Their Lips are Sealed
Every Thursday evening, the TSC area of Dhaka University becomes a crowded public place where visitors from all around the city gather to chat and hang around. On February 26, the rush for Ekushey book fair added a festive flavour to the evening in the university campus. At around 8:30 pm, Avijit, the founder of secular blog Mukta Mona was brutally hacked to death while he was visiting the book fair. The four-layered security system in and outside the book fair could not save Avijit from the machete wielding assailants.
The grievous photographs of that evening's incident shows how Avijit's wife Raifda Ahmed Bonya, also seriously wounded, was seeking help from the indifferent passersby and the police stationed there. But nobody budged except for taking photographs of the crime spot and the victims. Only one man – Jibon Ahmed, a photographer, had the courage to help the couple to get to a hospital. The other photographers left the scene after taking a few snaps. The question why despite the fact that there were so many bystanders yet nobody tried to stop the killers no less important than how this incident could take place in front of the police.
A witness of the incident says anonymously, "I was going to visit the book fair. It just happened within a minute. At that time police was there. So I thought why I should get myself into this trouble where even the police was doing nothing." What that trouble could be is explained by another person who was present at the scene who was also present at that time. He says, "If I went to save him, I might be produced before the court as a witness. But if I do that who will give me security and what is the guarantee that I or my family members will not be harmed by the same quarter that killed that man?"
In fact these people are so afraid that they have requested us not to reveal their names in any case as they do not want to associate themselves with this incident. The cause of their apprehension is very much practical. What measure has been taken by the government to safeguard the witnesses without whose testimony, revealing the truth behind many mysterious cases would be impossible? The short answer is, 'nothing'. There are no specific laws in Bangladesh to protect the witnesses or the victims. Criminal law expert and a senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, advocate Khandaker Mahbub Hossain says, "As far I know there are no witness protection laws in Bangladesh. Due to this lack of legal capacity, witness intimidation is very common in our country. If a person wants to negate government or any powerful quarter in a case by his statement as a witness, there is nobody to protect that individual from being tortured or harassed. The court or the justice can pass directives to give security to any particular witness if it feels necessary. Even in practice that security is still inadequate. However, there must be an elaborate law by which any person who wants to give witness can claim to be protected by the government from being intimidated or tortured."
The extreme vulnerability of witnesses became evident during the trial of the war crimes committed during the liberation war of 1971. The investigative agency of the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) has sent several letters to the Ministry of Home Affairs seeking assistance to enhance security for around 400 witnesses of the tribunal. These letters have also stated that these witnesses have become reluctant to testify as they feel threatened and vulnerable.
Mostofa Hawladar a prosecution witness who appeared in the case against Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami died on December 10, 2013 after being attacked in his home. Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report demanding an investigation on December 23, 2013. The report stated that the victim had been receiving death threats from unknown callers. The local police were assigned to protect Hawladar but local police officers told his family to feed the guards regularly, possibly hinting that otherwise they wouldn't be as vigilant. Hawladar's son told HRW, "My father was a poor man, some days he could not even earn 100 taka [US$1.28]. So he [spoke to] police guarding the house and told them to give protection only when he is out." Hawladar was hacked in his home when he was asleep.
Another witness of the tribunal from the defence side, Shukho Ranjan Bali who the defence lawyers claim to have been abducted from the gate of the war crimes court house is still passing his days at Dum Dum prison in India. Bali who was originally a prosecution witness in the case against Sayeedi had agreed to testify for the defence. But he could not testify before the court and disappeared mysteriously on November 5, 2012, the day he was supposed to appear before the court.
Several months after his disappearance, he was found in India and arrested by the Indian Border Security force for crossing the border illegally. While in an Indian prison, Bali has sought political asylum in India in fear of harassment by Bangladeshi law enforcing agencies if he is sent back to Bangladesh. (The Daily Prothom Alo, August 12, 2013). Bali's appeal for political asylum is awaiting Indian Supreme Court's approval.
During the recent political turmoil that started from January 5, many incidents of intimidating witnesses occurred all over the country. Even the jurists and lawyers of the war crimes tribunal are not safe from intimidation. Attacks have been reported on the residences of Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha and Justice Fazle Kabir who were the on the panel of judges that sentenced Jamaat leader Abdul Kader Molla to life imprisonment, a verdict that caused a mass upheaval of Ganajagoron Mancha. Advocate Tajul Islam, a top member of the defence team was allegedly picked up by the law enforcers from his chamber in Dhaka on March 05, 2015. However, the law enforcers said, "They have no such information." (The Daily Star, March 05, 2015).
It is very unfortunate that despite such occurrences we have seen no noticeable steps from the government to take preventive measures although a report was submitted by the Law Commission back in February 2011 recommending legislation on witness and victim protection. Not only the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) but there are thousands of criminal cases where witnesses are intimidated and thus cannot testify before the court. As a result many cases remain unsolved for decades.
The murder of the journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, labour leader Aminul Islam, BNP leader Chowdhury Alam, disappearance of Ilias Ali and many more incidents like these still remain unsolved. Lack of witnesses in these cases is a major cause of delayed and denied justice. If witness and victim protection can be ensured by the law, there is hope that many pending cases will gain speed towards justice. But it is also a fact that law alone cannot be enough unless and until it is enforced justly.
The writer is a feature writer of the Star Weekend and can be contacted at [email protected]