At first glance, it looked like piles of trash jumbled together.
Documents, firearms, bullets, mouldy clothes and shoes, human bones and drugs were strewn across the storeroom, widely known as a maalkhana, at Kushtia Model Police Station.
All these are important pieces of evidence collected in various cases filed with the police station. Insects were buzzing inside the room, which remains closed most of the time and smelled.
"We do not have proper facilities to preserve the evidence and there are chances of those getting damaged," said Kamruzzaman Talukdar, officer-in-charge of the police station, adding that he contacted the higher authorities for special arrangements to preserve the evidence.
This is the picture of one police maalkhana -- a highly restricted facility -- where important evidence in cases over the years are being kept like piles of rubbish.
The problem is particularly acute in police stations housed in small old buildings or rented houses, where evidence is kept for as long as 20 years amid shabby and damp conditions.
Failing to accommodate all the things in small maalkhanas, police in some cases are forced to store evidence in open spaces like rooftops, makeshift tin-shed structures, corridors or stair rooms and even in generator rooms.
The Daily Star gathered this picture after visiting 33 police stations over two weeks in mid-October last year in Dhaka, Chattogram and Khulna metropolitan cities, Narayanganj, Gazipur, Bogura, Kushtia, Jhenaidah, Dinajpur, Faridpur and Bagerhat districts, and after talking to police officers concerned.
These correspondents had the opportunity to go inside two highly restricted maalkhanas in DMP area and Kushtia respectively, and managed to get a glance of two others in Khulna and DMP.
In two maalkhanas, in Kushtia and Dhaka, evidence as varied as firearms, money, gold ornaments, colour TV, desktop monitor, laptop, keyboard, wooden dining table, showcase, trousers and shirts, fake currencies, bottles of liquor and Phensedyl, packs of marijuana, pillows, quilt, and sewing machines were found to have been kept on the floor like rubbish. Only the gold ornaments and money are kept in locked boxes.
However, the condition of the DMP maalkhana was better. Housed in a new building, most of the evidence was kept with a tag number known as Properties Register (PR) number on it. The same number is also written on a register book for easy tracing.
A police station has one such storeroom where evidence in all cases -- registered with it -- are kept until those are disposed of in court.
With trials of around 37 lakh cases still pending with higher and lower courts and the number growing every passing day, evidence in police storerooms is also piling up higher.
However, the police officials this newspaper spoke to claimed that there was no record of instances where the result of a case was changed or any accused was not convicted in a trial due to damage or loss of evidence at the police stations.
According to the Police Headquarters, there are 622 police stations across the country -- including railway police stations and river police stations -- and 50 of them are under Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP).
SORRY STATE OF MAALKHANAS
During a recent visit to the Tejgaon Industrial Area Police Station, these correspondents found a lot of goods and documents piled up inside and outside the storeroom. Some evidence was also kept in a tin-shed makeshift structure in the compound.
A sub-inspector of the station, on condition of anonymity, said his allergies get triggered when he enters the storeroom, where around 400 pieces of evidence have been kept lying around for years.
The officer said they clean it from time to time yet the evidence often gets covered with dust.
Some of these were lying on two racks in the veranda and on the floor outside the storeroom.
A number of OCs in the capital said pieces of evidence in different cases are preserved in the police stations though these are supposed to be submitted to the court along with the charge sheet.
One of them said that a few years ago, courts requested the police not to submit evidence to the court with charge sheets and rather preserve those in the police stations as the courts do not have enough space to preserve them.
"That is why a lot of evidence is stockpiled in the police stations at present. It is normal that some of the evidence will get damaged," said the OC, requesting anonymity.
Kafrul Police Station houses its storeroom on the first floor. But in front of the stairway on the ground floor was a carrom board, an electronic item, and some furniture -- all evidence in cases.
A policeman said the evidence has been kept there for a long time due to lack of space in the storeroom.
Shah Ali Police Station OC Asaduzzaman said the police station is housed in a three-storey rented house built on less than two kathas of land.
He said their maalkhana is a small room but they try their best to preserve important evidence properly while they struggle to accommodate all the officers and staffers at the building.
The storeroom at the city's Lalbagh Police Station is a single-storey tin-shed structure with poor conditions and a dearth of space.
OC KM Ashraf Uddin of the station said they face some problems in preserving evidence, but they're trying their best to keep it unharmed.
Replying to a query, he said sometimes they need to hang important evidence like bloodstained clothes on trees or other places on the premises to dry those as any wet evidence in the maalkhana may easily get damaged.
In Khulna city's Sonadanga Model Police Station, some pieces of evidence have been kept inside a generator room as its maalkhana is full.
Asked about it, OC Momtajul Haque said they kept less important evidence in the generator room.
A police officer in Dhaka said several years back one of his colleagues, then a sub-inspector of the city's Jatrabari Police Station, kept in the maalkhana some counterfeit notes seized as evidence in a case.
As he prepared the charge sheet after months of investigation, he went to the storeroom to collect the fake notes to submit those with the charge sheet to the court, he said, requesting anonymity.
But what he found was only some tiny pieces of torn paper, after rats had chewed them up in the storehouse. The officer, however, could not say how his colleague managed that problem.
The maalkhana on the ground floor of the old building of the station would also often get submerged in rainwater, he added.
Some of the police officers claimed the condition of storerooms of many police stations is much better now than before.
"As many items of evidence earlier got damaged due to poor condition of maalkhanas, the court often reprimanded us. The condition of many maalkhanas has improved a lot in the last three to four years," said an OC of a city police station, requesting anonymity.
The police officers said now in many cases of murder and rape, the forensic and DNA samples are tested in CID (Criminal Investigation Department) labs, where the evidence is preserved safely.
They also said after seizure of narcotics, a small portion is sent for testing at the labs of CID and Narcotics Control Department while a small portion is preserved at the police station as evidence. The rest are destroyed following court order.
Contacted, Sohel Rana, spokesperson for Police Headquarters, said, "Conditions of storerooms in those police stations which are housed in old buildings are poor. But still we are trying to give maximum effort to keep the evidence protected."
In the last 15 years, more than 300 police stations' buildings were reconstructed, and maalkhanas in the new building are comparatively spacious, he said.
"A proposal to renovate the buildings of the rest of the police stations is at the home ministry for approval. We hope the old thana buildings will be constructed or renovated by 2025," said Sohel, also assistant inspector general (media).
Md Walid Hossain, deputy commissioner (media and public relations) of DMP, claimed despite shortage of space in some police stations, important evidence is kept with utmost care.
Earlier, evidence used to be kept hanging on tree branches due to a shortage of space but now such a situation no longer exists, he added.
He further said around 30 percent of the total 50 police stations in the DMP area are housed in rented buildings where the shortage of space is acute. As per new government policy, a police station in the city is supposed to be built on 15 kathas of land while those outside the capital on 1.5 bighas, he added.
In big police stations, there are around 300 to 400 items of evidence while in small ones, the number ranges between 200 and 250, officials say.
Mostaq Ahmed, additional commissioner (crime) of Chattogram Metropolitan Police, said they were now removing all the evidence of 20-25 year-old cases, trials of which have been completed, with the permission of the courts.
[Our correspondents from Kushtia, Khulna and staff correspondent in Chattogram contributed to this report]