The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) once again draws attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council and independent experts of its Special Procedures about systemic use of arbitrary arrests and detention as a tool for silencing the citizens, coerce the state power, and enjoy corruption.
Bangladesh is a State where legality or rational reason is not required for arresting a person. A coercive law-enforcement system and an illegitimate government, which consecutively retains State’s power by using the brute force of law-enforcement agencies and other organs of the State, complement each other for their mutual interests. Arbitrary arrests and detention is a common toll that benefits both the ruling party and the law-enforcement agencies. For seizing power the incumbent government’s topmost agenda remains as silencing the critics and ruining the opposition. The law-enforcement agencies like the Police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and intelligence units such as the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) step forward to provide the expected service to the incumbent political and bureaucratic masters. The reciprocation of exercising arbitrary power is self-rewarding in Bangladesh’s current State of affairs where no institution exists to hold the perpetrators accountable. Professionalism and efficiency are only required for facilitating the power-mongering business involving uncontrollable corruption.
Take the example of Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a journalist who edits a vernacular online news portal named The Daily Pokkhokal, remains arbitrarily detained in prison since 4 May 2020 after his disappearance for 53 days since 10 March. Shafiqul disappeared after ruling party lawmaker Saifuzzaman Shikhor registered a case under the Digital Security Act-2018 for sharing media reports on his personal Facebook profile on sexual scandals of a group of lawyers and high profile bureaucrats of Bangladesh. The ruling party leaders filed two more criminal cases under the Digital Security Act in Dhaka. The country’s Border Guards later floated a story of arresting Shafiqul at the Bangladesh-India Border for an alleged trespassing into his home country from India. In order to justify the allegation of trespass the Border Guards personnel filed a case under Bangladesh Passport Order-1973. The police filed another General Diary Entry to keep him detained in prison. The Courts repeatedly rejected the bail petitions filed by Shafiqul’s lawyers in the virtual court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to cover up the scandalous activities of a group of influential ruling party politicians and bureaucrats the journalist is made to be a scapegoat. The Police, the Border Guards, and the Judiciary are colluding together in the process of keeping Shafiqul detained in prison without legitimacy.
Incarceration on imaginary suspicions is the way of law-enforcement in Bangladesh. The recent detention of the 255 migrant workers after having been deported from the Gulf countries is another proof to that fact. Some Bangladeshi migrant workers were imprisoned after being convicted in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar for petty crimes like consuming drugs or theft or overstaying after the expiration of work permits. Having served most of their prison terms they were granted royal pardons of those States and were deported during the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon arrival in few batches the Bangladesh Authorities sent the returnees to a military controlled quarantine facility in the outskirts of Dhaka between April and July 2020. After completion of the quarantine period the government used the police to detain these 255 deported migrant workers in prison on suspicion of future crimes they may commit if set free! The police used Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure-1898, which is routinely used for detaining people without approval from the Judiciary. Although the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ordered the police not to abuse this particular provision of the colonial law, the law-enforcement agencies enjoy impunity for abusing their powers as their coercive actions are endorsed by the highest authorities of the government. The police have also accused the 255 people for ‘conspiring against the government’ and ‘tarnishing the image of the country’ although the law-enforcement agency failed to produce any evidence before the Courts to substantiate such accusations. The detainees languish in jails for nearly two months while the police are legally obliged to complete investigation within 15 days as per Regulation 261 (c) of the Police Regulations of 1943 and the police’s failure to accomplish the investigation should lead to the release of the detainees after the period of 15 days. Prominent human rights activists have demanded the unconditional release of the poor detainees that has not yet been enough under an authoritarian government in place.
The cases that the ALRC has referred in this Written Statement are mere examples of tens of thousands of similar incidents that cripple the people’s life in Bangladesh. Apart from those examples the ALRC’s sister organisation the Asian Human Rights Commission has documented that 100 people have been detained in trumped up charges under the Digital Security Act from January to July 2020. These statistics exclude the incidents of arbitrary detentions under other draconian laws such as the Special Powers Act-1974. It indicates that the ordinary people’s helplessness in a severely dysfunctional justice mechanism. It establishes the fact that access to justice does not exist in Bangladesh.
The ALRC reiterates that there is an inseparable connection between the system of rigged election and arbitrary use of power including arbitrary detention of citizens. The law-enforcement agencies use their uniform to escort bribes by protecting the incumbent government without any fair election. In return, the government rewards the law-enforcement agencies for committing gross human rights violations including arbitrary detention, fabricating criminal cases against dissidents, extrajudicially killing and disappearing the opposition supporters and critics. Retaining power means keeping the undeserving flow of income for the ruling politicians through corruption. Thus, the ruling party and the law-enforcement agencies and the civil and military bureaucrats complement each other in collusion with the judiciary in Bangladesh.
The ALRC draws the Human Rights Council’s attention to the concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture and the recommendations of the 3rd Cycle of Universal Periodic Review (UPR). These review reports can guide one to understand the human rights realities of Bangladesh. They can be the mirrors to see how Bangladesh’s incumbent government exploits the UN human rights mechanisms and disregards the recommendations of the UN independent human rights experts.
The UN has been advocating for its Agenda 2030 to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The precondition of achieving the SDG is ensuring universal access to justice for everyone in compliance with the Goal-16.
As of 2020 the policies, actions, and infrastructures of Bangladesh do not demonstrate its willingness let alone commitment to ‘provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’. Bangladesh’s incumbent government has established an authoritarian system by removing the process of democratisation in all levels of the State. That is the greatest impediment to build institutions. It is proven in many parts of the world that peace and justice are unimaginable without democracy and the rule of law. The existing system is highly coercive and corruption-friendly for the ruling politicians, and the civil and military bureaucrats as well as the financial elites that are allies to the incumbent government.
The Human Rights Council and the international community must emphasise consistently on the urgent need of democratisation, as the topmost priority. That may pave the way to transformation of the criminal justice institutions of Bangladesh. The criminal justice mechanisms must be competent to hold the coercive law-enforcement system accountable. Then only abolishing impunity, and administering justice for the gross human rights violations and ordinary crimes would be possible leading to establish peace, stability, and economic growth benefiting everyone without discrimination.