WHEN COPS GO HAYWIRE!
A poll conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh, last year, rated the police as the most corrupt institution in the country. Recent events, such as the sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl and the attacks on journalists explain why the people have lost faith in law enforcement agencies. With no major reforms taking place in the force, one wonders if the police can ever regain public's trust.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv
They punched me first and then they repeatedly hit me in the different joints of my body. After that the policemen tried to injure my leg and even stabbed me with a knife,” says Abdul Kader as he recalls the manner in which police officials tortured him last year. For a moment it seemed as though his thoughts had got the better of him; after all the events that took place in the early morning of July 16 last year almost killed him.
It was around 2 am and Kader was on his way back to his dormitory after having visited his relatives in Segun Bagicha. As he walked towards his hostel, he noticed two policemen approach him from behind. Thinking they were night-guards, Kader, initially didn't worry too much. However, all of a sudden, the policemen began to hit him with their sticks. "I was shocked. I didn't know what to do. They started beating me for no reason at all,” he says, “When I told them that I was a student of Dhaka University they became more violent." He was then dragged to a police station and beaten all night long.
It has been almost a year since former officer-in-charge Helaludin and his team tortured the DU student and falsely implicated him in a number of charges. However, till date, no sufficient action has been taken against the officers. On the contrary, it took Kader more than six months to be acquitted of the charges slapped against him.
“Just thinking about those days gives me the shivers,” exclaims Kader. “I try to forget about all those things that happened and concentrate on my exams. My studies have already been affected.” he adds.
Despite talks of reforms, the public perception of law enforcers is evidently extremely poor.
The practice of randomly arresting people on baseless grounds and falsely accusing them of criminal charges has almost become a habit for certain police officials. Several cases from the past, such as the arrest of the national shooter Asif Hossain Khan in 2006 and more recently the case of the youngster, Limon Hossain, indicate that law enforcement agencies in this country, more often than not, play by their own rules.
In an ideal world, if a person feels threatened, the obvious thing to do would be to go to the police. You would expect the police to register your case, sketch the incident and actually try to help you; after all they are supposed to be public servants. In a country like ours, however, the police can violate the law and abuse their power, victimising the helpless and vulnerable.
The recent example of the 15-year-old girl, who was sexually assaulted by officials at the heart of the capital, when in police custody indicates a severe deterioration of discipline and values among law enforcers. The girl and her father, who came to the police looking for help, were dragged to the police station, harassed and then beaten up. A timely intervention by 'Ain O Salish Kendro' (ASK), a human rights organisation, saved their lives.
Describing the manner in which the girl and her father were treated in the station, Sultana Kamal, Executive Director, ASK, writes," A police officer named Zaman along with another policeman took the girl to a room, harassed her sexually and snatched her necklace…I took the girl's father to the hospital as he was beaten mercilessly by the police. There were injury marks on his eyes, shoulders and limbs. The girl said that the police had tried to gouge out her father's eyes."
“If the police can randomly pick up a person from the very premises of the Dhaka Magistrate Court, and then sexually assault her, what can they not do?” asks Kader. A similar incident took place in Barisal last week, when a police official attempted to rape a girl who was merely looking to get her documents attested.
Police brutality against the public was also evident during a protest organised by teachers from non-government primary schools, in mid-May. Not only did they physically assault the teachers but they also threw hot water at them, which resulted in the death of Azizur Rahman, a senior teacher who succumbed to his injuries following the attack.
The crime committed by members of law enforcement agencies' last month, were definitely appalling; however, what was perhaps equally shocking was the manner in which the home minister, Shahara Khatun, reacted to the recent attacks. Statements such as ' the cops today are doing much better than ever' or 'it isn't possible to certify every police official as well-behaved' were unacceptable.
Commenting on the recent incidents, Inspector General of Police, Hassan Mahmood Khandakar says, “We are supposed to go by departmental 'dos and donts', the policemen on the field need to follow specific orders. As for the aggression shown by certain policemen, it varies from individual to individual. I believe that a majority of the people at my work force do their duties properly and that's why our force is performing well. There are however a few police officials who go out of track and they will be punished.”
Apparently, we can save ourselves from police brutality by staying away from them!
