Wheel of justice for death row convicts moves too slow
A total of 1,787 death references are waiting for disposal with around 250 new appeals added every year on average
Two siblings – Jewel and Miraj – were killed in a clash at Fanshitola area in Gobindaganj of Gaibandha district in 2000.
In July 2006 a Gaibandha court sentenced Abdul Bari, Nizamul Haque and Sohanur Rahman from the same area to death in a case filed over the murder.
The principal accused in the case, Abdul Bari, died in jail in 2014. The other two accused, arrested in 2001, have been in jail since then, but the death reference and appeal in the case have not yet been disposed of in the High Court.
Abdul Latif, the lawyer for Nizamul Haque and Sohanur Rahman, told The Business Standard that the paperbook of the case was prepared in 2010. The case came up for hearing in the cause list. Several attempts were made to dispose of the case but it could not be done so far.
He said attempts were being made for a fresh hearing. The death reference and appeal are now in the cause list of the High Court bench for hearing.
Advocate Abdul Latif could not confirm if the hearing of this case would be possible this year.
The execution of many death sentences awarded by trial courts like this one are stuck in the Supreme Court. As hearings of these death reference cases get delayed, they are not disposed of for years. No special steps have been taken from the Supreme Court's end for disposing of these cases. Therefore, issues of executing or commuting the death sentences of convicts remain pending.
A total of 1,787 death reference cases are waiting for disposal in the Appellate Division and the High Court Division of the Supreme Court.
From 2014 to November this year 1,514 death references have remained pending with the High Court Division and 273 appeals against High Court verdicts are pending at the Appellate Division.
When an accused is awarded the death sentence in a trial court, as per the Code of Criminal Procedure a death reference case is filed for getting the final approval of the High Court for the execution of the verdict. The persons sentenced to death also appeal against the trial court's verdict.
The High Court prepares paper books on the documents from the beginning of the cases for hearing of the death reference and the appeal against the sentences. A separate paper book has to be prepared for each accused. A long time is required for the hearing of these cases since preparing the paper book requires a lot of time. The convicted persons file appeals in the Appellate Division against the death reference by the High Court and verdict on the appeal.
Advocate ZI Khan Panna, an expert on the Code of Criminal Procedure, told The Business Standard that the problem arises as there is no timeframe for disposing of the death reference and appeal against the death sentence in the Code of Criminal Procedure.
He pointed out that there are three separate benches in the Supreme Court for the disposal of these cases. These benches also deal with different criminal cases. So, problems arise regarding disposals of death reference cases.
Ali Akbar, registrar general (senior district and sessions judge) of the Supreme Court, told The Business Standard that there is such huge pressure of cases in the apex court that more time is required for hearing of the death reference cases.
He said the Chief Justice has already taken steps for a quick disposal of these cases. He has issued directives to the courts concerned accordingly.
Ali Akbar said more time is also needed in preparing paper books in the Supreme Court because of a lack of manpower. The Chief Justice has also taken initiatives to increase manpower in these branches.
According to sources in the Supreme Court administration, 498 death reference cases were pending at the High Court from 2010 to 2014. Another 271 death reference cases were added in 2015, 217 in 2016, 257 in 2017 and 262 in 2018. In November 2019, 290 death reference cases were pending.
From 2014 to November this year only 49 cases have been disposed of in the Appellate Division and 281 death reference cases have been settled in the High Court Division.
Pending notable cases
In the case filed under the Special Powers Act relating to an attempt to murder Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by planting a bomb at Kotalipara in Gopalganj, the judge of the Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal-2 on August 20, 2017 awarded death sentences to 10 accused persons. A 76kg bomb was found while the stage for Sheikh Hasina's speech was being set up there on July 20, 2000. She was scheduled to address a rally there on the following day. The lower court delivered the verdict about 17 years after the incident and hearing on the death reference started in the High Court. But there is no progress in this regard.
Another such example is the case filed over the militant attack on Pahela Baishakh celebrations at the Ramna Batamul on April 14, 2001. Ten people were killed in that attack. In 2014, the trial court in its verdict awarded the death sentence to eight militants and life imprisonment to six others. The murder case is now under trial in the High Court. Death reference and jail appeal are now at the hearing stage.
