"Last month, we got to know Shaheen has come back. He said he will have to stay in quarantine for two weeks… His mother and I were waiting for him when we suddenly received a phone call… He told us he is in Kashimpur jail," narrated Shaheen's disappointed father to a reporter of The Daily Star. Shaheen worked as a pipe-fitter for four years in Bahrain. Not being aware that an application for visa extension has to be launched before its expiration, Shaheen was arrested by the authorities in Bahrain when he went to file for the extension. It was not only this one family's hope of celebrating Eid together with their long absent loved one that was dashed; 219 other families across the land endured the same heartache. Subsequently, another group of 36 deported migrants were detained.
At a time when these families are struggling to cope with the consequences of the unexpected returns of their migrant family members, the latter group's unpredicted incarceration is devastating. The families are given very little information about the detainees. Meanwhile, their deeply concerned spouses and siblings try to figure out how they would secure their release, worried parents pass sleepless nights wondering what the future holds, and restless children pester their mothers of when they would get to see their fathers.
That the returned migrants were sent to Kashimpur prison directly from the quarantine centre was perhaps the only clear information these families have. The detainees were charged under the much contested Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure "for suspicious activities". The Investigating Officer of the case justified the move saying, "All had gone abroad to work but got involved in different criminal activities instead". Meanwhile, a court rejected bails of those who lodged petitions and on July 10, instructed the police to submit a report within 10 days. The deadline was extended. On August 4, the Turag Thana Police asked for 15 more days to submit the report. In the interim, the pardoned repatriated workers continue to remain in the high security prison.
Police sources have informed the media that they may be charged with sabotage and terrorism. The Home Minister has confirmed that there are allegations of "conspiracy" against these individuals. His ministry sources inform that in the General Diary lodged with Turag thana, the police has claimed that by engaging in criminal activities, these people have "tarnished the image of the country abroad". It further claimed that the authorities did not have their exact addresses and so if they are released, they may disperse and commit crimes, including murder, robbery, terrorism and sabotage.
At the court, while justifying their detention, the police claimed that during their stay in quarantine in north Diabari, they were engaged in consultations with various groups to commit "anti-government and anti-state" activities, including violent acts. Hence, they appealed to detain the accused until their investigations are completed.
It is noteworthy that the police could not provide any credible evidence of the charges being framed against them. In a report from The Daily Star, the investigating officer was quoted as saying "We don't know yet what the crimes are, but we have sent 'enquiry slips' to the police stations of the villages they came from to probe on their behalf". The Officer in Charge of the Turag thana did not mince his words when he said, "We are investigating their crimes. It's only after the investigation that we will be able to ascertain who is guilty and who is not."
This en masse incarceration of the pardoned, deported migrant workers after finishing their quarantine has raised some serious questions pertaining to the protection of rights and liberty of individuals.
Firstly, can this be an acceptable proposition that each and every member of a squad of 255 persons would engage in hatching a conspiracy, albeit in groups, at a time when they would be too eager to return to their loved ones after a prolonged and rough experience abroad? Secondly, isn't it imperative on the part of those levelling such serious charges to provide at least a shred of evidence of the alleged "suspicious activities" to the court to justify their plea for detention? Thirdly, if indeed crimes were planned, then does not it rest on the authorities to establish the motive? One fails to understand what axe would a band of returnee migrant workers have to grind against the government and the state, when the state authorities quarantined them for their own safety and safety of their loved ones?
Fourthly, the candid admission of the police that they were not aware of the actual crimes committed and was waiting for responses from the police stations of the villages of the accused also appear to be frivolous. One is not sure what information would be forthcoming from the villages of the migrants. Are the police expecting the families of migrants to divulge the crimes their migrant family members had committed? Or are they more interested to know if the concerned migrants had committed crimes prior to their departure abroad? If it is the latter case, then should this not have been an issue when passport and immigration clearances were granted to them? And finally, is not the investigating officer grossly wrong when he says all in the pack have veered towards committing crimes in destination countries instead of working there?
The assumption that if these people were released they could commit "murder, robbery, terrorism and sabotage" and "other violent acts" is also deeply flawed. This is simply because barring one or two cases, all those detained in Kashimpur prison were in custody in their countries of destination either for administrative infractions (such as overstay of visa or work permit) or minor offences such as consuming alcohol, robbing a tire or misusing telecom rules.
Criminal records obtained from the Middle East by credible media outlets inform that their "crimes" fall into two broad categories: being in an "undocumented status" or "petty narcotics charges, including consumption of liquor". Those belonging to the second category received state pardons commuting their sentences. Bangladesh embassy officials in Kuwait and Qatar confirmed that all inmates of drug charges secured state pardons from the Emirs. The counselor (labour) in Doha was quoted by The Daily Star as saying that barring one or two murder convicts, most inmates were in jail on narcotics charges and had served two-thirds of their sentences. Some were convicted for rather innocuous offences such as selling cell phone talk time, which is widely practiced in every nook and corner of Bangladesh, and not deemed as a crime.
This bizarre tale also raises issues regarding the just application of the law. The crimes were committed abroad and all concerned had served more than half of the terms before they were pardoned. They were not returned under any extradition arrangement and as free persons. Rudimentary knowledge in jurisprudence informs that a person cannot be tried and punished for a crime more than once. Any attempt to put them on trial in Bangladesh will be a travesty of justice.
Jurist Shahdeen Malik has denounced the move as "entirely illegal", maintaining that if someone has served a sentence abroad or his sentence is commuted, then making him serve a fresh tenure at home does not have any legal foundation. He further asserted that mere suspicion is not a sufficient ground to deprive a person of his liberty. Former chair of National Human Rights Commission Mizanur Rahman of Dhaka University noted "such acts of the executive branch are damaging the minimum democratic space that people are enjoying. It is ominous for our state, (enjoyment of) human rights, and for the common masses."
"All citizens are equal before the law" stipulates Article 27 of Bangladesh's constitution. One of the principal aims of a key European Union project on migration being implemented by a leading NGO of the country (following due clearance by the government of Bangladesh) is to "(a)ssist returnees to become financially independent through tailored economic reintegration plan." Bangladeshis in irregular status in Europe is the principal target group. The question therefore arises—if the government is okay with programmes for reintegrating this cohort of irregular migrants, what drives it to resort to such draconian measure against those (most, if not all) who went abroad through legitimate channels following procedures laid out by both governments of origin and destination, to eke out a living, but were forced by circumstances to fall into an irregular status? Often, it is the Kafeels (employers) and the facilitating agencies at the destination end who create conditions for such irregular status, without migrants having any redress.
So far, the predicament of these returnee migrants have drawn little attention from public representatives, the agencies that are meant to uphold the rule of law and deliver justice, the passionate public intellectuals, the otherwise vibrant civil society and the media in general. It is time we all stand by these defenceless subalterns, prove our commitment to the principles of rule of law and equality in treatment, and acknowledge that they too are equal stakeholders of the state.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest on migration and rights issues. He acknowledges the support of reporting done by Rozina Islam (Prothom Alo) and Zyma Islam (The Daily Star).