Introduction: Lawless law-enforcement & the parody of judiciary in Bangladesh

This special report, “Lawless law-enforcement & the parody of judiciary in Bangladesh” (article 2, vol. 5, no. 4, August 2006), is the first published by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) on policing and the judiciary in Bangladesh. In many respects, it is a report that should have been published earlier. But it is also a report that is never too late.

Since 2002, the ALRC has watched in alarm at the worsening human rights conditions in Bangladesh. Then, Operation Clean Heart disregarded all basic principles for policing, justice and the rule of law in favour of arresting, terrorising and brutalising the largest number of people within the shortest time possible. It also did incalculable damage to the country’s already seriously defective institutions. And it gave birth to a whole new generation of extralegal anti-crime units, including the army-dominated Rapid Action Battalion. These events have spurred an escalation in killings by security officials, combined with a host of other already prevalent abuses: assault, torture, rape, extortion, arbitrary and false arrest, and so on. Most of the victims are either targetted for political reasons or are otherwise innocent. In consequence, the police are now synonymous with fear, politics and privilege in Bangladesh.

At the same time, the government has made no progress in reforming judicial institutions and related agencies. This is despite pressure to do so coming from all sides, and agreement among the major political parties that things are going wrong. Above all, the government has failed to free the lower judiciary from the control of its ministries, and establish an independent department for public prosecutors. It has failed to take any substantive steps to tackle corruption, in which Bangladesh is a world leader. It has not criminalised torture, although it pretends to have committed itself to the international treaty banning torture. Nor has it set up a national human rights body, despite years of promises and funding from abroad for this purpose. Likewise, it has made few efforts to pull its medico-legal system out of the 19th century. The notion of victim and witness protection too is non-existent.

Today, the victim of any form of abuse by the police or other state officers in Bangladesh has virtually no prospects to obtain redress. There is nowhere to complain other than government-controlled courts; there is no one to investigate other than the police themselves. Under colonial-era law, the state must approve of the prosecution of its officers. At the same time, all major institutions for justice and the rule of law are malfunctioning. In response the government has offered more violence. Correspondingly, both its capacity and inclination to respond to complaints responsibly appears to have diminished.

Why this report is important
Talk about lawless law-enforcers, or parodies of judges, is talk about much more: it is talk about the survival of the state. Bangladesh’s formal democracy is in the balance. A functioning democracy depends upon working institutions for the rule of law. Bangladesh’s is contradicted by the absence of such institutions. It lacks well-founded bodies upon which it can itself stand with any measure of certainty. This contradiction exists in many countries where weak jurisdictions are unable to meet the demands of constitutionally-accepted democratic forms of governance. In Bangladesh it is the size of the contradiction that is alarming, and which is creating gigantic problems that require more concerted responses.

The contradiction between democracy and weak rule of law manifests itself most sharply in the violent conflicts between the ruling political party (whichever party may be in power at a given time) and the opposition. For years, it has been an acknowledged feature in Bangladesh that the ruling party uses its power to violently suppress the opposition. The party in power not only typically harasses but even physically attacks senior leaders of the opposition. Still no serious attempts have been made to address the use of torture and law enforcement for political repression, as each side hopes that once it is in power it will be able to use the same methods to obtain revenge. The agents in this bloody game of tit-for-tat are meanwhile promoted, extolled and enriched, encouraging others to follow their examples. And so the cycle goes on, and in recent years has worsened with the introduction of new agencies for violence and bloodshed, with even fewer controls or ideas about who is in control.

This report is important because it discusses individual cases of killing, torture, assault, arbitrary arrest, rape and non-investigation with reference to the overwhelming contradiction between constitutional provisions and reality in Bangladesh. None of the stories that it contains will be of any surprise to anyone in Bangladesh. Some have already been widely reported. Others are not well-known. But what are needed are more critiques of how the arbitrary arrest and assault of a young woman by the police is directly related to national stability. The survival of Bangladesh and its people depends upon acknowledgment of this relationship, and a newfound resolve to do something about it.

The contents of this report
At the heart of this report are 33 cases of extrajudicial killing, torture, assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape and non-investigation by the police and other state officers from all parts of Bangladesh. All were documented in the last 12 months. They reveal, among other things, that the police and other security agencies in Bangladesh commonly
1. Harass, detain and torture persons to extort money or other reasons;
2. Fabricate cases and produce fake records;
3. Kill persons on pretext of “crossfire”;
4. Assault persons at random or as a favour to others, often resulting in death;
5. Commit rape;
6. Participate in robberies and thefts;
7. Threaten witnesses;
8. Work for and protect politicians and other powerful persons;
9. Fail to record and investigate cases where the accused are police or influential persons;
10. Deny all violent crimes, even those of which there is incontrovertible evidence; and,
11. Enjoy almost absolute impunity from criminal prosecution for all offences.

With reference to the courts the cases reveal that
1. Magistrates are often complicit in offences committed by the police;
2. Prosecutors are often inept or politically-controlled;
3. Judicial probes do not result in prosecutions;
4. Trials rarely proceed against accused police; and,
5. No notion of witness and victim protection exists among the lower judiciary.

The other sections of the report complement the cases. These include: a discussion on arbitrary arrest, torture and corruption in the police force by the ALRC; a critique of the obstacles to human rights posed by laws and courts in Bangladesh by Md. Ashrafuzzaman; and, an article on the Rapid Action Battalion and growth in extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh plus their consequences, by Nick Cheesman.

The body of the report closes with a message to the people of Bangladesh and the international community, entailing suggested steps to begin addressing the enormous human rights problems in the country.

There are five appendices. The first appendix contains pledges on human rights made by the government of Bangladesh to the UN Human Rights Council before obtaining membership in May 2006. The second contains a series of open letters to United Nations bodies and experts on Bangladesh, including five letters to the Human Rights Council; one each to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers, torture, extrajudicial executions, and violence against women; and one each to the UN Secretary General and the Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations. The third consists of lists of victims in two incidents of assault, arrest and killing in 2006. The fourth is a list of names of military and police personnel that has been submitted to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations with the request that they be prohibited from participating in United Nations missions for reason of alleged human rights abuses in their own country. The fifth and final appendix contains two statements on torture and impunity in Bangladesh to the UN Commission on Human Rights by the ALRC.

This report was prepared by Md. Ashrafuzzaman and Nick Cheesman in collaboration with staff of the Asian Legal Resource Centre and Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.

The authors wish to thank all of the persons who shared stories that are described in this report. They also thank the Bangladesh Institute for Human Rights and the Task Force against Torture, some of whose cases are included here, for their insight and determination to fight torture and related abuses in Bangladesh. And they thank Dev Prasad Das Debu for the use of some of his photographs.


This report is dedicated to Shahin Sultana Santa, a brave woman who together with her husband and son has been unwilling to give up on justice despite being pitted against overwhelming power and brutality, and official indifference and impotence. Her story is described herein.