However, an analysis based on a number of cases show that police officers, who commit criminal activities, usually tend to go unpunished due to the government's reluctance to take any sort of action.
Explaining the reason behind the statistic, Sumaiya Khair, professor of Law, DU, who has done extensive research in this field says, "As long as police officials aren't punished for their misdeeds, such crimes will continue to take place. Following a criminal act, police officials are closed from that particular police station or transferred and nothing is done after that. Rigorous and serious punishments are rarely enforced upon them. There is this reluctance from the part of the government to penalise the police. This attitude needs to change."
Experts in the field of law are of the opinion that outdated policies make it easier for the ruling party to control the police and arrest people. For instance, the last time that police reforms took place in the country was in the 1860s, under the Police Act of 1861.
The act which was made way back in the 19th century with an aim to prevent rebellions during the time of British India continues to be followed today. Legal experts say that the Police Act, 1861, allows the police to be controlled directly by the government, and prevents the creation of an independent institution to monitor and inspect police performance.
Police must be oriented so that they refrain from brutality
when dealing with civilians.
Speaking to the Star eminent jurist barrister Kamal Hossain criticised the age-old act and called for amendments, “In order to have sustainable democracy, we must have the rule of law for which we need a police force, which is well trained and mandated to respect the Constitution and the rule of law. This is why a new Police Act to replace the 1861 Act is needed. A new draft law which was prepared after several years of consultation needs to be given consideration on a priority basis by Parliament.” He further says that the law would set up an independent committee to deal with the appointment and maintenance of discipline of the police force, and protect police from partisan political influence and interference.
Blaming the act of 1861 as the main cause for the bad image of the police, Benazir Ahmed, Commissioner, Dhaka Metropolitan Police, recently said that provisions in the Police act at times compel the police to follow certain 'ill-orders'.
Echoing Hossain's views, Asif Nazrul, professor of law, DU, says, "We need to change the police act of 1861 and step out of the colonial mindset. We require independent organisations that can monitor the police and that can enable them to work independently. They need to be transparent. Judging by the way things are running at the moment, I don't think the Awami League or the BNP will ever take steps to change this act." He further says that the politicisation of the police is the biggest hindrance to their progress.
However when asked as to how much of a political influence do the ruling parties have over the police, IGP, Hassan Mahmood said," I can only speak on my behalf and I have never been influenced. There are a set of laws that the police are required to follow and that's what I ensure."
In order to improve the age-old policy, a draft police ordinance was created in 2007. It intends to create an independent National Police Commission to recommend the appointment of the police chief and posting of other high-ranking officials. It also has a provision for an independent Police Complaint Commission to check crimes within the force as well.
The draft also has a provision for transfers and appointments in the force, which otherwise mostly takes place based on political influence—a fact which various reports have stated. However, the fate of the draft made in 2007 is still unknown.
In a way, an outdated legal act has contributed to the increase in corruption in the field. The lack of proper reforms affects the police's behaviour and the absence of an independent body to monitor the force encourages them to get involved in bribery and other corrupt practices.
The section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, which permits arrest without any warrant based on a reasonable suspicion, is another act that continues to be abused by law enforcement agencies.
“Section 54 has both positive and negative aspects. For instance, if someone breaks into your house, the police can come and arrest the person based on section 54. However, by making arbitrary arrest based on their own judgments, the police have frequently misused this provision. It has to be kept in mind that we have the right to liberty and basic fundamentals that need to be followed. This section therefore needs to be revised keeping these values in mind,” says Sumaiya Khair. She also adds that several jurists have suggested different amendments to this law.
In a similar manner, section 86 of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance is frequently used to make arrests, after dark, wherever someone is found "without any satisfactory explanation." A person can also be detained for a certain period of time through conditions such as the Special Powers Act (SPA) 1974. Instances from various cases show that under these laws, a normal citizen faces the danger of getting locked up in jail for months!
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on human security in Bangladesh, describes the conditions, laid down by the SPA, to arrest someone as 'vague and open to interpretation by the Government and its Executive'. It further states that the special act is mainly used by the government to control the opposition.
