Blame the cops or blame the system?
On October 10, 33-year-old Rayhan Ahmed walked out of his house at 10 pm. At around 4:23 am, Rayhan called his mother from an unknown number and informed her that he had been picked up by the police who were holding him at Bandarbazar Police Outpost. He asked her to send someone with Tk 4,000 so that the police would free him.
His step-father, upon hearing this, rushed to the police outpost with the money, whereupon he was told that Rayhan had been injured in an "accident" and was sleeping. He was then told to come back around 10 am, this time with Tk 10,000. When Rayhan's step-father returned in the morning, he was told to go to Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College Hospital where Rayhan had been admitted after his physical condition had "deteriorated". It was at the hospital that he learned that Rayhan had died and the police there said that Rayhan had been beaten by a mob.
Rayhan's family naturally did not believe this. Why would they, when there were so many unanswered questions. Questions such as, when did the mob beat Rayhan? It couldn't have been after 4:23 am, since he was already in police custody by then. Then why didn't Rayhan say anything about the beating or him not feeling well physically to his mother over the phone? Why did the police demand Tk 4,000 to set him free, instead of immediately taking him to a hospital—which they finally did at 7 am in the morning, according to the medical registrar of the hospital. Why didn't the police mention the seriousness of Rayhan's injuries to his step-father the first time he arrived at the police outpost (at which point he could have taken Rayhan to a hospital, and possibly saved his life)? And if he was beaten by a mob, why did they initially say that he had an "accident"?
After protests erupted in Sylhet following Rayhan's death, an internal probe body of police was formed and it found that the outpost's police personal were involved—although to what extent is not yet clear, however, four policemen have so far been suspended in connection with the incident. Interestingly, on October 15, this newspaper reported that the sub-inspector in charge of the Bandarbazar Police Outpost (among those who were suspended) was on the run.
Will the law enforcers manage to apprehend him? Will we ever know what really happened to Rayhan and who were involved? And will Rayhan's family ever get justice for his untimely death? It is the responsibility of the state to give us the answers to these questions. However, if past records are anything to go by, one should not be holding onto their breath.
Despite custodial deaths and torture being illegal and unconstitutional—violating Article 31 (right to protection of the law), Article 32 (protection of right to life), Article 33 (safeguards in case of arrest or detention) and Article 35 (protection from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment) of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh—in 2019 several rights organisations in their presentation to the UN's Committee against Torture alleged that 348 prisoners had died in jail custody in Bangladesh since the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act-2013 was enacted. According to Ain O Salish Kendra, 74 people died in jail custody in 2018, 58 people died in 2019 and 58 again died between January-September 2020.
What these figures show is that like many other terribly grievous crimes, custodial death, too, has become normalised in Bangladesh.
Another way to look at it is to see how the media—including this newspaper—reacted to the first ever verdict given in a lawsuit filed under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013, earlier this year, on September 9. An editorial published on that verdict by this newspaper on September 11 carried these words in its title, "a monumental verdict". For obvious reasons the verdict was, indeed, quite monumental. But out of the hundreds of people who have died in jail custody, why has there been only one verdict given in only one case in so many years?
When we have more than 300 people dying while in custody of law enforcers, why must we celebrate justice being delivered in the case of only one of them? Mustn't the law enforcement agencies take responsibility for the rest? Mustn't we say that those deaths, too, are on their hands?
This brings us to the subject of accountability—or the lack of it. Over the years, we have repeatedly heard law enforcers and law enforcing agencies dismiss off-hand the idea of foul play in case of custodial deaths. And more often than not, other members of the government—including lawmakers and other public servants—have sung from the same song-sheet.
While they denied that any (and all) state agents or agencies could ever do such a thing, case after case of people dying in police custody went ignored and uninvestigated—bringing us to this point.
While one can only hope that Rayhan's family succeeds in getting justice, and that those who have caused such terrible injustice upon Rayhan and his family are ultimately held to account, one cannot help but ask: what about the hundreds of others whose truths will never be heard or discovered? How many hundreds more must perish before the systemic absence of accountability is finally addressed? And, finally, when will the right to protection of the law (Article 31), protection of right to life (Article 32), safeguards in case of arrest or detention (Article 33) and protection from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment (Article 35), as enshrined in our constitution, finally be recognised in practice in Bangladesh?
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal