Thursday, July 12, 2012

Custodial deaths, torture and unfair trial?

HAS any member of the Awami League government actually read the recent Human Rights Watch report alleging custodial deaths, torture and unfair trials following the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny?

The law minister’s speedy dismissal of the allegations as ‘false, baseless and concocted’ would suggest that he at least has not; that the government is only interested in providing a ‘political’ response to the report rather than one which engages with the details of the international human right organisation’s claims.

Human Rights Watch is generally respected for the quality of its research, but even it can make mistakes — and it is always difficult to investigate and corroborate allegations of custodial torture. There is, therefore, nothing wrong with a government contesting allegations made by the organisation — but for any criticisms to have credibility they must actually engage with the substance of the report’s findings.

Alleging that the HRW is part of some kind of international conspiracy, and that its claims are false, might feel satisfying at the time and make instant headlines, but I would guess that name-calling an organisation like the HRW only acts to discredit the perception of the government held by the general public.

Whilst most of the information in the report on torture comes from the relatives of the detained/deceased BDR men, the claims made by the HRW are detailed and consistent, is made by named (not anonymous) individuals and are in a number of cases backed up by post mortem reports, medical records and the current poor physical health conditions of the detained men.

So if the law minister expects anyone other than the Awami League’s party loyalists to accept that the report is ‘false, baseless and concocted’, then first he must answer some obvious questions that any cursory reading of the report will raise.

So let me make a challenge to the law minister — or indeed anyone else in the government. Before making any further comment about the HRW report, first please respond to these 25 questions.

Deaths from torture
1.    Did 47 BDR personnel die whilst in custody?

2.    Has the government ordered any investigations into these deaths? If so, perhaps the government should publish the reports.

3.    Is it credible that all the 47 people died of natural causes when the family members consistently state that prior to detention their deceased relatives were in good health?

4.    Is the brother of Mozammel Hoque (Pilkhana barracks, Dhaka) lying when the report quotes him as saying that when he received his brother’s body from Mitford hospital the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands looked wrinkled and tender, that his neck and chin were covered in mud and that he was told by the person who conducted the bathing ritual that his hands and feet looked ‘decomposed … bloodless and shattered.’

5.    Is the wife of habildar Mohiudin Ahmed (Halishahar barracks, Chittagong) providing a false statement when she says that when she recovered her husband’s dead body it was ‘terribly bruised’ and that her brothers, who looked at the body more carefully, found ‘that the back area by the hip was completely black and blue, and there were severe lacerations on the legs and his upper back.’

6.    Is the Dhaka Medical College post mortem into Ahmed’s death which reportedly states that ‘Ahmed has been beaten on the lower half of his body’ also false?

7.    Is the wife of Nurul Amin (Rangpur barracks) a liar when she talks about how her husband Nurul Amin of the 34th Rifles Battalion was tortured? ‘He was almost incoherent when he described to me what had happened to him: electric shock to his genitals and ears, nails were pulled off his toes. He is almost blind now from what happened, and I think he is brain damaged.’ Is it also untrue when she says that when she first saw him following his detention, ‘He was lying bleeding on the floor, his face so swollen that he looked disfigured. I could hardly recognise him’?

8.    If what Amin’s wife says is untrue, why did he need four people to lift him when he was produced before the magistrate? Why did the magistrates immediately order him to be sent to the Dhaka Central Jail, where he stayed for a year?

9.    Is the son of Abdul Jail Sheikh (Pilkhana barracks) lying when he says that his father told him that he was taken to the Rapid Action Battalion office in Dhaka, hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten regularly, and ‘all the nails were ripped out of his fingers and toes and he was subjected to electric shocks’?

10.    If Abdul Jail Sheikh was not tortured, how come his legs have become paralysed since his detention, and he has no control over his bladder or bowel movement?

11.    What is the government’s response to the statement of the wife of Nasiruddin Khan (Pilkhana barracks)? She says that when she saw her husband in hospital, ‘I couldn’t recognise him. His body and face were all swollen, he had an oxygen mask on, both kidneys had failed’. She also says that one of the doctors told her that the kidney problems had been caused by electric shocks, that there were signs of torture all over his body, and that he had burning sores, broken legs, arms and fingers. When she was able to speak to her husband, she says that he told her that ‘he has been hung upside down from the ceiling, beaten and subjected to electric shock’ at the RAB headquarters.

12.    If the claims by Nasiruddin Khan and his wife (above) are all lies why can he only now walk with crutches? And why do his admittance papers to the kidney hospital state that he was taken there by RAB?

13.    Is the son of Nulamin Sardar (Pilkhana barracks) a liar when he says that his father told him that electric shocks had been administered to his genitals 5 to 6 times?

14.    What about the mother of Sepoy Al Masum (Pilkhana barracks), who says that her son told her that he had been severely tortured by RAB: he was beaten on his legs and knees, hung upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet. When she visited her son again after a subsequent remand, the report quotes her as saying, ‘He couldn’t walk; his eyes were swollen shut. He is 5 foot 9 inches tall and he looked easily a foot shorter than that. He told me that they kept giving his injections and he would faint, then more injections and then beatings.’ She also says that her son showed her his thumb which had been hammered flat. Is the government claiming that these are all lies?

15.    What is the government’s response to the wife and mother of Kamrul Hasan (Pilkhana) who saw him in Dhaka Medical College Hospital? He told them that he had been tortured by RAB, described electric shocks to his genitals and head, having had his head knocked against the walls, and the soles of his feet beaten?

16.    If this is not correct, why was Hasan attached to a urine catheter, with his mother reporting seeing blood in his urine, and unable to walk?

Unfair trial
17.    How is it possible for a person to receive a fair trial on an allegation of mutiny when in the case of the 44th battalion, 675 accused are being prosecuted together in one courtroom?

18.    Can 847 people, many of whom face charges that carry the death penalty, receive a fair trial when they are all being prosecuted together?

19.    Why do so many of the accused BDR men not have lawyers? Without a lawyer, how can the accused get a fair trial?

20.    Why do so many of the accused have no knowledge about the charges against them?

21.    How can one lawyer provide proper representation to any of the detained men when he is acting for as many as 350 accused in the one case?

22.    Why is the prosecution not providing witness statements to the accused?

23.    Why were lawyers not allowed to ask questions in the BDR mutiny trials, and were only allowed to instruct the accused about the questions which they could ask?

24.    Why are the lawyers given very limited access to speak to the detained BDR men?

25.    Why are the accused not allowed privileged communications with them as allowed by the rules?

Those in the Bangladesh Rifles (since renamed Bangladesh Border Guards) responsible for the killings, violence and other crimes that took place on February 25 and 26, 2009 should obviously be held accountable; however, the process of accountability in a civilised country like Bangladesh should not include custodial killings, torture and unfair criminal trials.

One would like to believe that the government has a credible response to these questions but experience suggests that this is unlikely to be provided.

But perhaps the cruellest thing of all for those of us living in Bangladesh i s that unless the government starts to acknowledge its responsibility for the human rights violations by its law enforcement agencies, nothing at all will change for the better.