Published on 12:00 AM, January 05, 2021


How did Reja die while in police custody?

Investigation must be unbiased and thorough

Rejaul Karim Reja Photo: Collected

An appalling incident has been reported in this paper that leaves us in despair regarding the trend of deaths in police custody. Thirty-year-old Rejaul Karim Reja, a law student died Sunday morning at Sher-e-Bangla Medical College (SBMCH) in Barishal while in police custody. Family members have said that his body bore numerous injury marks. The hospital's director has stated that this young man died of excessive bleeding from the rectum and urinary tract.

What do these few facts make us think? That he was tortured while in custody as the family members have claimed? That the injuries were so grievous they led to excessive bleeding causing his death?

According to our report, Reja was arrested around 8:00pm on December 29 while he was at a roadside tea stall near his home. He was then sent to Barisal Central Jail. Reja's father says his son was in good condition at the time of his arrest. The jail superintendent says that when Reja was brought to the jail on December 30, the prison doctor sent him to the prison hospital and by January 1 he was bleeding from his feet so he was sent to the medical hospital. Reja's father says that the jail authorities told him that his son had injured himself when he fell in the bathroom but that there were injury marks on his legs, chest and neck and he was passing blood through stool and urine. Police have said that Reja was a drug addict and dealer and his injuries were caused by complications related to his addiction.

A probe committee headed by the district commissioner of Barishal Metropolitan Police has been formed to investigate the death. Should we be reassured that this will unravel the truth behind Reja's untimely death? While it is obligatory for the police or any other government agency to probe allegations of crime or abuse of power, we cannot help but be sceptical regarding the efficacy of an organisation investigating alleged crimes of its own members.

Deaths after alleged torture by law enforcement members has become a terrifying trend in this country. Ain O Shalish Kendra has recorded 1,426 deaths in custody between January 2017 to July 2020. The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act-2013 still awaits implementation (except in a few rare cases recently) despite Bangladesh being a signatory to the Committee Against Torture, a UN body, prohibiting cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment or treatment while in law enforcers' custody. Experts have said that families of victims rarely file cases of custodial deaths allegedly out of fear of repercussions from the law enforcers.

If this is the reality can we ever hope that justice will be served? We are cautiously optimistic after the historic verdict last September of the sentencing of three policemen to life imprisonment and seven years jail to two other accused in the case filed over the custodial death of Ishtiaq Hossain Jonny in 2014. In Reja's case it is crucial that the investigation is thorough, unbiased and includes statements by the doctors treating Reja as to what specific reasons led to his excessive bleeding and eventually, his death. Whether or not Reja was a drug addict or dealer as police have claimed is not the issue here. What is important to know is whether Reja was mercilessly tortured while in custody causing him to bleed to death.