Under The Shadow of Control

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, July 6, 2007]

“I was in tremendous pain, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk, I needed four people to carry me.”

“At first they tied both of Choles’ hands and feet then they tortured the soles of his feet and all over his body. They unzipped his pants and attached pliers to his penis and to all of his fingers and toes. They put candle wax on the wounds and then they put hot water mixed with dried chili and salt and poured it all over his body and through his nose and ears.”

These are excerpts from an interview Protap Jambil gave to ABC’s Peter Lloyd recently. Choles Ritchil, a Garo activist was picked up along with Jambil by the joint forces in March of this year and tortured. Choles Ritchil died in a matter of hours and when last heard Jambil had gone into hiding in fear of his life being the key witness to Choles’ death at the hands of the law enforcers.

In the 30-something years of existence of this country, the culture of arrest and torture of possible-criminals being synonymous with each other has been fastidiously nurtured ever since they were handed down by the British Raj and the then West Pakistani Army. It is a national culture. Stories of ‘disciplining’ in madrasahs where a whole classroom full of students had their ears chopped off one by one by the scholarly sage because they did not behave ‘properly’ goes to show how deeply embedded this culture of ‘punishment in order to correct’ is in our society.

Although Bangladesh has ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1998 (Article 1 of the Convention defines torture as ‘any act, carried out by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity…… by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind’) the practice of it is yet to be set in place. It is accepted by the police, and even the criminals, to be part of the ‘due process’. People have even been picked up without any kind of evidence and tortured. According to a 2005 report (based on newspaper reports) by Odhikar, a human rights organisation, 236 people were killed by law-enforcing agencies in the first six months of the year. Of these 178 were killed by the police and 52 were killed by RAB. 209 of the 236 killed died from so-called ‘crossfire’ and the others died in custody. Apart from that, more than 3000 people were injured and tortured by the law enforcers.

Ever since the establishment of RAB, 536 people died in crossfire. Last year in Kansat 20 villagers were killed and hundreds injured by police when they protested against incessant load shedding in the industry-intensive area. During the present military crackdown more than 200,000 people have been arrested according to various human rights groups. Some have given shocking accounts of abuse, torture and murder. On April 16, 2006 police went on a rampage against journalists in an international cricket tournament between Australia and Bangladesh in Chittagong when a row ensued between the two groups. It had also become an accepted norm by the police at the direction of the ruling party to beat up opposition party members if they tried to protest against the reigning party.

‘Torture is a crime under international law. It is absolutely prohibited and cannot be justified under any circumstances.’ With this as their guiding principle CRTS (Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors) has been working for the medical and psychological rehabilitation of victims of torture by the law-enforcing agencies. The organisation started working first in Tangail since 2000 in three rooms in a local hospital and now has their premises in Dhaka. The nature of the work is sensitive to say the least as the members of CRTS are constantly working with people who have been labelled as ‘criminals’ by society. Victims were also sometimes suspicious about their intentions. Dr Kamrul Hasan Khan, the General Secretary of CRTS and Associate Professor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) talks about the everyday difficulties and challenges they face while trying to work in an ever-turbulent political situation.

“What we are doing now mainly after we started working in Dhaka is campaigning plus networking with the main human rights organisations in Dhaka and trying to create a movement to stop all kinds of torture,” says Khan, “We have carried out four big programmes ever since coming to Dhaka. Now we are working with Sultana Kamal of Ain o Salish Kendro, the human rights cell of the bar council, Nagorik Udyuog, Manobadhikar Bastobaoyon Sangsthya and Mahila Parishad.”

The organisation also carries out training programmes for journalists and the police to raise awareness about the long-term effects of torture, having a devastating impact not only on the individual but also on the family and the society. “The issue of torture itself is a new concept in our country,” says Khan, “when we started working we found out that a lot of people did not understand the importance of rehabilitating the torture victims. We have carried out training programmes with human rights activists and tried to bring to the fore the UN convention against torture. This issue has never been brought forward in this country before. It is a new issue and in practice a very sensitive issue. Because essentially we are always working against the government.”

“In our culture no one will ever agree that even a thief or a robber cannot legally be beaten up,” adds Khan, “and the behaviour and nature of the police force is formed by our existent culture where a crook must be beaten up.”

But the main work of CRTS is to give medical and psychosocial treatment to the victims. “A great fear works from within when a person is locked up in jail,” says Khan, “and when a working person is tortured in jail and becomes physically or emotionally disabled, his family members suffer and he becomes a burden for his family and society. We try to rehabilitate these people by giving them physical treatment and emotional support and sometimes if possible financial help or social reintegration.” Psychological or psychosocial counselling is very important at the CRTS programme. Counsellors and psychiatrists are an important part of these programmes. “A lot of people help us out personally too. Father Tim, Notterdame College Professor who is working as a human rights activist now is also helping us.”

Patients who cannot be treated at the premises of CRTS are sent to BSMMU. CRTS has an understanding with the psychiatric department and the physical medicine department of BSMMU. So although CRTS patients are treated free of cost, patients sent to BSMMU have to pay the minimum fees. Because of lack of sufficient funds these services cannot be provided completely free of cost. CRTS is affiliated with International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), a Denmark-based organisation which is the apex organisation. CRTS is also a partner organisation of CTV (Centre for Tortured Victims), an American-based organisation that is funded by USAID. CRTS is one of 17 partners of CTV, which provides funds for infrastructure development and capacity building of the organisation. “Although we mainly provide treatments for police torture victims,” says Khan, “we also help domestic violence victims. Although in the UN torture is defined only in terms of police torture our movement is against all forms of torture.”

In 2001 when CRTS first started working at field level, 63 torture victims were attended to. By the end of 2005 725 patients were given physical and psychological treatment. “Jails are supposed to be correction centres for criminals,” says Khan, “but the environment of the jails here is such that people come out bigger criminals than before. The political parties do not have the kind of commitment that is necessary to make the changes in the system. Whichever political party has come to power has used the police for their own purpose. A police officer sometimes has to work for 18 hours every day with only a couple of short meal breaks. This itself is a severe violation of human rights. Under these circumstances he is forced to use his stick to give himself an opportunity to make some money. They have also not been trained to know that they are not supposed to beat him up criminals.”

Although CRTS does not work with the legal side of torture it liaises with the human rights organisation to put the UN Convention into practice. Although the Bangladesh government has ratified the Convention they have kept Article 14 of the convention in reserve, which says that anyone beaten up by police after arrest or in custody is eligible to receive compensation. And if the person dies in custody his family is eligible to receive compensation for it. CRTS is lobbying the government for that to be ratified too. Torture is illegal and a severe violation of a person’s basic human right. Bangladesh has one of the worst human rights record in the world. For the country to develop it is absolutely essential that the UN Convention against torture is followed at all levels in the system including the yet to be ratified Article 14.

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