Archive for the ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Category

Beyond the rule of law

June 26, 2008

NewAge, June 26, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Torture has been used by military governments of the past just as it was used by democratically elected ones, the last of which institutionalised extra-judicial killings as a law and order tool. During this prolonged tenure of the current military-controlled interim government, which has time and again promised to establish the rule of law, we have noticed a rise in the reported incidences of torture, especially of those taken into state custody. Moreover, whereas torture had largely remained an evil practiced by one or two of our security agencies during previous regimes, its incidence seems to have infected a wider spectrum of law enforcers since the emergency was imposed. On the occasion of the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, we present a handful of case studies on instances of torture compiled by the Dhaka-based human rights coalition, Odhikar, which corroborates this alarming trend.

Death of Choles Richil 
in army custody 

On March 18, 2007, four persons, including adivasi leader Choles Richil, were taken out of the microbus they were travelling in by a team of five army members, led by Major Toufiq Elahi, at Kalibari in Muktagacha at about 1:30pm. It was noted that, of the five army men, two were in civil dress. They were brought to the Modhupur Kakraidh BADC temporary army camp. At about 8:00pm a critically injured Choles Richil was brought to the Madhupur thana health complex, where he later died.

Tuhin Hadima, 22, son of Hitendro Atiwarar, an eyewitness and one of the arrested persons, told Odhikar that he was returning home from his wedding along with Choles Richil, Piren Simsung, Protap Jambila and his new bride, Silmi Nokre, in a microbus. On the way, two men blocked their path and the driver, Shukumar Chondro, stopped the car. Three army personnel came out of a microbus parked beside the road and requested them to open the door of their microbus. When they opened the door, one of them asked Choles Richil whether he was Choles Richil. No sooner had Choles replied in the affirmative, they pulled him out and dragged him into their microbus with the four others and drove off. The bride was left behind.

They blindfolded Choles Richil with two handkerchiefs that they took from the others and then the army men told the remaining three to take off their shirts. They did as they were told and were blindfolded with them. The arrested men were searched for arms, but nothing was found on them. Once at the Kakraidh Army Camp, the army men started beating them while they were still blindfolded. After a while, they took Choles and Protap to another room. Tuhin Hadima told Odhikar that he heard the sounds of beating, as the room was partitioned with just a particleboard, (he saw it when his blindfolds were removed). He could hear the conversation between the army personnel and Choles Richil. Choles was asked whether he possessed any illegal firearms or not. He replied that he had licensed firearms but deposited it when he was earlier ordered to do so. While beating him, the army personnel told him to admit that he had illegal arms, otherwise he would be killed.

After a while, the army personnel came to Tuhin’s room, untied their eyes, and asked Tuhin about their relationship with Choles Richil. He said that Choles was his maternal uncle. He was asked whether he knew where his uncle kept his firearms. Tuhin told Odhikar that when he said he knew nothing about any firearms kept by his maternal uncle they beat him severely and went back to the room where Choles and Protap were kept. The army dragged Protap into their room and tied him to a chair. He was beaten inhumanly while two other army personnel held his arms.

Then, they went to the room where Choles Richil was kept and beat him again. One of the army personnel told others to bring pliers, red chilli powder and a blade. Choles was crying and saying he could not bear it any more. The army personnel beat him until about 6:00pm. Some time later, the army told Tuhin and Piran to leave the camp and also told them to see Choles Richil for the last time. They were told they would collect Choles’ dead body later. Tuhin and Piren went to the room where Choles Richil was kept. They found him lying face down on the floor, his body covered in bruises. Tuhin called: ‘Uncle, uncle’. Choles Richil did not reply but looked at them. They left the camp and found their relatives waiting outside. With the help of their relatives, they went to the Jolchatro Church and after that returned home.

Piren Simsung, 38, son of Joidor Chiran and another of the arrested men, told Odhikar that when they reached Kalibari Bazar on the way to the army camp, an army man told Choles to get out and run. One of the officers commented that it would be easier if Choles were killed in crossfire. Another one said, ‘I returned just for you. I cannot send you back alive. I will send your dead body back.’

Choles’s first wife, Sondha Simsung, 30, told Odhikar that she was informed of her husband’s death through a cell phone call and came to Beribaid on the following day. She added that at about 12:00pm on March 19, 2007, the officer-in-charge of the Modhupur Police Station, along with other police officers and constables, came to the Jolsotro Church with her husband’s dead body. On the following day, March 20, Choles was buried. She said she had noticed bruises all over the body. Some of his toes and fingernails were also missing. His arms had been cut and scratched in places with a sharp weapon.

The post mortem of the body was carried out at the Tangail Sadar Hospital. The doam (the person who assists in the dissection of bodies in morgue/morgue attendant) of the hospital, Nirmal, told Odhikar fact-finders that he saw injuries on various parts of Choles’s body. However, he added that he was not authorised to give out details of the injuries.

Adivasi leader Ajoy Mree told Odhikar that on March 18, 2007 that they were in a meeting at the office of the upazila nirbahi officer where the officer-in-charge of the Modhupur police station and other influential people were present. At about 4:00pm Major Toufiq Elahi joined the meeting. The UNO asked him, ‘How are you?’ He replied in the positive. Then the UNO commented, ‘You are fine, as your mission was successful.’ Ajoy Mree understood later that the term ‘mission’ meant the Choles’ arrest.

While talking to Odhikar, Dr AM Parvej Rahim, the upazila nirbahi officer of Madhupur, said Choles’ death was completely illegal. He said that the ACF of the Forest Department, Jahurul Huq, was a senior friend of Major Taufiq Elahi, when they were both students of Jhenaidah Cadet College. The UNO commented that Major Toufiq arrested Choles only to intimidate him, at the request of Jahurul Huq and that he had no intention to kill him. He commented that the torture might have been a bit severe and that, coupled with hypertension, caused Choles’s death. The UNO said that Major Taufiq informed him about Choles’s arrest at around 8:00pm and contacted him again to say that Choles had fallen ill during interrogation, expressing his grave concern over his condition. He added that Major Toufiq Elahi had been transferred from the Kakraidh camp on the night of March 20.

On March 27, Odhikar was able to contact Major Toufiq Elahi via cell phone. He stated that Choles Richil was a notorious miscreant. In answer to a question, he informed Odhikar that the police had been trying to arrest him for the last several years but had failed and that he was finally arrested on March 18, 2007. Major Toufiq said that on that day, he had a meeting with the UNO and other influential people of the locality regarding the Modhupur Forest. He received a cell phone message that Choles Richil was in the Kalibari Bazar area. At about 6:00pm, following his directions, 14 army personnel and two policemen conducted the operation to arrest him. Seeing the presence of the law enforcement agencies, Choles tried to flee but fell on the ground and was arrested. He said he heard the news and went to the Kakraid Army Camp and found Choles in a critical condition. He was admitted to the Modhupur Thana Health Complex but he died after a while.

Major Toufiq Elahi was informed by Odhikar about the statement of the upazila nirbahi officer. Major Toufiq Elahi expressed his suspicions about the statement and wanted to know whether the UNO gave the statement directly to Odhikar or whether Odhikar had colleted it from another source. He added that if the UNO gave the statement to the organisation directly, he would pay dearly for it. Regarding the four arrestees, he said they arrested only two people. He denied the arrest of Tuhin and Piren. He also said Choles had not been tortured. When Odhikar asked him how the dead body and the others who had been arrested received marks and bruises, he said nothing and hung up.

Municipality commissioner tortured to death in navy custody 

On February 20, 2007, a team of 11 navy personnel, led by Lieutenant Commander SM Reza of Char Fashion Naval Contingent, arrested Khabirul Islam Dulal, 32, ward commissioner of Char Fashion municipality, while he was working at his office. Out of the 11 Navy personnel, 9 were wearing lungi and gamchha. He was then taken to his house where he was beaten. After that they threw him in a nearby pond with his hands tightly bound with rope.

Rina Khanom, a female ward commissioner of ward number 6 of the same municipality, told Odhikar that when Dulal was arrested, all of them were in the office. After his arrest, they told him to hand over the firearms allegedly in his possession. When he denied possessing any, the navy men beat him severely and covered his eyes with a cloth and tied his hands. They dragged him by the rope to his house in search of the arms they claimed he possessed.

Dulal’s wife Jesmin Akther Khuku, 28, told Odhikar that the navy officers threw her husband on the ground and kicked him with their boots. After that, they beat her and put their guns to the heads of their two children, Jibon, 3, and Jitu, 5, threatening to kill them if the arms were not produced. The children struggled to go to their parents, but the navy men slapped them. The officers also damaged the rooms of their house but recovered nothing.

Dulal’s neighbour Sultana Razia Baby, 28, told Odhikar that the navy personnel told her to give them red chilli powder, rice husks and salt. She was compelled to provide them and they forcefully fed the mixture to Dulal. By that time Dulal, who was still blindfolded, wanted a drink of water. The officers pushed him into a nearby pond. As Dulal was blindfolded and his hands tied with rope, he started drowning. They rescued Dulal from the pond and brought him to their contingent. They stripped him and beat him severely. He was also thrown into another pond.

Doctor Ekramul Kabir of the Char Fashion upazila health complex told Odhikar that Dulal died long before being admitted to the hospital. Observing the state of the body, he requested Doctor Shahidul Alam, Doctor Shah Alam Sharif, Doctor Mahfuzur Rahman and Doctor Siddiqur Rahman to come to the hospital. Afterwards they sent a report to the Char Fashion police station regarding this. Ekramul Kabir also told Odhikar before a number of people of the locality that there was lot of water inside the dead body and the marks of ropes were clearly demarcated around the wrists. He also noticed that pieces of skin were falling off the body due to severe bruising and that the testicles were also bruised. Dulal’s throat was distended, and some of his toe and finger nails were missing too.

The Odhikar fact-finding officer visited the Navy contingent to talk with Lieutenant SM Reza. Reza tried to shake him off and ultimately threatened to have him arrested as a member of the banned Islamist organisation Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh. He claimed that he did not have Dulal arrested to kill him and that if that was their intention, they would have done so in ‘crossfire’. He commented that Dulal was not meant to live a long life and met his fate by drowning.

On July 24, 2007, Dulal’s wife Jesmin told Odhikar that she had registered a complaint with the first class magistrate’s court against 17 people, some of whom were unidentified. Khuku said, since the police station would not agree to file a case, they filed a case directly with the court.

However, due to lack of funds they could not afford to employ an advocate. She said after they had filed the case many people had come to their house at different times and threatened them by saying that if her family goes too far with that case they would make arrangements to send all her family members to jail and that they would meet the same fate as her husband.

Death in custody of Department of Narcotics Control

A narcotics department team, led by its Ramna Circle inspector, Shamsul Kabir, arrested 25-year old Abdul Halim from Khilgaon Jheel Par at 4:30pm on March 17, 2007. He was taken to the Shahbagh Police Station and detained there for the night. Halim was admitted to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after he fell ill. He died at 4:00pm on March 24, 2007.

Elder brother, Abdus Sattar, said Halim lived at Khilgaon and was an informer for the Khilgaon police. He, like a number of Halim’s acquaintances said Halim was not involved with drugs. Sattar had come to learn about the arrest from others and said Halim never regained consciousness from March 18 when he was admitted to the hospital.

According to accounts, it was Halim’s reporting on drugs that enraged members of the local racket who conspired against him. Accordingly Ramna Zone’s sub-inspector, Mujibur Rahman, arrested Halim from Sutrapur and took him to the Department of Narcotics Control where he was tortured.