Appeal hearing in the sensational seven murder case in Narayanganj has also not been completed yet. Members of RAB set up a check post at Lama Para area on Dhaka-Narayanganj Link road on April 27, 2014 and stopped Councillor
Nazrul's car. RAB picked up Nazrul, his three associates and the driver. Lawyer Chandan Sarker was passing through the area at the time. As he happened to witness the kidnapping incident, the RAB men picked him and his driver up as well. All of them, tied to brick-laden sacks, were killed and drowned in the Shitalakshya River in the night.
The bodies of six of the victims surfaced on April 30 while that of the seventh was found the following day. In the sensational murder case, the lower court on January 16, 2016 sentenced a total of 26 persons to death. Nine others were given jail terms of different durations. The verdict came to the High Court for approval of the death sentences to the accused persons. Besides, 28 of the persons sentenced lodged an appeal in the High Court. After final hearing on the death references and appeals, the High Court in its verdict on August 22, 2017 upheld the death sentences of 15 persons. The High Court commuted the death sentences of 11 accused and awarded them life terms in jail. The full verdict of the High Court was published in November last year. After the verdict the accused persons appealed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. The appeal is now awaiting hearing.
Of the much-talked-about cases this year, the death references of 16 accused in the case over the murder of Feni madrasa student Nusrat Jahan Rafi reached the High Court on October 29.
Judge Mamunur Rashid of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Court, Feni, pronounced the verdict in the case on October 24. All 16 accused were sentenced to death.
The death reference has not yet been included in the daily cause list of the High Court, though the state said initiatives would be taken to dispose of the case quickly.
The verdict on the death sentences awarded to seven militants in the Gulshan Holey Artisan Bakery attack reached the High Court on December 4 this year for death reference. Earlier on November 27, the Dhaka Trial Court delivered the verdict in the case.
'Keeping cases pending kills inmates before death'
Speaking to The Business Standard, Law Commission Chairman and former chief justice ABM Khairul Haque said, "Death reference hearings do not take such a long time in the High Court in any other country as it does in our country. This cannot happen in the judiciary of any civilised country. This is astonishing."
He said keeping hundreds of death references pending in the High Court is tantamount to killing these large number of prison inmates before their death. These accused persons have been sentenced to death by the lower courts. These men sentenced to death include such persons who may get acquitted by the High Court or their punishment might be reduced.
A verdict announced earlier this month set an example of such acquittal of accused sentenced over a murder in Kishoreganj.
Oyej Uddin alias Fatik was kidnapped from Chanpur village in Katiadi upazila of Kishoreganj on October 1, 2008. His decapitated body was recovered from Fine Food Fisheries in Chanpur village on October 8 that year. Fatik's brother Main
Uddin filed a case with Katiadi police station over the murder. He accused Sharif, Jamil, Solaiman, Nur Mohammad, Sadek and Alamgir from the same area of the murder.
A trial court on June 29, 2014 handed down a death sentence to Sharif and life term imprisonment to Jamil, Solaiman, Nur Mohammad, Sadek and Alamgir. Among them Nur Mohammad and Alamgir were absconding.
The death reference of the case and the convicts' appeal against the verdict reached the High Court in July 2014.
A High Court bench of Justice Krishna Debnath and Justice Muhammad Mahbub-ul Islam on December 10 this year pronounced a verdict releasing all the accused unconditionally.
Another much discussed case was filed over the death of Trisha, a fourth grader who drowned while fleeing from eve teasers on her way back from school in Gaibandha on July 17, 2002.
A Gaibandha court sent the accused in the case, Mehedi Hasan Modern, Mohammad Shahin and Ariful Islam Asha, to be sent to the gallows in 2002.
After hearing the death reference and the convicts' appeal, the High Court upheld the death sentences on May 19, 2004.
The convicts then appealed before the Appellate Division, where a bench led by Justice Muzammel Hossain, who was chief Justice at the time, commuted the death sentences to life term imprisonment on June 3, 2012.
Justice Khairul Haque said there is no legal provision for compensation to those who suffer jail terms on false allegations. Keeping a person in a condemned cell year after year is also inhumane, which cannot happen in any civilised state.
The former chief justice, drawing the attention of the Chief Justice and other judges of the High Court, said steps have to be taken to quickly dispose of pending cases. The Chief Justice can arrange for the benches to be given the responsibility of hearing death reference cases for a specific period time.