An Open Letter by the Asian Human Rights Commission to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navy Pillay on the occasion of UN International Day In Support of Victims of Torture
Ms. Navanethem Pillay
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10
Fax: +41 22 917 9012/0213
Dear High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem Pillay:
Until 2012, Bangladesh was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. On the international stage, the country had no qualms in making voluntary pledges for protecting the universally enshrined human rights of its citizens. Bangladesh has claimed that it adheres to all major human rights instruments and that it is fully committed to the principles of good governance, democracy, rule of law, and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all citizens. Often the country’s official documents submitted to the UN Human Rights mechanism claim that its Constitution guarantees fundamental rights.
True, the Constitution of Bangladesh enshrines fundamental human rights. For example, part III of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh covers fundamental rights. Article 35 (5) of the Constitution is actually a virtual copy of article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Note the language, which reads: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.”
There is also jurisprudence – providing directions for the police and the relevant institutions, including the magistracy, to prevent abuse by law-enforcement agencies – crafted by the country’s higher judiciary.
Regrettably, however, such constitutional protection from torture and jurisprudence remain mere parchment, with hardly any practical use in the real life of Bangladeshi people, especially where torture and ill-treatment is concerned.
Torture is an endemic affliction in Bangladesh. Policing and torture are synonymous. The arrest of a person by the police or any law-enforcement agency of the country is understood to mean torture and ill-treatment of the arrestee right from time the act of arrest begins being executed. The police rarely show a warrant of arrest issued by a court of law. Such practice of random arrests spares no person – regardless of whether the arrestee committed any crime in the first place – from sprees of arrests constantly being made by the country’s law-enforcement agents. There is a general public understanding that if a victim of illegal arrest dares ask any question challenging the legality of his or her arrest, the risk of sustaining, instant and subsequent torture increases. As the period of detention in police custody is prolonged, the fear of losing life or being permanently or partially disabled increases. So, citizens have been forced to learn to maintain silence about illegal arrests and detention.
The policing system of Bangladesh is a far cry from any concept of professionalism. The police are officially responsible for conducting the criminal investigations that incorporate torture as an integral part of the investigative mechanism. Torture is the principal tool, as part of the required techniques, used for criminal investigation or interrogation of crime suspects. The law-enforcement agencies, which lack professional efficiency to investigate the criminal cases, mostly depend on torture, called the ‘third degree method’. It is used for extracting confessional statements, never mind the constitutional provision, as per Article 35 (4), that states: “No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself“.
The country’s civil society, media, and scholars mostly agree with the point of the police that torture is most necessary for criminal investigations. There is a notion in the Bangladeshi national psyche that criminal investigation cannot be conducted without torture. Likewise, there is an expectation that the police will torture a crime-suspect immediately after arrest. This expectation is itself a part of the understanding, the belief, that trial in courts will ultimately fail to convict the alleged offender. Indeed, this only reflects the level of people’s distrust in the criminal justice system of the country. Any discourse relating to the prevention of torture, and the demand of criminalisation of torture, is termed as an ‘agenda of the western society’ being ‘propagated’ against the norms established in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh police is institutionally corrupted. The police use torture for extracting bribes. People are forced to pay bribes to the police on a daily basis for keeping their livelihoods. For example, the street-hawkers, petty-shopkeepers, traders, and industrialists – all have to pay money to the police whenever it is demanded. Professional offenders of crimes – such as drug-peddlers, smugglers, thieves, robbers, snatchers, and illegal arms-dealers – have to pay money to the police regularly; some pay on a daily basis while the others pay weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, as per police want. For including or excluding any name in the list of accused in a criminal case; for getting any tailor-made investigation report; for arresting any person as accused of an alleged crime or for releasing anyone from an accusation; for increasing the degree of systematic torture or for decreasing and stopping torture, the right quantum of bribe is the determining factor.
The police and other law-enforcement agencies, including the Rapid Action Battalion – a paramilitary force dominated by officers of the armed forces enjoying blatant impunity for their crimes – keep eyes on the moneyed-persons’ for their financial gains. They target the moneyed, including traders, expatriate citizens, industrialists, and other businessmen. They raid their houses and offices, arresting one or more persons, and detain them in custody for days, demanding ransom. Once the demanded amount is paid, the detainee can get release. Of course, everyone sustains torture while in detention, with threats of disappearance or extrajudicial murder. But, this is known only if the story is shared in public.
In Bangladesh, the police officers create their illegal assets using the names of their wives, children, or in-laws, as there is no mechanism or institution for holding the police accountable for their disproportionate income and wealth. The chain of command is systematically replaced by a ‘chain of corruption’ within law-enforcement agencies. The country’s political culture patronises such non-professional police, who can be easily used as ‘hired musclemen’ for whoever is in power. The police love to survive as a lethal force of the rulers, no matter who is in power, because they are ready to serve according to their masters’ choice. The police comply with the instructions of ruling political masters, who always want the police to drive away their opposition and anyone with a dissident voice in the country. In bilateral meetings with the parliamentarians of Bangladesh, one of the veteran members of the Parliament, currently a member of the cabinet, asked a question when the Asian Human Rights Commission spoke about criminalising torture. The parliamentarian’s question was: ‘if torture is criminalised, how would we control the opposition in a third world democracy like Bangladesh?” This view, actually, reflects the position maintained by the rulers who possess a feudalistic mindset rather than any true notion of democracy and the rule of law. Thus, it is understandable why the country’s Parliament has failed to legislate a Bill titled ‘Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Bill, 2011′ since March 2011, when the Parliamentary Committee for Private Members’ Bill and Resolution recommended the National Parliament to legislate, after reviewing the Bill. And this despite the ruling party alone having more than two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The mindset of the government reflects in the institutions. The judiciary never even intends to utilize its capabilities to hold the perpetrators of torture accountable. The judicial officers often act in a way that the torturer police officers are their colleagues in ‘public service’.
So, the officials of one governmental department should not embarrass the other!
The prosecutors are disposable in Bangladesh where every ruling party appoints their own party-members as prosecutors and state-attorneys, as soon as a party assumes office. Due to the culture of impunity maintained by successive governments, and the political culture of subduing political opponents, prosecutors and state-attorneys always defend the perpetrators of torture in courts of law on the rare occasions when, as a last resort, victims seek justice through the courts. Thus, the criminal justice system is, in fact, a facade, a dark joke.
The Asian Human Rights Commission observes that the United Nations human rights mechanism talks about various universal norms, standards, and principles for safeguarding the fundamental rights of human beings. There is no doubt that torture is a heinous crime, which is officially being practiced by state-agents almost in all parts of the world. At the same time, the UN seems to be missing a very important point in its continued discussion: that reforming the policing system in countries is one of the most urgent requirements. We need to understand the importance that unless policing remains a torture-friendly system, there will be no guarantee in protecting people from torture. The Asian Human Rights Commission strongly recommends your good office initiate a comprehensive programme across the world in order to compel nation-states, including Bangladesh, to reform their policing system in compliance with universally enshrined human rights. In order to stop torture thorough reforms of policing is a must, which undeniably requires tremendous effective effort from the UN.
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong