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June 08, 2003 

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  Amnesty International's Report on Bangladesh '2003  

Death in custody, torture, arbitrary arrest and other human rights violations routinely ignored by government

Amnesty International

For decades, successive governments in Bangladesh have failed to curb serious human rights violations arising from the use of legislation and widespread practices in the law-enforcement and justice system which violate international human rights standards. These violations include torture, deaths in custody; arbitrary detention of government opponents and others; excessive use of force leading at times to extra-judicial executions; the death penalty; sporadic attacks against members of minority groups; and acts of violence against women.

Arbitrary detention, undermining the judicial system
Each year, thousands of people are arbitrarily detained under administrative detention laws, which deny them access to judicial remedies. The most commonly used of these laws is the Special Powers Act, 1974 (SPA).
In practice, when the government invokes the SPA, it is invariably to detain members of opposition parties. When the district magistrates invokes the Act, it is usually to secure the detention of someone whose release - whether or not on bail - would, in their opinion, cause the commission of a "prejudicial act".
Although the SPA gives a wide discretion to the detaining authority to act according to its own opinion, in practice, most detention orders are declared unlawful by the high court - but only on procedural grounds. This is because the Constitution empowers the High Court to satisfy itself that a person is detained in custody under a lawful authority. Calls for the repeal of the SPA has come from the Bangladeshi legal community and human rights organisations. It has also come from political parties but only when they are in opposition. When in government, they have defended the use of the SPA and maintained it.

Torture in Bangladesh
For many years, torture has been the most widespread and persistent human rights violation in Bangladesh but has been routinely ignored by successive governments since Bangladesh's independence in 1971.
Children, women, the elderly, opposition politicians, criminal suspects, and innocent bystanders in the streets, have all been victims of torture. Perpetrators are most often police personnel but members of the armed forces carrying out law enforcement duties have also been involved in torture.
Methods of torture have included beating with rifle butts, iron rods, bamboo sticks, or bottles filled with hot water so they do not leave marks on the body, hanging by the hands, rape, "water treatment" in which hose pipes are fixed into each nostril and taps turned on full for two minutes at a time, the use of pliers to crush fingers, and electric shocks.
Successive governments in Bangladesh have failed to prevent torture, despite provisions in the Constitution of Bangladesh and their obligation to provide durable and effective protection against torture to the people in the country under treaties which Bangladesh has ratified.
Impunity is one of the major reason why torture continues. Government authorities have persistently failed to bring perpetrators of torture to justice. Allegations of torture are rarely investigated, particularly when victims are members of opposition parties. On the rare occasions when allegations of torture have been investigated, this has usually been due to a public outcry generated by the death of the victim. In other cases, victims who have filed complaints about torture in police custody have been put under pressure to withdraw the case. This has most often been done by threats and intimidation, but in some instances, money has been offered to the victim in return for the withdrawal of the case as "out of court settlement".
Furthermore, judicial proceedings against a public employee - including a police officer - can proceed only if the government authorises that proceeding. In practice, the government rarely does so.

Legislation facilitating torture
While the constitution of Bangladesh guarantees fundamental human rights and specifically forbids torture and while torture is a criminal act under the Penal Code, a number of laws in Bangladesh create the conditions which facilitate torture. The most commonly used of these is Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Section 54 enables the police to arrest anyone without a warrant of arrest and keep them in detention for up to 24 hours on vaguely formulated grounds. In all cases of detention under Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure reported to Amnesty International, the detainees claimed that they had been tortured and that torture began from the moment of their arrest.
Legal immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of torture
On 9 January, President Iajuddin Ahmed issued "The Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance 2003" which provided impunity to "members of the joint forces and any person designated to carry out responsibilities in aid of civil administration during the period between 16 October 2002 and 9 January 2003". Under the ordinance, no civil or criminal procedure could be invoked against "disciplinary forces" or any government official for "arrests, searches, interrogation and other steps taken" during this period.
The Ordinance related to "Operation Clean Heart" which started on 17 October as a campaign against crime carried out jointly by army and police forces. The campaign was the government's response to growing concern within Bangladesh and the international community about the continuing deterioration in law and order, including a rise in criminal activity, murder, rape and acid throwing. At least 40 men reportedly died as a result of torture after being arrested by the army. The government acknowledged only 12 deaths and claimed they were due to heart failure. Families of the victims and human rights activists, however, claimed the deaths resulted from severe torture while in army custody.

High Court ruling for safeguards against torture
On 7 April 2003, the High Court announced its judgement on a writ petition in public interest filed before the court in November 1998 by three Bangladeshi human rights organisations and five concerned individuals following the death of a man in police custody in July 1998. The petition sought mandatory guidelines to prevent torture in custody after arrest under Section 54. The judgement restricts arbitrary use of administrative detention law including the Special Powers Act. It makes it mandatory for the police to inform the family members of anyone arrested; for the accused to be interrogated by an investigation officer in prison instead of police interrogation cell, and behind a glass screen so that his/her family members and lawyers can observe whether or not he or she is being tortured; and for the detainee to receive medical examination before and after remand into police custody. It empowers the courts to take action against the investigating officer on any complaint of torture if it is confirmed by medical examination. It directs the government to amend relevant laws, including Section 54, within six months to provide safeguards against their abuse, and recommends raising prison terms for wrongful confinement and malicious prosecution.

