Rule of law blindfolded

quota reform movement
The eyes of the bust of Madhusudan Dey are covered with a blindfold in front of Dhaka University's Madhur Canteen. Students yesterday said they also found Aparajeyo Bangla and Raju Bhaskarja (not in picture) on the campus in a similar state in the morning. They said quota reform movement activists might have done this in a show of protest against the picking up and blindfolding of their three leaders by law enforcers the previous day. However, activists of the movement denied their involvement in the incident. Photo: Prabir Das

In 2016, the Supreme Court in a verdict on widespread abuse of police's powers over arrest and detention strongly denounced all sorts of torture by the law enforcement agencies and directed magistrates to take action against errant policemen in case of any such incident.

That verdict may be recalled in the wake of allegation that three leaders of quota reform movement were dragged into a microbus, blindfolded and taken to the Detective Branch's (DB) office in the name of interrogation.

The way the law enforcement agency members allegedly behaved with the trio runs counter to their fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and the action by DB men may be considered a criminal offence punishable under the existing law as per the SC verdict.

The three students are neither criminals nor accused of any criminal offence. Even an offender, as evident in the landmark SC verdict, cannot be treated the way the trio was treated by the DB men. 

Last week, the trio along with others led the student movement demanding reforms in the quota system in government jobs. In response to their agitation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced cancellation of all quotas in the public service. Her announcement led to postponement of the agitation.

But they could not imagine their successful movement would bring a horrific experience in their lives. On Monday they were in a rickshaw and heading towards Chankharpul to take their lunch. When they were at Dhaka Medical College areas, all of a sudden, a group of gun-toting men appeared there, identified themselves as detectives and dragged them into a white microbus. The vehicle left the place. They were made to wear helmets. The plainclothes men brought towels and “blindfolded” them after the vehicle reached Gulistan, narrated the trio after being released after an hour.

"I thought I was about to die. I asked for forgiveness from the Almighty,” said Nurulhaq Nur, one of the three leaders.

Although the DB men said they took the three students for verifying of some information and “showing them some video clips” in connection with vandalising Dhaka University VC's residence during the agitation, the trio claimed that they were neither quizzed nor shown any videos.

The way the three were picked up prompted many of their fellow students to compare the incident with enforced disappearance. Their narratives say they were terrorised and became evidence of torture on them both physically and mentally.   

An examination of the incident in the light of the Supreme Court verdict delivered in 2016 on widespread abuse of police's powers concerning arrest, detention in custody under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure will explain how the DB men committed grievous wrong.  

In the verdict, the apex court highlighted constitutional provisions, national laws and international convention imposing stringent ban on any sort of torture by the law enforcement agencies.

The DB men's action undermines Bangladesh's commitment to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984.

According to Article 1 of the convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information from him.

Bangladesh is a partner to the convention after it became a signatory to this in 1998 during the then Awami League government-led by Sheikh Hasina. Being a signatory, Bangladesh government promised to take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

In addition, article 35(5) of the country's constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment. This provision provides citizens with protection in respect of trial and punishment. But it could not protect the trio from cruel and degrading treatment by the DB men who dragged them into a microbus pointing guns at them and blindfolding them inside the vehicle.

When the DB men blindfolded the three student leaders, they ignored the Torture and Custodial death (prevention) Act enacted by the Jatiya Sangsad in 2013 to uphold the international convention and the constitutional provision.

Like article 1 of the convention, the anti-torture law prohibits any act causing either mental or physical torture. The law is so tough on torture that it prohibits any type of torture in any situation including political unrest, state of emergency or war-like situation leaving no room for any excuse for torture.

For torturing anybody be it physically and mentally, a police man may be sentenced to at least five years' imprisonment.  

In the verdict, the SC considers the anti torture law one of the finest legislations in Bangladesh to safeguard people from being subjected to torture by the law enforcement agencies.

"By this law the safeguards of human dignity, personal liberty, undue harassment and torture of a detainee in the hands of law enforcing agency, deprivation of life and liberty, honour and dignity, and also payment of compensation to the victim's family has been protected," reads the verdict.

But what happened to the three leaders of the quota reform movement says the law remains only on papers with little implication in reality.

Arbitrary use of force and cruel behaviour by police with people are not a new phenomenon. Analysing numerous incidents of torture and custodial deaths, the SC verdict strongly criticised police behaviour.

"On a look into the law and order situation, we have reasons to believe that it [law enforcement agencies] has forgotten its core value that it is accountable to the community it serves, and at the same time the prevention of crime is its prime operational priority."

The apex court asked the law enforcement agencies to respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold human rights of all persons in the performance of their duty.

The law enforcement agencies, according to the SC verdict, may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.

Was there any necessity to blindfold the three leaders of the quota reform movement and to make them wear helmets after they were picked up by the DB men?

Apart from the police department, the magistrates can take action against the DB men for their wrongdoing as the SC directed them to take action against errant police officers whenever they find infringement of the law against torture and death in police custody.

"The magistrates shall not remain silent spectators whenever they find infringement of this law and shall take legal steps against errant officers."

The way the three students were picked up and blindfolded and taken to the DB office is a clear violation of the Torture and Custodial death (prevention) Act 2013. This incident seems to have blindfolded the rule of law.

Now, in the light of the apex court verdict, the onus lies with the magistrates to take actions against the errant DB men to uphold the rule of law.