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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 192
June 4, 2005

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Torture in police custody

Bangladesh could follow Mexican trail

Dr. Muhammad Ashrafuzzaman

The Police have been given bizarre power in Bangladesh. According to section 54 of the criminal procedure code, which was drafted by the colonization masterminds, the police can arrest anyone whom it suspects to be involved with any crime. The reason I used the offensive words above is that the act is and was for the subcontinent (during British colonization period) only and never applied in England, where the masters were from. And the common scenario is that, after the arrest police forward the person before the magistrate with a prayer for remand in custody under section 167 of the criminal procedure code. At this stage if remand is granted, the arrested person is then taken into the police custody for interrogation. And in the name of interrogation usually torture is carried on the arrested person to obtain information or confessional statement. Now a day it has become a practice by the police that they also take money from the arrested person just not to torture him (the detainee). After the expiry of the remand period the arrested person is brought before the Magistrate and if there is any confessional statements the Magistrate records it and the police also may pray for further remand. This is so routine practice that even some people and almost all policemen do not consider this as a violation of rule. Although, while in opposition, the major political parties always admit this fact and raises their voice against this issue, but unfortunately this widespread and persistent torture has been routinely ignored by successive governments, since Bangladesh's independence in 1971.


The United Nations' Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, entered into force June 26, 1987. Bangladesh signed the convention, although very late, only in the 5th October 1998. However having regard to article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and having regard also to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the General Assembly on 9 December 1975, this convention is not a new concept but a continuation of UN attempt to stop cruelty. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. We have to bear in mind that only pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions are exempted from the definition and police tortures are not lawful.

Bangladesh is not the only country where there is this trend of police torture. In many countries this is a major problem and even in the countries where the law and order is the best in the world, this problem exists in a limited scale. If we look at Austria, one of the lowest crime rate country, with persistent record of best law and order, In November 1999 the United Nations Committee against Torture noted the fact that in Austria "... allegations of ill treatment by the police are still reported". There are continued reports of alleged ill treatment of detainees by police officers, in many cases while being arrested. A large majority of allegations come from non-Caucasian Austrians and foreign nationals. Most report that they have been subjected to repeated kicks, punches, kneeing, beating with truncheons and spraying with pepper after being restrained. In many cases the allegations of ill-treatment have been supported by medical reports and in some cases the detainees have been taken by the arresting police officers to receive medical attention during their initial period in custody.

But unlike other nations Bangladesh government is shy to admit this problem let alone address the solutions. Like Bangladesh there are many third-world countries where citizens are often vulnerable to their own law enforcement agencies. Such a country with very bad reputation for police torture is Mexico. The Mexican Government is trying to tackle its reputation as one of the world's worst human rights abusers by holding a "counter-torture" course for police. Mexico's Attorney General ordered the course as one of a series of steps to modernise the country's law enforcement agencies and improve their reputation. And for the first time he has appointed an official to oversee human rights within his own office. Together, human rights agencies say they mark a significant admission by the attorney general that a serious problem of torture exists. The course is aimed at police prosecutors - the officials who deal with alleged offenders after they have been arrested. It teaches them the limits of what is and is not appropriate treatment of suspects and how to recognise the signs of abuse when police have gone too far.

Here back home, for too long torture has been accepted as normal behaviour by governments. Victims can be children, women, the elderly, political dissidents, criminal suspects, or innocent bystanders. As Mexico detected here also, the basic reason for police torture is that the police do not know or forgot what they did learnt in their training about the methods of investigation or extracting information in an interrogation. The above sentence may raise doubt among readers but consider the typical view of an hartal or political activities. Although according to the convention, no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. Even, An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Scores of people have died in custody as a result of torture. Custodial rape has been a serious problem in Bangladesh. Victims of rape often have to rely on the support and resilience of their family to seek justice. Sadly, it has been mostly in cases where the victim has been murdered or there has been public outcry that any action has been taken. Many cases of violence against women take place at the hands of private individuals and it is common for police not to take action against alleged perpetrators on payment of a bribe.

Torture and ill treatment is not always carried out behind closed doors. Police frequently attack demonstrators and in an attempt to hide their actions, they also beat the journalists reporting such protests. On 9 August 1999, an AFP journalist Debu Prasad Das was taking photographs of a strike by truck transport labourers near Chittagong when several police officers beat him with sticks and rifle butts. Debu Prasad Das knows the names of the policemen who beat him but did not include them in his complaint for fear of retaliation. Later he filed a petition case against seven policemen in the Chittagong Magistrate court but no investigation has been made. According the code of criminal procedure no court shall take cognigence of a case filed against a public servant on duty i.e. police who was torturing a public to comply with his duty. Furthermore, police officers harassed him to withdraw the complaint and have offered to pay the medical bill (very kind of them).

The above fact is not a stand-alone case but a one of a series of cases. In another occation a 81-year-old Sheikh Shahabuddin Ahmed, was tortured by police on the day of his arrest, 7 July 1998. Sheikh Shahabuddin Ahmed was president of an association, which worked against drugs and criminal activity. He said to the newspaper "The criminal gangs were working directly with the police who came to arrest me saying I was stopping business activity in the area. In fact we were only trying to stop criminal activity and drug abuse." After sending appeals to the Home Minister, Prime Minister and the Inspector General of Police seeking punishment of those who tortured him, he was told one of his torturers was dismissed, but should not expect any further action or compensation. Although, the 1987 arcticle also, clearly states that upon being satisfied, after an examination of information available to it, that the circumstances so warrant, the government should have to take the officers alleged into custody or to take other legal measures to ensure their presence.

Police officials in Bangladesh admit privately that torture takes place but they take a lenient approach, blaming it mostly on the low income of police officers. In other cases, police officers may be involved in criminal activity such as trading in drugs or contraband, and torture people to stop them taking action against them. Torture of political opponents is believed to be ordered by politicians. Police may also torture for personal gratification as is the case with rape. However, the majority of cases involve torturing people to confess to a crime they didn't commit. All of this continues because successive governments allow it to. It is rare that cases are investigated and even fewer are brought to justice.

Bangladesh ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1998. Torture is forbidden under the Constitution and it is a criminal act under the Penal Code. However legislation which facilitates torture, for example by allowing for detention without an arrest warrant, is still in place. Several NGO's prepared report on this issue and invited the government to take measures to prevent this torture by police. Among various proposals there include; ensuring no law facilitates torture, that allegations of torture are investigated, that torturers are brought to justice, that police are trained in torture-free methods of interrogation and that victims are compensated. It is understandably true that if a complain has to be made to the same authority an expectation of justice is a fake dream. So, if the government has any honest intention to make this complain any fruitful there should be a separate authority to deal with these complains. Torture by no means should be accepted as a necessary act or a part of life -- it is a human rights violation. The government should take up the challenge to make a difference in Bangladesh by ending years of endemic torture. It is also recommended that the Government repeals the Special Powers Act. It is further urged that the Code of Criminal Procedure should be reviewed for the sections therein where the police code is embodied and the law relating to confessions. It is proven facts that the provision of confession results in torture. It is also necessary to ensure that law enforcement agencies understand that torture is a criminal act and to bring perpetrators of torture to justice.

The author is assistant professor and head Department of Law, Northern University, Bangladesh.


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