The name suddenly made me stop reading the lead story of DS's May 18 issue. Shamim Reza Rubel. He was an IUB student picked up on July 23, 1998, by plainclothes law enforcers, tortured and killed in their custody. According to this report, his death in custody had prompted a writ petition to be filed as a public litigation by human rights groups and individuals. This led to the High Court issuing directives on April 7, 2003 to stop the arbitrary arrests of citizens on mere suspicion and on the way the arrestees were to be treated while in custody. Now, thirteen years later, the Supreme Court has again brought to light the fact that consecutive governments have chosen to ignore these directives that attempted to stop the abuses that occur while individuals are taken into custody.
I remembered him because back in August 1998, my colleagues Lavina, Zahed and I had done a story on Rubel's ordeal after the news of his death came out. We had gone to his house in a narrow alley in Siddheswari and talked to his brother and some of those who had witnessed the whole incident. His brother didn't want us to talk in their house; he took us to a tin shed and nervously locked the door and then told us the terrifying story.
Rubel, a soft spoken, shy student of IUB had been chatting with the shopkeeper of a neighbourhood lungi shop in the afternoon. On July 23, at around 4pm a microbus with several members of the DB (Detective Branch) came to Rubel's house; in a matter of minutes they had caught the young man and started beating him up indiscriminately, accusing him of having illegal weapons. They were in plainclothes but everyone knew who they really were. They took him away. At the DB office in Mintu Road, the torture continued until Rubel, to save himself, 'confessed' that there were indeed weapons in his house. They brought him back. But there were no weapons and when Rubel admitted he had lied just so they would stop the beating, their fury knew no bounds. The young man's bloodcurdling screams were heard by many in the neighbourhood. Rubel's brother described how one of the men struck Rubel on the head, another one kicked him so hard he hit the electric pole. Then they dragged him back into the microbus, despite the desperate pleas of the young man's father who asked them to take him along with his son. In a matter of seconds, Rubel was gone. The family didn't give up and tried everything to get him back. They did get him back but as a corpse with gruesome marks of torture on his body. The post mortem report stated that Rubel died of haemorrhage and shock due to severe beating. It was a clear case of murder.
In 2002, the Metropolitan Sessions Judge's Court, Dhaka sentenced 13 of the accused (in the case filed by Rubel's father), including Assistant Commissioner Akram, to life term imprisonment, and Mukuli Begum, another accused, to one year in prison. But in 2011, after appeals challenging the lower court verdict, the HC in May 2011 acquitted Akram and nine others, including Mukuli Begum, of the murder, saying that the allegations brought against them had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Now after 18 years, it is strange that the name of that forgotten, dead young man who liked table tennis, cricket and dreamt of going abroad on a scholarship, has cropped up again. Since then so many other names have been added to the list of victims of custodial torture who have died the most frightening of deaths. According to Ain O Shalish Kendra, there were 68 deaths in custody between January and November of 2015; for this year between January and March, it is already 19. One of the directives of the HC says that an accused must be interrogated by the investigation officer in a prison room instead of a police interrogation cell, until the cell has a glass wall or a wall with grilles on one side to make the accused visible to the lawyer or relatives. The court also ruled that the draconian Sections 54 and 167 of the CrPC that allow arrest on suspicion and subsequent remand were not consistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Arrest under the Special Powers Act has also been challenged by another directive.
Ironically, opposing such changes is one area where both our main political parties, usually so vitriolic in their hatred of each other, have actually converged – of course while in power. The BNP-led government appealed against the directives and this has been followed up by the AL government. An attorney defending the appeal has said that the directives are not 'proper due to the socioeconomic conditions of the country'. Pray, tell what could such conditions be! He has also said that such directives will actually favour the accused and may lead to deterioration in law and order. Such mindboggling arguments do little to alleviate our fears that the practice of random arrests, torture and death in custody will continue without any fetters.
Our consecutive, democratic governments have been very lenient towards abuses committed by law enforcing agents, undoubtedly to keep them malleable and compliant. Thus abuses in custody have become more frequent and difficult to stop in this culture of impunity. There have been many cases of individuals being picked up by plainclothes security personnel and taken away. Police stations and offices of other security agencies have turned away family members of missing persons, sometimes denying that they had taken anyone into custody, or refusing to even register a general diary. Allegations of torture and death in custody have tainted the reputation of security forces, giving them an image of being predators rather than protectors in the minds of the public.
For ordinary citizens the directives of the HC represents a sliver of hope that the process of arrest and being in police custody will not be arbitrarily applied, that it will not entail torture, extortion and worse, a horribly painful death. If they are accepted by the court, it will mean that Rubel's death and those of hundreds of others will not have been in vain.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial & Op-ed, The Daily Star.