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February 8, 2004

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A gravy train and 'shackled' kids in Bangladesh

ACHR Features

Hundreds of juveniles are illegally detained in Bangladeshi prisons in violation of the Children Act of 1974 and Bangladesh's obligation as a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to a list prepared by the Dhaka Central jail authorities in December 2003, there were at least 108 juvenile delinquents being held in Dhaka Central Jail instead of correction centres. Of the 108 children, at least eight have been in the jail for more than one year including Al Amin, a boy of 14 who has been held since 7 October 2000. At the National Juvenile Correction Centre at Tongi, at least 99 seats are lying vacant. Earlier the government of Bangladesh in a report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in September 2003 unabashedly stated that a total of 1041 juveniles are reported to be in different prisons as of August 2003. Of them, 959 were male and 82 were female.

Section 2(f) of the Children Act of 1974 provides that any person below 16 years is a juvenile and must be sent to a "certified home or approved home or to the custody of a relative or other fit person". However, age verification has never been taken seriously in the administration of juvenile justice. Often, police increase the age of a juvenile while producing before a court to avoid so called legal complications. The magistrates are supposed to order age verification if a suspect seems less than 18 years involving scrutiny of birth or school certificates and bone ossification tests. But most magistrates don't even look up from their paperwork and in a routine exercise often send juveniles to jail. Even when the court orders to send the juveniles in correction centres, court orders are ignored and children continue to be detained in prison. There were five cases in January 2003 where the accused children were still inside the Dhaka Central jail even after the court ordered them to be sent to the correction centre. Thirteen-year-old Rafique has been in central jail since 19 November 2003 though the court ordered to send him to the National Correction Centre at Tongi.

The mal-treatment of the juveniles in Bangladesh are in contravention of international standards on administration of juvenile justice and in particular articles 37, 40 and 39 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other United Nations standards in the field of juvenile justice, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules) and the United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (the Riyadh Guidelines), the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty and the Vienna Guidelines for Action on Children in the Criminal Justice System.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility is determined at 7 years under section 83 of the Bangladesh Penal Code an affront to civilised society's treatment of children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child while examining the periodic report of the government of Bangladesh at its 35th session in September 2003 expressed concerns about (a) the minimum age of criminal responsibility (7 years); (b) the sentencing to life imprisonment of children from the age of 7 years and to death penalty of children from the age of 16 years; (c) the absence of juvenile courts and judges in some parts of Bangladesh; (d) the extensive discretionary powers of the police, reportedly resulting in incarceration of street children and child prostitutes; (e) the use of caning and whipping as a sentence for juvenile offenders; (f) the failure to fully ensure respect for the right to fair trial, including legal assistance for alleged children offenders and the very long periods of pre-trial detention; and (g) the detention of children with adults and in very poor conditions, without access to basic services.

Consequently, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended to the government of Bangladesh to (a) raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to an internationally acceptable standard; (b) ensure that the imposition of the death penalty, of life imprisonment without possibility of release, and of caning and whipping as sanctions for crimes committed by persons while under 18 are explicitly prohibited by law; (c) ensure the full implementation of the right to fair trial, including the right to legal or other appropriate assistance; (d) protect the rights of children deprived of their liberty and improve their conditions of detention and imprisonment, including by guaranteeing separation of children from adults in prisons and in pre-trail detention places all over the country; (e) establish an independent child-sensitive and accessible system for the reception and processing of complaints by children. The report prepared by the Central jail authorities of Dhaka in December 2003 shows that government has little respect for the recommendations made by the UN bodies.

The establishment of a National Human Rights Commission consistent with the Paris Principles relating to the status of National Human Rights Institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights could have served as an effective mechanism to address such gross and systematic human rights violations. After examining the first periodic report of the government of Bangladesh, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its concluding observations on 6 June 1997 welcomed "the recent law to establish the post of Ombudsperson as well as the fact that a National Human Rights Commission is being set up." More than six years later on 3 October 2003, the CRC Committee after examining the second periodic report once again welcomed "the information from the delegation concerning the intention to establish a National Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsperson". Since start of the project to establish a National Human Rights Commission by then Bangladesh Nationalist Party government in April 1995 three governments have changed, many draconian laws such as the Public Security (Special Provision) Act of 2000 and Joint Drive Indemnity Act of 2003 were passed; and the officials and project officers took a de tour of all the countries in the world having NHRIs. Yet, the establishment of the NHRC remains a pipe dream. The process of establishing the National Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh has been all but a gravy train.

The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) is a regional network of grassroots community organisations, NGO's and professionals actively involved with urban poor development processes in Asian cities.

Courtesy: LAW WATCH, a Centre for Studies on Human Rights & Law.


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