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. 


Yes we are corrupt; live with it!

The Padma River Bridge funding debacle has taken place… and… um… to no one’s great surprise! OK, the ministers and the officialdom are surprised, shocked and dismayed! The bellyaching has begun in earnest. They keep shouting from the rooftops – we are not corrupt and no corruption can be proven because no money has changed hands. Or better still, corruption, what corruption? Never happens in Bangladesh! The litany goes on and on! That is the official line from the finance minister to small functionaries in the government. The business people are also singularly disappointed as this infrastructure project may have been a great boost to the economic fortunes which are in doldrums due to global slowdown.

In the midst of all the yammering everyone is forgetting a little fact; we are a corrupt nation. Corruption has been deeply entrenched in our society for eons and we had figured out a way to live with it. Coexist, so to speak. Corruption takes away a little off the top from our GDP including government revenues, business ventures but there was/is a modus vivendi. Now as Bangladesh marches into a globalized economy and has to deal with the likes of World Bank and many other large multinational organizations that way of being is challenged in unsettling ways. The good old days of skimming little off the top maybe more problematic than ever now.

What should Bangladesh do? I have a radical suggestion for the Prime Minister. Please declare that yes we are a corrupt country for many historical reasons and we are going to embark on a generational program to reduce or rid us of the corruption genie but for now we accept that we are a corrupt country. Add a few percentage points to the total cost of any project as corruption expenditure line. As a part of the bargain Bangladesh will start to move towards greater transparency with each project. Transparency is the best antidote to corruption. A national commitment to become more transparent will over time slowly choke off the corruption gene in our DNA. We will get back to this radical idea later on. Let us explore how corrupt we are and let the data speak for itself.

Corruption has been a part of life forever and ever. It is in all parts of our society. The contractor does not get paid for his work until he greases some palm so in order to maximize his take he does his road construction during the monsoon. The rickshaw-puller decides how much to charge depending on the look of the prospective fare not any objective per mile tariff. The court case will not move unless the right people have been paid off. Getting a passport requires multiple obstacle course including payments at each and every check point. I can go on with the list but I am sure you see this every day in your life. So, we cope in small and big ways.

My father used to work in the Police department before he started his vegetable wholesale business. His was a job with a very small salary but relatively large power because he was always posted in small thana in the remote villages. We were officially not well off but there was money to meet most of our needs. My mother would meticulously separate out the salary money from what she called “Gorom taka”, hot money. The purpose was to use the salary money for education, paying for tutors, giving alms and other long term beneficial activities. The ‘gorom taka’ was used for other expenses. As if that would make any difference but that was her way to live with corruption in her scale and she knew she needed the ‘gorom taka’ to make ends meet. I am sure there are many ways each of us cope with a society that cannot function without a little grease at every turn.

Since 1995, Transparency International (TI) publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) annually ranking countries “by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.” The CPI generally defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit.” In 2011, the CPI ranks 182 countries “on a scale from 10 (very clean) to 0 (highly corrupt).”

Bangladesh ranked 120 with a CPI of 2.7. The top 5 countries all had CPI of 9.2 or above. The only Asian country in the top 5 is Singapore. War torn Somalia brings up the rear with a CPI score of zero and the ranking of 182. Our old friend Pakistan is ranked 134 with a CPI of 2.5. So, relatively we are little less corrupt than the Holier than thou Pakistanis. Here is an extract of the TI data:

 The Corruption Index from Transparency International 2011 (Extract)
Well the data speaks for itself. We have made a little progress. We have gone from a ranking of 130s to 120. 

All the screaming that there is no corruption will not throw the monkey off the back of the country. It is just sitting there and grinning at all of us while we jump up and down and tell the world, “see there is no monkey, he he he.” So, let us stop living in a make believe world and do something bold and innovative. Let’s admit that reality matters.

How will this date of destiny with truth work? Let us take the Padma Bridge project as an example. The Prime Minister should get on a national and international stage and boldly declare that, “yes we agree we are corrupt but we will change over time”. She should declare a multi-step solution which can be as follows:

* Create a completely transparent bidding system. All qualified bids will be sealed and in a lock box with an independent accounting firm like say, Price Waterhouse. The bids will be opened in an open event which will be streamed live.

* The project timeline and key milestones will be posted in advance of the start of the project. Each contract and sub-contractor for each phase will be clearly identified.

* Each milestone must have clear deliverables and penalties and rewards associated with on-time and on-budget performance including performance bonus or termination of a contractor.

* Payment manipulation is a key source of corruption. So it will be important for billing points to be identified in advance with clearly measurable deliverables and target payment processing window.

* The contractors or sub-contractor will file their bills to the requisite authorities and will simultaneously publish their invoices on the website. The payment timer will start at the time of publication. This will make it transparent that the contractor has submitted an invoice for work performed and expected to get paid by such and such date.

* There needs to be an issue section which will track issues related to any payment and quality of work. This section will have detailed notes as to why a payment is being held up or a milestone is not completed.

As you can see these steps are basically attempts at generating transparency. Over time these steps will change behaviours of all impacted parties. If we are lucky then maybe in 30 years we will move up to the top 25 least corrupt countries in the world. It is a long road but sooner we get started, quicker we will get there.

Besides transparency the other determinant factor for corruption is extremely low wages for people who have big impact of monetary decisions, i.e. people with approval power. It is hard for someone to make Tk100 and see someone else getting Tk1 billion in payment without pangs of angst, insecurity and yes, greed. So, as a part of the overhaul the Prime Minister should tack on 2% additional costs on the Padma Bridge project. That money will be used to reward the officials involved in the project based on well-articulated and transparent performance objectives.

Whew, now that I have solved the million years old corruption problem let me tell you why I think it is doable today as opposed to even 10 years ago. Technology is the short answer. Today every data point and every bit of information can be easily made available to anyone with a computer or a cell phone. Vast amount of data can be harvested in a distributed fashion.

Now, dear Madame Prime Minister your time has come to build your legacy by taking concrete steps that will rid us of the corruption monkey or at least tame the beast.