Lack of independent investigation bodies
The failure of successive governments to address human rights violations in a consistent and effective manner points to the desperate need for an independent, impartial and competent human rights watchdog in the country - such as a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Human rights defenders and the international community have been urging Bangladeshi governments to set up a NHRC. Both the previous Awami League government and the present BNP government have acknowledged the necessity for its formation, but neither have taken the appropriate action to establish it.

Concerning the Special Powers Act
Amnesty International considers the Special Powers Act a law designed to bypass safeguards against arbitrary detention. It allows the government to detain people who are not charged with recognisably criminal offences. It circumvents the rules of evidence and standard of proof in the criminal justice system, leaving individuals, who should be presumed innocent unless found guilty by a court, at risk of being punished without trial. Amnesty International believes that it is a violation of fundamental human rights for states to detain people whom they do not intend to prosecute or deport. Amnesty International is therefore urging the Government of Bangladesh to repeal the Special Powers Act as it has pledged to do.

Concerning the use of Section 54
Establish clear and enforceable safeguards against abuse of Sections 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and other administrative detention procedures resulting in torture.
Ensure that the magistrates do not ignore safeguards against unlawful detention when ordering a prisoner's remand into police custody; to that effect, ensure that the prisoners are physically produced before the magistrates when police request a prisoner's remand into custody, and ensure that the magistrates actively take steps to ascertain whether or not the detainee has been tortured, taking care not to prejudice the detainee's safety, for example, by asking questions in the presence of the detaining police officers.
Investigate every allegation of torture through an impartial and independent inquiry to identify perpetrators of torture according to international standards.
Ensure that all perpetrators of torture and those whose negligence has facilitated torture are brought to justice without delay.
Make public all reports of previous commissions of inquiry into allegations of torture and any such future reports.
Provide compensation to torture victims or their families.
Invite the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on Torture to visit Bangladesh.
Amend Bangladeshi law to reflect the provisions of the international human rights instruments to which Bangladesh is a party.
Implement the Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Implement the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture to the General Assembly of July 2001.

Concerning police training
Train police personnel in effective methods of investigation which respects human rights. Make it clear to them that any act of torture including rape and sexual abuse of detainees is a criminal act punishable by law.
Ensure that training on the gathering, analysis and preservation of evidence and other aspects of the investigation of alleged crimes, including techniques of interviewing and taking statements from suspects and witnesses, is designed to develop the capacity of the police to build a case in an efficient manner that avoids reliance on coercion.
Ensure that human rights is a permanent component of police training, reflected in long-term training plans and resources allocation. It should be key component of all basic training for new recruits. It should also be included in all relevant in-service courses, such as refresher courses, training in crime investigation skills and public order policing.
Ensure that police personnel at all levels know that they will be held personally responsible and accountable for their own actions or omissions. Police personnel at all levels should be made aware that they have a right and duty to disobey orders to carry out acts of torture or ill-treatment.
Ensure that all detainees are given immediate access to relatives, legal counsel, medical assistance and relatives after being taken in custody.
Ensure that the detainees are promptly informed of their rights to lodge complaints about their treatment.
Ensure that special training is given to the police on dealing sensitively with issues of violence against women, as well as how to deal with all women victims of crime, Female guards should be present during the interrogation of female detainees and should be solely responsible for carrying out any body searches of female detainees.
Ensure that children are detained only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. Special training should be given to the police on the specific rights and needs of children. Training should involve how to deal sensitively with issues of violence against children, as well as how to deal with children that have been victims of crime.
Ensure that all training initiatives are linked to the creation of effective accountability mechanisms.
Establish internal monitoring and investigation procedures to ensure that allegation of human rights violations committed by police are immediately and impartially investigated and those found responsible are brought to justice.

Concerning the creation of a National
Human Rights Commission

Amnesty International encourages the creation of a national human rights commission in Bangladesh if it conforms to Amnesty International recommendations as detailed in its publication entitled: National Human Rights Institutions: Amnesty International's recommendations for effective protection and promotion of human rights.
It urges the Government of Bangladesh to ensure from the outset that a such a commission is empowered as an independent body to investigate all instances of human rights violations impartially and competently, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator or their links to political parties.
It recommends that the creation of a national human rights commission should be accompanied by a determined government policy aimed at holding the perpetrators of human rights fully accountable, thus ensuring that those who violate human rights cannot do so with impunity.
It reiterates that the creation of such a commission should go hand in hand with a thorough review of existing legal and other institutions in order to make these more effective instruments of human rights protection.

Concluding remarks
The implementation of these recommendations would be a decisive and welcome step towards the fulfilment of Bangladesh's human rights obligations under international human rights treaties to which Bangladesh is a state party. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

This is edited version of Amnesty Internationals' report on Bangladesh.

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