Going by social media trends, the arrest of the alleged rapist of the Dhaka University student has failed to convince a significant number of people that he is indeed the real offender. Some politicians too in their public statements have cast doubts about the integrity of the investigation, comparing it with the infamous case of Joj Miah, from whom the police had obtained a confession for the grenade attack on the Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina. The reason for such cynicism, however annoying it may be for the law enforcing agencies, is trust deficiency. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that the police have taken any note of it. At least, media reports on events and discussions during the recently held Police Week do not reflect any such concern.
Like previous years, there were demands for more resources, perks and privileges. The demands requiring more spending commitments from the public exchequer in recent years have got sympathetic considerations from the government too. In most cases, the government was too generous, which many critics allege were largely driven by political objectives. Such allegations got credence due to the frequent excesses against the opposition parties and overtly partisan behaviour of some police officials. However, most of the time, what ignited public debate was not the demands for more resources and privileges, instead, it was about granting unusual power and lessening accountability of the police. Since 2017, police have been consistently demanding scrapping of the provisions on prevention of cruel and inhuman torture in custody, which has outraged human rights activists and the wider populace.
This year, there was a call for joint efforts to deal with the massive case log. It was suggested that lower court judges, public prosecutors and police should work together to identify ways to dispose of around 35 lakh cases pending trial in the lower courts. However, this apparently innocuous suggestion of quicker disposal of cases opens up a serious question about the role of the judges. Bringing in lower court judges under any mechanism spearheaded by police is particularly alarming as it is very likely that the perceived independence of judges will be compromised. Any discussion among a judge, the prosecution and an investigation officer on a pending trial will give an impression of ex parte hearing, which removes the notion of fairness.
From the deliberations, it is evident that police bosses are unhappy with the existing system and hence are demanding its replacement. At present, there are committees in all districts headed by the Deputy Commissioner or District Magistrate to assess the law and order situation, prevent various disruptive activities and review cases. Discussion on review committees came up following one official sharing his experience that the existing committee was unduly influencing and intervening in the investigation of criminal cases. If this assertion is true, then certainly, this issue requires reform. But surely, that should not be an exercise involving judges which might be termed as an ex parte action.
Unfortunately, neither police nor the bosses at the ministry of affairs have taken any notice of quite a few important factors that have contributed to such huge backlog of cases. And those are largely political in nature, to be more precise, partisan in favour of the ruling party. Among those, the largest are false or fake cases. It is not just based on the opposition’s allegations which might have some exaggeration. In 2015, the UNDP’s Justice Sector Facility (JCF) publication titled “A best practice handbook for the criminal justice system” noted: “A major cause of the backlog in criminal cases and the burden on the police, courts and prisons is the number of false cases laid in Bangladesh. Knowing that a person can be locked up for many years waiting for trial to be finalised, some people lodge false claims with the police and courts, so their enemies are arrested and kept in custody”.
And now we know that not only political or business rivals make false claims, but that police have been doing it for quite some time as well. In 2018, the Human Rights Watch in a report based on its own research said, “Numerous cases have come to light in which accused people are either dead, were abroad or hospitalised at the time when the alleged offence took place.” It cited a few examples among which one Saiful Alam Nirob, a BNP activist, who was facing 267 cases. He ran against the Home Affairs Minister in the parliamentary election held in December 2018. It also noted the number of cases filed against top BNP leaders. BNP itself claimed that more than three lakh members of the party had been sued. One of the most disturbing trends noted by human rights activists is that besides naming hundreds of activists in such cases, police add an unspecified number of unidentified suspects that sometimes exceeds a thousand. Though BNP bears the major brunt in the official crackdown against dissent, students, workers and various professionals also face similar false and frivolous cases.
Another notable reason for such backlog of pending cases is the misuse of laws like the Digital Security Act, preceded by Information Communication and Technology Act and Defamation related acts. Though most of the legal provisions do not allow a third party to sue for alleged defamation, abusing the DSA has become the norm as police and courts are entertaining claims made by non-affected parties. Furthermore, police and courts are registering multiple cases scattered all over the country on a single alleged violation of law.
Last July, the law minister told the UN’s Committee Against Torture (CAT) that the first ever judicial audit carried out in the country had found that the conviction rate for crimes by law enforcement agencies was just 3 percent. So, it is quite pertinent to ask whether this incredibly low conviction rate reflects the alleged widespread abuse of power by law enforcing agencies.
Seeking more resources and legal authority to curb crime and maintain peace and security can only be justified when people, who the police are supposed to protect, fully trust them. Unfortunately, that trust deficiency is on the rise and reversing the trend is becoming even more urgent.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.