BANGLADESH: Failure to criminalise torture makes Bangladesh unsuitable for UN Human Rights Council

This is the second of five open letters that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) feels compelled to write to the UN Human Rights Council concerning the horrible human rights situation in Bangladesh, and its causes. We are doing this as we are deeply concerned for the integrity and credibility of the Council if Bangladesh is permitted to sit as a member for the coming three years as intended. 

In our first letter we pointed to the failure of the Government of Bangladesh to separate the judiciary and executive, despite 15 years of promises to do so, and the consequent denial of redress for victims of rights abuses there. 

In our second letter we take up the failure of the government to criminalise torture, and the unnecessary suffering that this imposes upon the many victims of cruel and inhuman treatment and torture by the police and other security forces in Bangladesh. 

In its 13 April 2006 statement to the UN in advance of getting a seat on the new Human Rights Council, the Government of Bangladesh made a lot of boasts about its adherence to international instruments and institutions. It pointed out that it is a party to “more than 18 international human rights instruments”, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. 

However, as the AHRC has consistently pointed out, the value of joining an international treaty lies only in its being implemented locally. And where this is concerned, the Government of Bangladesh is a human rights failure. What it did not recall in its proud statement was that it ratified the Convention with a reservation on article 14(1). That article is an integral part of the Convention, guaranteeing victims the legally-enforcable right of redress, rehabilitation and compensation. By reserving the article, the government in effect quietly negated the value of the treaty. Not surprisingly, a number of states objected to this action, questioning whether or not the Government of Bangladesh has any real commitment to its provisions. 

Since ratifying the Convention against Torture, the Government of Bangladesh has proven that it did so without sincerity. In spite of joining the treaty and having a constitutional provision prohibiting torture, it has taken no steps to criminalise torture or amend domestic laws to give access to remedies, rehabilitation or compensation for victims. This is despite the key General Recommendation of the UN Special Rapporteur on the question of torture that, “Torture should be designated and defined as a specific crime of the utmost gravity in national legislation… the enactment of such legislation should be made a priority”. As a result, the Convention is so far meaningless to the people of Bangladesh.

Take the case of Rashida Khatun, a family planning officer who on 8 June 2006 visited the office of the Satkhira police chief on behalf of a relative. She was brutally assaulted in the chief’s personal office by another officer, using a waist belt and stick. She was rescued, bruised and bleeding all over, by a nearby shopkeeper who heard her cries and dared to intervene. However, when she was taken to hospital, a doctor twice refused to admit her and gave her only some outpatient treatment, due to influence of the police. The police also allegedly removed the medical records so that when she lodged a criminal complaint they could not be used as evidence. The local magistrate on June 26 ordered an inquiry, which is due to be completed; however, these rarely result in any action against police officers. Meanwhile, the victim has been constantly threatened by the police, who have all continued in their posts. 

The story of Rashida Khatun is the story of countless victims of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment all over Bangladesh. Without legal provisions to enact the Convention against Torture, there is no special category of complaint for when they are brutalised by police or other state agents. Without arrangements for medical intervention in cases of torture, there is no easy way to get treatment for the suffering caused. Without an independent judiciary, there is little chance to obtain a judgment that will hold the perpetrators responsible. Without any programme to protect witnesses or victims, they are at the mercy of the same powerful people responsible for their misery and degradation.  Without all of these, the Government of Bangladesh has utterly failed in its obligations under the Convention. 

The AHRC seriously doubts that the Government of Bangladesh has any intention to implement the Convention against Torture. Had the government been sincere in ratifying the Convention, it could have begun work years ago, and by now have had in place many measures which would amerliorate the worst effects of torture and reduce its incidence across the country. Instead, the police and other personnel continue to enjoy virtual impunity for whatever horrors they commit upon the people under their jurisdiction. As a result, untold numbers of victims like Rashida Khatun are up to today continuing to suffer injustice heaped upon abuse by the country’s so-called justice system, unable to find the avenues and means to obtain redress, rehabilitation or compensation. 

The Government of Bangladesh has pledged that it would “remain prepared to be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during its tenure in the Council”. The Asian Human Rights Commission again urges the Council to call on that pledge, and review the status of Bangladesh as a member of the Council as soon as the means is established to do so.  The failure of the government to give meaning to the Convention against Torture, not to mention a host of other international treaties to which it is ostensibly a party, is unconscionable. It is daily causing misery to the people of Bangladesh and further eroding their confidence in policing and all aspects of administration and justice in their country. It is the characteristic not of a country that deserves a seat on the Human Rights Council, but rather the characteristic of a bloody society ruled by feudal lords who are disguised as political party leaders, and a society terrorised by their minions, who are disguised as police, prosecutors and other state functionaries.  

I request that your office transmit this letter to all members of the Council for their consideration.  

Yours sincerely

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong 

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-039-2006
Countries : Philippines,
Issues : Extrajudicial killings,