Police brutality, extrajudicial killings, systematic discrimination, and custodial death have been scorching issues worldwide for a long time. These issues have attracted the concern of the international right groups, humanitarian organisations, and the conscious citizens all over the world.
A few months ago, this issue received global attention due to the massive protests that broke out in the USA after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. People from all walks of life came to the streets and raised their voice against police brutality and extrajudicial killings amidst the restrictions of the global pandemic.
This lugubrious issue has once again become a topic of discussion after the re-emergence of End SARS protests in Nigeria. National demonstrations were initiated against police violence in Nigeria on the 8th of October after a video went viral showing police officers from the controversial Special Anti-robbery Squad, or SARS, murdering a young man in Nigeria. Although this allegation was rejected by Nigerian authorities, demonstrations across the country to disband the unit and #EndSARS erupted. Though leaderless, the protests are guided primarily by young people who believe that SARS is a state sanctioned killing squad rather than a law enforcing unit.
The emblem of online protest and global support toward the demonstrators, the hashtag of #EndSARS dates back to 2017 when experiences of abuse were shared by many victims. In 1984, the SARS was formed to tackle the surge in armed robbery and crime but was widely accused of illegal arrests and other transgressions. Between January 2017 and May 2020, Amnesty International has recorded at least 82 cases of torture, violence, and execution by the unit. Amnesty International says that amid assurances of change, SARS agents are still acting arbitrarily and hundreds of unreported deaths from detention and extra-judicial killings are taking place.
Bangladeshi people became aware of all these incidents through the global outreach of the protestors and shared views on their social media accounts, using Black Live Matters and End SARS hashtags. But in recent times, we have also witnessed some noteworthy events that create space for contemplation as a citizen of Bangladesh. These issues have some serious connection with the abovementioned protests.
We have been lucky to witness the first-ever verdict on custodial death in Bangladesh on September 9, 2020. After six years of struggle, the family of Ishtiaque Hossain Jony was able to get justice under the Torture & Custodial Death Prevention Act, 2013. Three police officers were sentenced to life imprisonment, fined Tk1 lakh each, and notably ordered to pay Tk2 lakh each to the plaintiff as compensation to the family of Jony who was murdered in police custody on February 9, 2014.
The case was one of the 17 reported cases filed under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013, so far. As Bangladeshi citizens, it made us optimistic and hopeful to see more verdicts, so that exemplary punishments could be given with a view to reducing custodial torture and deaths in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, after a month of this verdict, similar incident occurred in Sylhet when Rayhan Ahmed, who was picked up and taken to the Police station, was brought back to his home in a body bag after spending the night in police custody. On 11 October, it was alleged by Rayhan's family that they were asked to bring Tk10,000 by a Police officer. When they went to give the money, they were told his dead body has been kept in the morgue of Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College Hospital. Apparently, several policemen took him there after brutally torturing him and he was declared dead by the doctors in charge. A case has been filed by Rayhan's family and a judicial investigation has been demanded, but we still do not know how many years will pass before getting justice for this custodial murder.
As per the reports of Ain o Shalish Kendra (ASK), a non-government legal aid and human rights organisation based in Dhaka, 285 people have been killed in police custody between 2014 and 2018. According to ASK, at least 14 people died in custody last year (2019). Six of the victims bore signs of torture on their body following their death while in custody.
We are yet to see how the Nigerian government is going to deal with SARS, as they have already promised multiple times in the last few years to disband and reform this unit of law enforcement authority, but no noteworthy improvements have been observed in this regard.
As a citizen of Bangladesh, we too are unsure as to whether we should become hopeful with regards to seeing progress in curbing custodial torture and death, or whether we should simply accept the fearsome statistics of custodial death in Bangladesh as a normal thing. It is high time to talk about the pre-existing and diversified culture of injustice in the issue of custodial torture and death.
Minhazur Rahman Sabit, Research Intern, Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA)
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