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Current Affairs

The Wheels of Justice

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

It was an atrocity that shocked the nation. In a bloody uprising that spanned two days, February 25-26, 2009, at least 73 people, including 57 army officers were brutally murdered at the Pilkhana Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) headquarters. Bangladesh has seen upwards of half a dozen coups and uprisings in the 37 years of its existence. But the sheer mindless brutality of the BDR uprising stunned the national psyche. The pressure was on from day one to unearth the cause of the BDR mutiny and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

On May 27 2009, exactly three months after the massacre at the Pilkhana BDR Headquarters, the government inquiry report saw the light of day. The 12-member probe committee, chaired by former Additional Secretary Anisuzzaman Khan had been tasked with unearthing the cause of the BDR mutiny on February 25 and 26, investigating related matters and making recommendations for prevention of similar incidents in the future.

The report, running to 309 pages, said: “It can be said with certainty that real reasons and motives behind this brutal incident could not be clearly determined,” committee chief Anisuzzaman Khan told a press conference at the time. The committee did not find any political, militant or foreign links to the mutiny.

Following a countrywide manhunt, the security forces arrested some 1,779 people in connection with the mutiny case filed in Dhaka while 1,721 were arrested in connection with 40 cases filed for rebellion outside Dhaka. Then came the thorny question of selecting the law under which the accused could be tried.

The Bangladesh Rifles has been raised and maintained as a Force in accordance with the provisions of the Bangladesh Rifles Order, 1972 (P.O. 148 of 1972) and defined as 'disciplined force' within the meaning of Article 152 of the Constitution. But the application of BDR law in the situation in question appeared to be inadequate as it does not provide for the trial of Superior Officers namely, Deputy Assistant Director, Assistant Director & Deputy Director, or the civilian employees serving in BDR. However, P.O. 148 of 1972 contains provisions on trial of Subordinate Officers and Riflemen only for offences like mutiny through Special Court but the maximum punishment is up to seven years rigorous imprisonment.

The Bangladesh Rifles (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 1976 (Ord. no. 85 of 1976) deals with only the departmental proceedings whereby penalties of dismissal, removal, discharge or compulsory retirement from the service can be imposed on all the members including civilian employees. But it does not address offenses such as assault, killing and looting.

After intense debate regarding the modalities of the trial, the government turned to the Supreme Court for its opinion, which in its turn sought the advice of eminent jurists before coming to the conclusion that the BDR mutiny could not be prosecuted under the Army Act. Finally the government decided that offences like killing, attempt to murder, arson and looting would be tried under the penal code, while other offences such as mutiny, insubordination, and breaking chain of command would fall under the relevant BDR laws. Through this, the government appears to have made a clear distinction between those who perpetrated the gruesome murders, and those who supported and instigated them.

Legal expert Shahdeen Malik told The Daily Star that it was appropriate for the trial of the BDR personnel to be held under two laws. “Trial of the mutiny part of the incident can be held under the BDR act while the carnage part under the Penal Code. There is no legal barrier to this.” But if the trial is held under the army act, the credibility of the trial will be questioned and it will be damaging for the nation in the long run, he said. According to Dr. Malik, both parties have to be from the army to hold trials under the Army Act. In the Pilkhana incident those who are accused are not army personnel but those killed were army personnel.

In line with the government decision, six special courts of Bangladesh Rifles were formed to hold 50 trials for the February 25-26 mutiny in as many BDR establishments across the country. The first of the trials began on November 24 at Rangamati sector headquarters while the second one got underway at Satkhira battalion headquarters. As per the BDR law, they are trying thousands of border guards on charges of mutiny at 50 Rifles establishments.

The BDR director general Major General M Mainul Islam heads each of the three-member courts that have a lieutenant colonel and a major as the two other members. According to BDR sources, lawyers nominated by the attorney general are assisting the special courts, which will only conduct mutiny trial. The courts have been set up at the scenes of occurrence or near them for the benefit of conducting the trial, said a BDR press release. Questions have been raised about whether the accused will get adequate legal representation.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed however has said that human rights will not be violated even if the BDR members involved in the Pilkhana massacre are tried in special courts. Asked at a press conference if fair trial is possible under the BDR chief, Shafique Ahmed avoided a direct reply and said the government will hold the trial of the BDR carnage following due legal process in a very transparent manner. BDR sources told newsmen that if the departmental trial would be completed before the Criminal Investigation Department turns in its charge sheet, so that the accused cannot delay the special courts trial by taking out High Court stay orders.

The deaths of BDR men in custody have cast a shadow over the trial process. According to media reports, after the surrender of the mutineers, many BDR men were tortured in the name of interrogation and 54 died allegedly from torture in custody. Official sources claimed these deaths had mostly occurred as a result of “heart attacks” and “suicides”.

International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have weighed into the debate by asking the Bangladesh government to ensure justice for the victims of the February 2009 BDR mutiny by making certain that all suspects receive a fair trial, and that only the guilty are punished.

In a report released on 12 November 2009, Amnesty claimed that following the mutiny, thousands of BDR personnel were confined to barracks and denied all contact with the outside world. Reports soon emerged as family members began to meet the detainees, alleging that scores, possibly hundreds of BDR personnel had suffered human rights violations, including torture, for possible involvement in the mutiny. Amnesty International's report documents the methods of torture used including depriving suspects of sleep over a number of days, subjecting suspects to beatings and the use of pliers to crush testicles, inserting needles under suspect's nails and administering electric shocks.

Human rights watchdogs have said that the government must also reconsider its decision to use the Speedy Trial Tribunal because the time limit these courts impose for the completion of the trial may lead to a miscarriage of justice.

The BDR trials carry enormous political and social significance. The images of mass graves and mutilated bodies haunt the nation, and there is deep sympathy for the families of the slain soldiers. There may even be a desire for revenge in some quarters. Yet, if Bangladesh is to choose justice over vengeance, due process and a fair trial are indispensable.



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