Who will give back 24 yrs of my life?
Tried as an adult when she was just a fifth-grade student, Piara Akhter spent the last 24 years of her life in jail for a murder she says she did not commit.
Released from Barishal Central Jail on June 10 for good behaviour, Piara hardly recognised anyone from her past life -- the world outside the walls of the prison is utterly unfamiliar to her.
''I have been imprisoned for 24 years because of a conspiracy. I have not committed any crime; who will give me back those 24 years?'' she asked while talking to The Daily Star on Wednesday.
"I was in fifth grade when a policeman came to my primary school and took me into their custody. He said if I want to be free, I have to say that I hit my cousin and she fell into a canal adjacent to our home [at Choto Haji village under Pirojpur's Mathbaria upazila], and so I said that in court.''
Piara, whose father Anis Mridha passed away before the incident, told The Daily Star that her family had a dispute with her uncle Ziaul Haque over land. Piara's elder brother Yunus Mridha was out of the picture as he was working as a mason in the capital then.
When Ziaul's seven- or eight-year-old daughter died in 1997, he conspired so that Piara said in court what the police official had taught her. She was then taken to Pirojpur District Jail.
Piara could not remember the name of the police official. Local administration and this correspondent tried to reach Ziaul but could not because he lives in a remote area.
Deputy Inspector General of Police (Barishal Range) SM Akhtaruzzaman said, "We have heard of this incident. If there was any police role behind it, no apology would be accepted. We are investigating this incident."
Pirojpur District Jail Superintendent Shamim Iqbal said Piara had been convicted in a murder case.
She was sentenced on September 29, 1998 by a Pirojur district and sessions judge and her age was shown in the case docket to be 18 years.
She had since been in Barishal Central Jail until her release earlier this month.
Over these years spent in the women's ward of the prison, she said she has forgotten her family members, none of whom contacted her while she was incarcerated.
"I couldn't really identify my family members when I returned to my ancestral house with a member of the social services department after being released from jail.
"I don't remember much about my childhood," said Piara.
"My uncle Ziaul Haque was hostile to us. His daughter died… I don't even remember how she died. I did not commit any crime but was imprisoned without any reason. The [Barishal] deputy commissioner arranged my release."
Sajjad Hossain, probation officer of the social services department and one of those who worked to get Piara released, said she had been sentenced to life imprisonment when she was a child.
He said due to her good behaviour, they applied for release at 24 years and the home ministry reduced her sentence by six years, paving the way for her release.
Barishal Deputy Commissioner Md Jasim Uddin Haider said, "I am shocked to hear about Piara Akhter's case. I think something went wrong somewhere. A child of class five is not supposed to be convicted in this court. I think her age then may have been eleven or twelve.
"We have decided not only to release her, but also to give her a government house and a job."
Al Mamun, deputy jailer of Barishal Central Jail, said Piara Akhter's age was not shown in the jail case document, adding that after she served for 24 years, authorities applied for a mercy release due to her good behaviour.
"While in prison she acquired the skills of a tailor and gained a reputation," he added.
Deputy Commissioner Jasimuddin Haider said, "She is somewhat traumatised. It will take some time to settle down."