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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: 145
November 21, 2009

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Human Rights analysis

The status of UNCAT in Bangladesh: The fight goes on

Md. Sazzad Hussain

IF the human rights situation in Bangladesh is analysed in parlance with the international standards of human rights law, we will see that the human rights record of the country has never been pleasing. During the various regimes, incidents of human rights violations were commonplace. Sometimes the level of torture increased, but incidents of human rights abuses never came to a halt. During the 23 months of the State of Emergency imposed by the immediate past 'caretaker government', various political activists, journalists, teachers and professional people - including human rights defenders- were tortured and became victims of inhuman or degrading treatment. It is alleged that various security and intelligence agencies, including law enforcement forces were used for this purpose.

Torture is inflicted to humiliate a person and as an exercise to show power and authority. Torture, unfortunately, is also applied as an efficient and less costly alternative to elaborate investigation. The premise is, once tortured; the person will open up and tell the truth. It is Odhikar's experience that law enforcement agencies believe security, law and order cannot be maintained without torture. Thus torture is carried out when suspects are picked up by law enforcement agencies, and taken into custody. When the suspects are taken into remand for further questioning, torture is a logical conclusion.

Torture and impunity in Bangladesh
Torture has been employed for a long period of time without law enforcement agencies being held accountable. There are no accurate estimates as to how many persons fall victim to torture or the extent of this practice. It is also difficult to guess, as torture is used for different purposes, as a part of questioning a suspect, getting confessions, extracting money, forcing a person to make a false statement, oppressing the poor and often to repress opposition against the Government party.

In Bangladesh torture is not considered a crime and though it is widely accredited, it is still not criminalised. Bangladesh still does not follow its legal obligations to stop torture, even after being a state party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT). According to international law regards torture and ill treatment as crime. Bangladesh also has to consider torture as a crime. To uphold human rights, international conventions should be followed, torture should be considered a crime, criminals should be punished and victims of torture should adequately be compensated.

During the Emergency, torture took a dreadful turn. According to Odhikar's information, 44 people were victims of torture in the year 2008. However, Odhikar believes that the actual number of victims of torture is higher because in most cases, victims keep their mouths shut in fear of being tortured again. Torture in custody continues during the present elected regime. In the past 10 months, 74 people were allegedly tortured by the law enforcement agencies. Among them 14 have reportedly been dead due to torture. Of these torture victims, 39 were tortured by police, 23 by the RAB, 5 by coast guard, 4 by BDR, 2 by members of the Joint Task Force and 1 by jail police.

Torture and ill treatment of persons deprived of their liberty usually takes place in centres of detention that are inaccessible to any form of public scrutiny. This is the ideal context for torturers to operate with complete impunity. Torture constitutes one of the more gross violations of fundamental rights of human beings. It destroys the dignity of humanity by degrading their bodies while causing injuries, some times irreparable, to their minds and their spirits. The horrific consequences of this terrible human rights violation spread to the family of the victims and into their social surroundings. Through these acts, the values and principles upon which democracy stands and any form of human coexistence loose their significance.

National Safeguard to Prevent Torture
The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh in Article 35 (5) explicitly states that 'no person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.' However, the definition of torture is still not comprehensive. Sections 330 and 331 of the Penal Code, 1860 makes the acts of causing hurt or grievous hurt for the purpose obtaining confessional statements, criminal offences, punishable with imprisonment which may extend up to 10 years and fine. But it does not cover torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.

Article 32 of the constitution ensures protection of right to life and personal liberty in accordance with law. Because of the consequences of such deprivation, the framers of the Constitution made the specific provision of Article 35 (5) as stated above even though it is very much covered by Article 31. Article 11 of the constitution states that the state shall be a democracy where human rights and worth for human dignity shall be secured for all. This Article further reinforces the safeguard against any form of torture.

The Convention against Torture, adopted by the United Nations, signifies an enormous progress by categorizing the practice of torture as an international crime and by creating the mechanisms to denounce it. However, despite efforts on the issue of prevention, progress has been small at the national and international level.

Bangladesh Government ratified the CAT on 5th October 1998. All states that have ratified and signed the convention have agreed to count torture as a punishable crime in their national laws. The second term election of Bangladesh to the UN Human Rights Council has fortified Bangladesh's responsibility to comply with the international standard of human rights norms.

What can be done by Bangladesh to curb this trend of torture and impunity? The following recommendations have been suggested:

* There is urgency to form an Independent Investigation Department to take complaints against the members of law enforcement agencies, including the security agencies, equipped with their own investigators.

* Torture has to be rejected and disowned by the authorities, which have to make it clear that acts of torture would not be tolerated and the perpetrator would also not be protected in any way.

* Impunity is seen everywhere, but nowhere more publicly than in the extra-judicial killings carried out by law enforcement agencies. Not a single individual has ever been made accountable for these. Impunity of law enforcement agencies should be culminated. .

* Proper implementation of existing laws should be ensured.

* There is a necessity to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered.

* Reservation on Article 14 of the UNCAT must be withdrawn.

Despite being a state party to various international treaties and conventions, torture and extra-judicial killings prevail in Bangladesh due to lack of accountability and culture of impunity of law enforcement agencies. The most important reason for this in Bangladesh is that torture is still not considered as a crime. Since we have no national law against torture, no practical step can be taken against this. As a result, incidents of torture and violations of human rights are being perpetrated, in different forms, by law enforcement agencies.

A culture of impunity protects the perpetrators and since most of the investigations are carried out by the same agencies, it is almost impossible to get redress for torture victims. There is no independent authority to complain against the law enforcement authorities. As such, torture and inhuman or degrading treatment remain and continue to be a source of major concern and a glaring example of human rights violations in Bangladesh. It is submitted that Bangladesh should enact a national legislation against torture with regard to the UNCAT and ratify and carry out the provisions of this Optional Protocol to the UNCAT.

The write up is an abridged version of a presentation made at the National Advocacy Meeting on 'Torture and the OPCAT: Creating National Awareness' organised by Odhikar and RCT, Denmark recently held in Dhaka.

The writer is Programme Coordinator, Odhikar.


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