Lack of Infrastructure
Apart from outdated policies, another factor that negatively affects the performance of the police is the lack of infrastructure. According to a Daily Star report, 93 per cent of the police officers entitled to government houses are living in rented flats. Against 33,545 personnel entitled for housing there are only 2,605 government quarters, a number which has not increased in the last three years. The sub inspectors receive around Tk 4,000 per month as house rent, which obviously doesn't suffice.
"A policeman works all day long and then goes back to the barracks to find that there's no electricity, the water's dirty and even the food isn't healthy. They are bound to get frustrated," says Nazrul.
The above figures prove that solely blaming the police for all that's gone wrong is not the answer. The roots of the reasons behind police brutality are instilled deep within the system. The future is bound to see many more cases similar to that of Abdul Kader and the 15-year-old girl, as long as the government prefers to stick by laws created in the 19th century. Until then it seems as though keeping a 'safe distance from the police', as suggested by the state minister for Home, might actually be the only way an ordinary citizen in this country can feel secure.
Is the Baton Mightier
than the Pen?
Attacking journalists while they are performing their professional responsibilities is not something new for the law enforcers of this country. But last month, the number of incidents of beating journalists has reached an unprecedented scale. The issue makes us think about the recklessness and the lack of accountability in the police department.
Akram Hosen Mamun
When the cops were beating Sajid Hossain (a Prothom Alo photographer), I told them to stop. I said, 'If he has done something wrong, arrest him or file a case against him.' But they were not listening. Since I could not help Sajid, I decided to take pictures of the brutality to use in the news. Then they started to beat me as well,” says Jahidul Karim Selim, one of the three press photographers, who were beaten mercilessly by policemen on May 26.
Only three days after the incident, six journalists and lawyers were beaten up in front of the Dhaka Magistrate Court while they were talking to a teenaged girl who was molested by two sub-inspectors in the nearby police club earlier that day. The scene was caught on the camera of other journalists present there.
Refusing to see the events as isolated instances of violence, many believe that the collective mindset of the law enforcers can be traced from these incidents. When the crimes by members of the police force become known, they get ‘closed’ or temporarily suspended in most cases. There is no doubt that it is the near impunity and lack of accountability that are responsible for the increasing number of crimes by the law enforcers.
“The collective mindset of law enforcers lacks sophistication. The principles of humanity and honesty is absent among them,” says journalist Anisul Haque. He adds, “The idea that police are our friends, and that they can perform their duties without being coercive is absent here. They should learn how to stand by the people and honour women.”
In protest of police attacks on journalists. Photo: Star file
Advocate Prashanta Karmakar, a Prothom Alo journalist, was listening to the horrific story of the teenaged girl when the police attacked him and five other journalists and advocates. “The police desperately tried to hide what they had done to the girl. But when they saw that the journalists were already there, talking to the girl, they lost control," he says.
In fact, the policemen would have gone scot free had it not been for the courage of the girl and the perseverance of the journalists who exposed their crimes to the public. So why are such shocking displays of criminal behaviour among those who are supposed to be our protectors, occuring again and again? Haque says, "Mahbubul Alam Hanif (acting general secretary of Awami League) said that the incidents were part of a huge conspiracy. If that is the case, I must say that we are in great danger and the government should discover the conspiracy,” he says, “But if the events are not resulting from some conspiracy, we should assume that the line of authority among police men is not working, which is another ominous sign."
Recurring incidents suggest the growing involvement of law enforcers in criminal rackets. The last thing such individuals will want is for such crimes to go public; hence the brewing rage against journalists. Advocate Abdul Jalil, a correspondent of Kaler Kantha is among the journalists who got hit by policemen in the court premises that day. He regrets that in virtually all the cases against criminal cops, the highest punishment they receive is that they get temporarily suspended from work. “They don't even get fired. The OC, Salahuddin Khan is closed, but looking at the history of Bangladesh Police, I feel sure that he will be appointed again soon,” he says. The crimes by these law enforcers go unpunished in most cases.
In the backdrop of widespread criticism of law enforcers attacking journalists, Minister of State for Home Shamsul Haque Tuku has advised journalists to stay clear of policemen while carrying out their professional responsibilities.
“I failed to stay clear of them. I don't think it is humanly possible to stay away from an incident and get the right details at the same time,” says assaulted Bangladesh Partidin journalist Tuhin Hawladar. He also informs that Salauddin Khan, the closed officer-in-charge of Kotwali Police Station was not supposed to be working there anymore, because his three years' tenure had already expired.
When the crimes by members of the police force become known, they
get closed or temporarily suspended in most cases. Photo: Amirul Rajiv
Asked why Salauddin Khan was not transferred in due time, Home secretary CQK Mustaq Ahmed says, “Some people get transferred before their tenure ends, others stay a little longer than the usual period, and it's not too big a deal. It's not as if he has been working there for ten years.” He dismisses the possibility of any political motives behind this.
In his life as a press photographer, Jahidul Karim Selim has never seen such a “deliberately aggressive” attack on journalists before. “When the cops charge batons on pickets and we stand nearby, their batons sometimes hit us. Sometimes they even intentionally hit the cameras. But we often do not make a big deal of it, because we understand that they don't want to be photographed like that,” he says. But the recent attacks on journalists were clearly more deliberate and malicious.
During the last few months, murderers of journalists have not been brought to justice. There is a widespread belief that this has contributed to the unscrupulous beahviour of policemen. “If I were a cop, I would have reason to believe that nothing was going to happen to me if I hit some journalists,” says Selim.
While the recent attacks on journalists have spawned much criticism, it is undeniable that there is a broader historical context to these crimes. During the British era, cops were the safeguard of colonialism. It was the same in the Pakistani era. But after the birth of Bangladesh, different governments have used the police force to maintain their power, a phenomenon that can be seen as a continuation of the colonial practice. According to Anisul Haque, since the restoration of democracy in the country in the early 90s, exploitation of police forces for political purposes has only increased.
Moreover, it has become one of the worst kept secrets that to get recruited and then to get to work in the important locations, cops need to bribe and have political clout. Since the police officers have political 'blessings', they follow the instructions of politically powerful people more than anything else. “I think what makes them commit the crime is the knowledge that some powerful leader will rescue them when they get caught,” says journalist Sohrab Hasan.
The lack of accountability and the assurance of near impunity are identified as the major reason for the recurring crimes of law enforcers. “I think the main function of temporary suspension is to hide the crime,” says Hasan. He adds that the probe committees turn out to be phony in most cases because, naturally, the cops tend to see the crimes of their fellow men rather lightly.
Supporting this, Anisul Haque says, “The investigations into the crimes of policemen need to be conducted by a third party like human rights organisations or a committee formed by the government.”
AKM Shahidul Haq, additional Inspector-General of Police, disagrees that criminal cops often enjoy impunity: “The police are government employees. When they commit a crime, like any other government officials, they get suspended first.” He also informs that the criminal court procedure against the general public is not the same as a case against a government employee. According to him, there is a law called Government Servants (Discipline and Appeal) Rule 1985, under which all the government officials are tried. However, he sympathises with the journalists who got assaulted by the cops and says they were regrettable incidents.
On the other hand, the community of journalists is not free of political polarisation either. It is also divided into two political camps. “If supporters of one party get beaten, the others stand back and watch,” says Hasan. The lack of unity among journalists of different political affiliations adds to the vulnerability of the journalist community as a whole against such intimidation.
ASM Shahjahan, former Inspector-General of Police (IGP) and former adviser of the caretaker government in 2001 thinks that the police force need to be reformed. The organisation is still mired in the culture of the colonial era. “The political leaders need to be committed to reform the organisation,” he says.
Shahidul Haq informs that 13,000 cops got punished in 2011. He also adds that some of the policemen are deeply frustrated. The prime minister has promised twice to promote all the Sub Inspectors to class 2 and the inspectors to class 1 positions. But that promise has not materialised in the last three years. “Cops are hard working people,” he says, “It's a demanding job. Not all of them are satisfied with what they get by the end of the month.”
Some cops indeed have valid reasons to be frustrated. While we hope that the government will ensure what the prime minister had promised to the police forces, it should also be stressed that we need effective laws to try law enforcers involved in crime. Journalists must be protected against delinquent cops who think choking the media will hide their crimes from the public eye.