THE competency and transparency of the Anti-Corruption Commission is challenged again with the news of wrongful arrest and imprisonment of a jute mill worker. Jahalam, who had been in jail for three years for being wrongly identified as the accused, was released on Monday after the High Court exonerated him. He was arrested in cases that the commission filed for the misappropriation of Sonali Bank’s money. The victim of wrongful imprisonment and his relatives had told the commission, the police and judges that he had been mistaken for the accused and he was innocent, but the plea fell on deaf ears until the National Human Rights Commission in its investigation revealed the miscarriage of justice and informed the commission of the issue in April 2018. The High Court, while exonerating Jahalam, observed procedural weakness in ACC investigations, warned them to be more cautious and to act independently without the influence of the executive or politically influential quarters. The fatal mistake that landed Jahalam in jail exposes that the commission, responsible for ensuring transparent operation of state apparatuses and public institutions, is intransparent and unaccountable in its practice.
On a number of other occasions, the commission’s action has been questioned and its failure to upheld transparency and accountability in its own operation made citizens concerned about its role in curbing corruption. In November 2017, the High Court severely rebuked it for foot-dragging and showing weaknesses in investigating cases of the BASIC Bank loan scam. Meanwhile, there are recent allegations that the commission is being used as a political tool to suppress dissent and silence the political opposition. Despite the limitations of the Anti-Corruption Act 2004, the law that created it, it can still potentially function with some degree of independence; but in reality, the government has curtailed its power to take action against government officials. In other words, the commission remained mostly ineffective in taking action against politically and socially influential quarters and action taken against ordinary people like Jahalam is the result of flawed and hasty procedure leading to wrongful imprisonment. In the prevailing situation, it is not a surprise that the public perception of the commission is one of a ‘toothless tiger.’ In order for the commission to earn its credibility, it must judiciously investigate its mistakes that led to Jahalam’s arrest, take stern against those responsible and ensure proper compensation for the victim.
The case of Jahalam is, however, one among many cases of wrongful imprisonment and detention in Bangladesh. Rights activists even claimed that one in three prisoners today is kept confined without trial and a majority of them are in imprisonment without any offences. Therefore, while it is important that the government should ensure justice for Jahalam by compensating for the lost hours of his life, serious reforms in the legal system are the need of the hour to prevent any future wrongful arrest and detention.