THE first-ever verdict in a case filed under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013 that the Dhaka metropolitan sessions judge’s court gave on Wednesday, sentencing three police officers — a subinspector and two assistant subinspectors — to life imprisonment and two police informants to seven year’s imprisonment, appears to be a step forward in efforts to end torture and death in custody. Three of the accused were in the dock. One assistant subinspector and an informant are in hiding. The Pallabi police picked up an Urdu-speaking young man from a wedding at Irani Camp in Dhaka in the evening on February 8, 2014 and the man, who fell critically ill after he had been tortured in police custody, was pronounced dead when he was taken to the National Heart Foundation the next day. The victim’s brother filed a case with the court against eight police personnel and their informants, leading to a judicial investigation. The judge, before giving the verdict, described the cruelty that the police officers showed to the victim that night and noted that the incident was not only ‘the abuse of law’ but also ‘an extreme example of the violation of human rights.’
The case took more than six years for completion although the act lays out that such a case should be completed in 180 days from the registration of the complaints and the time could be extended for 30 more days on reasonable grounds. Although this is the first-ever verdict in a case filed under the law, the first case under the act, as the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust says, was filed on July 20, 2014 over the death of a garment waste trader at the Mirpur police station which is pending. There are 15 other cases that have been filed under the act since 2013, when the law was enacted. In this context, it is hoped that the court would look into why case proceedings are delayed and see that any issues left unattended are sorted out in the interest of justice dispensation. The latest statistics of rights organisation Odhikhar also say that since 2013 till 2019, there have been at least 66 incidents of custodial death at the hands of law enforcers and security forces but only 17 cases have so far been filed under the act. This suggests that there is a strong fearfulness among the families of the victims which holds them back from moving court. This is one further issue that the authorities should attend to in the interest of the rule of law.
Besides, the authorities must also think of the establishment of an independent police complaint commission as the police tend to deflect issues in the incidents of custodial death. Even in the case at hand, the Pallabi police first filed a case saying that the victim had died in a clash between young people of Irani Camp and Rahmat Camp in the Urdu-speakers’ neighbourhood at Pallabi and the victim’s family had to move court to lodge the complaint. An independent police complaint commission, a non-departmental public body operating under statutory powers and duties defined by an act to oversee the system for handling complaints made against police forces, appears pertinent. And the government must set out such a commission to handle cases against law enforcers without any bias.
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