 09, 2011 |


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Human Rights

Democratic Mechanism for
Repressing Opposition

Rifat Munim

Bereaved family members of MU Ahmed.
MU Ahmed, Photos: Star File

The political history of independent Bangladesh has taken on two main directions: one is democratic and the other autocratic. Beginning with democracy, it fell into the clutches of autocratic reigns for about one and a half decades. Then democracy was restored in 1990 with a country-wide people's movement. However, what puts the contradictory political systems on the same ground is the unbridled manipulation of the law enforcing agencies that aims at repressing the political opposition, either in the form of brutalising them on the streets during strikes or torturing them in custody after arrest. Any elected government, as the sagacious narrative of democracy would have us believe, ensures people's basic human rights including freedom of expression by putting an end to the various extra-judicial forms of repression on the opposition. However, ever since the restoration of democracy law enforcing agencies have become the handiest instrument for the incumbent government to stifle or pre-empt any act of protest coming from the opposition. The only visible difference that surfaces in the democratic regimes seems to lie with the media that now has gained access to such incidents, though, at the expense of sporadic physical attacks from the pampered goons or frequent lambasting from the high-ups of the political party in power.

Police brutality on AL leaders Matia Chowdhury and Mohammad Nasim. Photos: Star File

The recent death of a pro-BNP Supreme Court lawyer MU Ahmed in custody is a stark example of police torture leading to a fatal consequence. Ahmed, a former deputy attorney general, was arrested from his Segunbagicha residence by plainclothes DB police in the early hours of August 11. He was one of the 13 pro-BNP SC lawyers who were arrested in two cases in connection with staging noisy protests in the courtroom and assaulting police on August 2 and 3. Unlike others, MU Ahmed suffered a massive heart attack within hours of his arrest at around 1.30am in the morning. He was immediately rushed to the National Institute of Cardiovascular Disease. However, his family members confirm that he was completely well before his arrest and allege that his heart attack leading to death was the obvious result of custodial torture.

“He was completely okay before his arrest. Immediately after the arrest, he was dragged into the police vehicle and brutally beaten. Later they took him to a room where he was beaten again. When he requested for some water, he was verbally abused and given electric shock which is why he suffered a heart attack,” says Selina Ahmed, his wife, referring to the account her husband had given her when he gained consciousness two days after hospitalisation. She alleges that the police did not inform the court of his arrest and hospitalisation until August 16 and that Ahmed died in police custody.

However, Monirul Islam, deputy commissioner of Detective Branch of police, denies having tortured Ahmed and says that Ahmed was at the DB office for less than one hour. “He was not tortured at all as the autopsy report shows. As soon as he told us about chest pain, he was taken to the hospital.” About other allegations he says that the court was informed of his whereabouts on the same day of his arrest. “We informed the court accordingly. And he did not die in custody since he was released against a bond on August 16,” he adds. However, newspaper reports later revealed that he was kept at the DB office for much more than one hour. As for the autopsy report, a source at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital morgue has said that the bruises from beating and electric shock are not likely to be found two weeks after the incident.

Now, although Selima Ahmed has demanded investigation into the matter and lodged a complaint with the Ramna Police Station accusing the home minister, the home secretary, the attorney general and three police officials; it is obvious that no further investigation is likely to take place since state-sponsored violence is usually left with no trace whatsoever.

In another instance, during a hartal law enforcing agencies stormed into Mirza Abbas's residence and then beat him indiscriminately, along with his family members and other BNP leaders and activists who were taking shelter there. Evidence of this brutality is not scarce because it was caught in the cameras of a number of TV media.

Mirza Fakhrul Alam Alamgir
Saber Hossain Chowdhury

Mirza Fakhrul Alam Alamgir, acting secretary general of the BNP, says that the government is solely responsible for MU Ahmed's death. “After his arrest, he was physically tortured for about four hours. It was solely because of this torture that he fell sick immediately and died. So the government has to take all the liabilities for his death.” Referring to the cases of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Mirza Abbas, he adds, “Almost all the BNP leaders, on both local and national levels, have endured severe mental as well as physical torture after their arrest. If there is any allegation against them, let the investigation begin and put them on trial. The court will give them due punishment. Why all these torture before and after the arrests? I think all these incidents are rampant violation of human rights.”

Odhikar, a human rights organisation, in its monthly Bangladesh Human Rights Monitoring Report July 2011 says that apart from a host of other issues including violence against women and minorities and the presidential clemency; human rights have been seriously violated in the political scene especially in terms of repressing the political opposition. Besides local and national leaders of the BNP, the report also mentions how leaders of the National Committee for the protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, and some religious parties were arrested and tortured afterwards while exercising their right to peaceful demonstrations.

However, incidents of similar torture were also evident under the BNP government. Along with many national leaders at the time of strikes or other occasions, many district-level AL leaders were tortured under BNP regime. During hartals or strikes, law enforcing agencies brutally injured Matia Chowdhury, Mohammad Nasim, Asaduzzaman Nur and many more. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir and Sohel Taj, among others, were arrested and tortured in custody. “When BNP was in power, numerous AL leaders were arrested in false cases and then tortured cruelly in police custody,” says Chowdhury. When Mirza Fakhrul Alam Alamgir's attention is attracted to this fact, he says, “We admit that there were some stray incidents on the streets during strikes but when it comes to torture in custody, I don't believe anything like that happened."

Police brutality on BNP leader Shahid Uddin Chowdhury Anne.
Photos: Star File

Chowdhury, on the contrary, negates Alamgir's comment and says that what BNP had done after they assumed power in 2001 was an Anti-Awami League campaign intended to cleanse the political scene of AL leaders and supporters. When asked about the torture done on the present opposition, he says, “Firstly, I would not deny the allegation that there have been some instances in which the police have tortured the opposition leaders. However, these instances are very different from what the AL leaders had gone through during the BNP regime. They started a very orchestrated and organised campaign to destroy the AL leaders and supporters. Now that we are in power, there are certainly not as many incidents. Moreover, I'm sure that in the incidents under the AL government there has been hardly any political influence over the police as was the case under the BNP government.” He also says that apart from political leaders, there are thousand other incidents where common people are victimised by police and subject to forced confession. Says Chowdhury: “The thousand of non-political cases where common people suffer torture mostly in the form of forced confession should also be addressed by political leadership. Such ill-practice exists in law enforcing agencies because of the absence of any law against custodial deaths.”

As for the cases of MU Ahmed and Mirza Abbas, Chowdhury says, “Of course, there should be investigation into these cases and the masterminds behind these incidents must face the music."

Finally, as it turns out, the mechanism of repression through law enforcing agencies prevails in democracy, irrespective of the political parties. But what is disheartening for common people is the undertone with which every democratic government justifies its repressive mechanism on the grounds that it was confronted with similar forms of torture as the opposition. It unearths a deep-seated vengeful mentality in the political leaders of the country. However, if our political leaders really care about upholding the democratic principles, then they will have to begin with ensuring the rights of the opposition. Keeping this fundamental aspect unaddressed, no remarkable progress can be made in other social and economic spheres.



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