A monumental verdict for human rights and dignity
In what is now a landmark case, a Dhaka court on Wednesday gave the first ever verdict in a lawsuit filed under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013. Six years after Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny was tortured to death in police custody (in 2014), the court sentenced three of the accused policemen to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in jail. The court also fined the three policemen Tk 1 lakh each and the two others Tk 20,000 each, in default of which they will have to serve a few months in prison—besides ordering the three main accused to pay Tk 2 lakh each to the plaintiff as compensation. Although no amount of monetary compensation can ever make up for the loss of a human life, this does set an encouraging precedent for the victims' families.
While reading some of the horrific details of Jonny's torture at the hands of the policemen, the judge could not resist but call it "heinous". And it becomes even more frightening once we take into account the fact that several rights organisations in their presentation to the UN's Committee against Torture last year alleged that 348 prisoners had died in jail custody in Bangladesh, since the anti-torture and custodial death law was enacted in 2013.
That is by no means a small number. Moreover, the fact that custodial deaths have continued to pile up year after year, even after the enactment of the act, gives the impression that it has hardly deterred certain law enforcers from overstepping any and all boundaries of legality and civility—to the point where, in some cases, they are alleged to have brutally tortured people to death. And it is quite clear why they remained undeterred; it is because despite the law being passed, there has been zero enforcement of it (until the recent verdict), and we have scarcely seen any action taken against law enforcers accused of such serious crimes.
Following numerous instances of custodial deaths, the authorities—whether they be politician, or members of the law enforcing agencies—have, in fact, come out with sweeping denials of any wrongdoing by the law enforcers accused, oftentimes without conducting any investigation. And in the few instances that investigations do occur, they are rarely, if ever, carried out independently or transparently.
Even in the case of Jonny's torture and death at the hands of these crooked cops, justice was extremely difficult to get. Due to his relentless pursuit of justice, Jonny's brother had to withstand six years of intimidation and threats—aimed at him and his family—from the same policemen that had tortured his sibling to death. However, by braving these hurdles and more, Jonny's family has achieved something quite spectacular, according to eminent jurists and rights activists, and we hope that will indeed be the case.
Not only does this case demonstrate just how big the hurdles still are on the road to attaining justice for victims of custodial torture and death in Bangladesh, but also that they are not impossible to overcome. At the same time, we must again remind the authorities that it is the duty of the state to remove such barriers to justice and that any failure to do so is unacceptable.
Hopefully, this verdict will not only give other victims of similar dehumanising/murderous treatment the legal basis to get justice going forward, but also provide them the courage needed to pursue it.