“We suspect that they were committing a crime under Section 377 but we can't investigate it because the court did not consider it,” says the investigating officer of the case, referring to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of several men from Keraniganj who reportedly identify as queer.
“I would not even have needed the 10 days I asked for, the two days the court provided would have been enough for me to prove it and press charges,” he says, a tinge of disappointment lacing his voice.
The Star Weekend was talking to Subinspector Mehedi Hasan of Keraniganj (south) police station, who is presiding over the case. By Section 377, he refers to the penal code law that punishes “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with life imprisonment.
“We are only investigating the narcotics charges against them,” says Hasan. He says the source of the drugs is exactly what they will be looking into. However, he also adds: “The drug haul was not very large, but these people operate as an organisation through Facebook and meet here often, and I want to get to the bottom of this.”
On the days leading up to the remand hearing, the media last week was plastered with reports quoting the law enforcers that the youth were arrested because they were suspected to be gay, as per primary interrogation. The commanding officer of RAB-10, Mohammed Zahangir Hossain Matobbar, told BBC, “They confessed that they gather at the location mainly to do this (have intercourse). Upon the RAB's arrival they could not do so—they were arrested before they could.”
Amnesty International circulated a statement on May 22, saying, “Multiple sources told Amnesty International that RAB officers physically and verbally assaulted many of those present, and forced all of them to stand in a line. Officers then proceeded to 'inspect' them and arrested those they suspected of being gay men, based on their clothing and mannerisms.”
With the court dismissing all the other complaints, the narcotics claim is the main battleground now. However, when the case is analysed, what comes up is that the law enforcers found only 45 yaba tablets. Twenty-eight men were sent to jail for it. Breaking down, it is 1.6 tablets per person only—that is, if they were even discovered on the bodies of all 28 of them. Four were remanded for two days, and 12 were to be interrogated at the jail-gate while the rest were directly shipped to jail.
“Since this is a narcotics case, how are they all in jail? Did the law enforcers discover drugs on all of them?” asks Jyotirmoy Barua, a senior human rights lawyer at the Supreme Court.
“Because they are reportedly queer men, it is important to question whether this judgment is creating space for harassment,” he adds.
Extrapolating from the fact that all of them were sued, and assuming that all of them were taking drugs, this seems to be the only logical question the police can ask them: “How did you come across a single piece of yaba?” Even more interestingly, the Keraniganj police sought a ten-day remand each—10 days of grilling for a single piece of yaba?
To put into perspective, during the entire duration of last year, just RAB itself discovered 36,70,676 pieces of yaba. According to statistics provided by RAB media, they sued a total of 1,497 people for all types of drug-related charges. Without even taking into account all the other types of drugs recovered, the stats show that the average arrestee of a narcotics lawsuit should have roughly 2,500 yaba tablets to his/her name.
Around 250g of marijuana was discovered with the youth as well but in a city where marijuana is sold openly upon the Karwanbazaar rail tracks, the gravity of the offence is questionable.
“We will be focusing on the four remanded because the recovery was mainly made from them,” says SI Mehedi Hasan. “The rest are jailed as partners-in-crime.”
Barua questions the claim. “How can someone be partners-in-crime in this case? Either the person is possessing drugs, or the person is not, it's as simple as that,” says Barua.
All of them were denied bail by Dhaka Senior Judicial Magistrate Fairuz Tasmim.
“The ones who were not discovered consuming drugs could have been let out on bail. Letting them out on bail does not hamper the legal process; nor is keeping them in jail benefiting anyone. Granting bail is a discretionary decision that a magistrate has the power to make depending on the offence,” says Barua.
Shakhawat Hossain, a gay rights activist, says that the organisation's members have indeed confirmed that the jailed are facing harassment. “We were able to get some information from one of the detainees who said they were not fed for a long time; they were slapped, kicked and punched by police men, who used abusive language, gestures and mocked them,” he reports. ”Some policemen also took photos of the detainees with their cell phones in order to expose them on social media.”
This is the scenario in the jail and what is happening to the four in remand can only be guessed, he adds.
“The LGBT community is more vulnerable to custodial torture because of existing homophobia, taboo and stigma present within the law enforcement agency,” says Hossain, “Police routinely harass LGBT people and male sex workers to extort money and seek forceful sexual favours. It is taken as granted that since these men are gay they are available to be violated.”
Following the arrests, Ain o Salish Kendra and Human Rights Forum Bangladesh, also put out statements expressing their concern about the identity of the youth being revealed. “Circulating statements about their sexual orientation and publishing their photos puts them under risk of getting targeted by religious radical groups,” said ASK.
One of the men remanded was brought to the judge court last Tuesday afternoon, for further directions–and maybe even bail. The defense was represented by Mohammed Shamim Reza, an attorney hired by the father of the accused.
The whole hearing lasted about five minutes. The accused was not present. Reza made a rapid fire, dispassionate appeal for bail, while the magistrate silently signed something. “Bail denied,” said a court police, matter-of-factly. Reza turned and left the room.
When the correspondent caught up with the attorney to ask why he didn't make a longer case, this is what he replied: “Narcotics cases are like this – I knew the judge wouldn't agree. The case is in court, and I will make another appeal for bail maybe in twenty days. Meanwhile he can stay in prison.”
In this case, ignoring the risks that a queer man can face in prison, and letting him stay jailed instead, is the superior choice. After all, to make a case about harassment, it has to be acknowledged in open court that he is gay. In a colonial system that will punish being queer with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, isn't it better, after all, to say mum and take the abuse?