Mujibur, who filed a case against Halim, said the team arrested Halim at 4:30pm on March 17, 2007 from Khilgaon Jheel Par. But none of the people at the said location recall Halim being arrested from in front of the Shoukhin Beauty Parlour. Allegedly the narcotics team seized 30 grams of heroin and a pair of small scales (usually used to weigh gold and silver). He was taken to the narcotics control office for interrogation.

Mujibur said Halim was in good health when he left him in the custody of Shahbagh police. But at around 11:00pm he was informed of Halim’s illness. He took Halim to the hospital emergency that very night and claims to have attended to all medical requirements and paid for the services as well staying with Halim throughout the night. When Halim’s condition worsened next morning, he had him shifted to the intensive care unit and looked after him regularly till his death. He claimed that Halim was not tortured at all and that there was no torture cell in the narcotics control office. He pointed out there were no signs of torture in the autopsy report.

Suruzzaman, a sub-inspector of Shahbagh Police Station said Halim was sick when Mujibur brought him to the station at 8:05pm on March 17. When Halim began to salivate and vomit blood at around 11:00pm, he made sure it was communicated to narcotics control.

Samita, a nurse on duty at ward 30, said Halim was admitted at 12:45am on March 18. She said that ward 30 was intended only for patients with brain-injuries. But only the concerned doctor could say whether Halim sustained such injuries. She confirmed that Halim remained unconscious till his demise.

Fruit vendor beaten by RAB to death

Md Afzal Khan, 21, a resident of village Binodpur Charerkandi in Shariatpur, was arrested by a team of the Rapid Action Battalion-8 on March 18, 2008, and died in Dhaka Medical College Hospital on March 20. Afzal’s mother Khadija Begum told Odhikar that one doctor Ganesh filed an arms case against Afzal in 2006 and the Palong police, Shariatpur, arrested him and remanded him for 10 days. Afzal was later released on bail and was instructed to attend court hearings thrice a month. Later, the court sentenced him to 14-years imprisonment which he wasn’t aware of as, according to Khadija Begum, they had migrated from Shariatpur. On March 17, 2008 Afzal along with his friend Sher Jamal went to their village home and the following day Khadija’s nephew Aziz informed her daughter Shahnaz that Afzal had been arrested by RAB officers from beside Doctor Ganesh’s drug shop at Mahmudpur bazaar. Then she came to know that Afzal was admitted him to Shariatpur Sadar Hospital as he was severely beaten up and was later transferred to Dhaka Medical College Hospital where he died.

Afzal’s father Abdur Rahman, a retired subedar of the Bangladesh Army said on March 21, they collected Afzal’s body from the DMCH morgue and the body bore multiple injury marks. There were wounds on the left side of the forehead, on the cheeks, lips, gums and the rear end of the skull. Afzal’s neck was also broken on the left side. His stomach was inflated due to trampling. The veins of his legs had been slit and there were blood stains.

Shahnaz Aktar, sister of Afzal, said she went to the Shariatpur Sadar Hospital in the morning of March 19 and found Afzal in a critical condition and under the custody of four policemen. Shahnaz said that since Afzal’s gums were hit, all his teeth had become loose. A pistol’s head was used to poke the insides of Afzal’s mouth and he was bleeding continuously. The skin of Afzal’s ears was also cracked up due to excessive pulling. Blood was pouring out from the skull which had been hit by a pistol. Shahnaj said when Afzal refused to lay down on the hospital bed, the RAB officers broke his neck. It was after his neck was broken that Afzal lost his ability to speak. His stomach was inflated due to trampling and his two thighs also bore injury marks. The hospital bed on which Afzal was lying also bore blood stains.

Halim Sardar, a member of the village police, Mahmudpur said at around 6:00pm he saw Afzal engaged in a scuffle with two men in front of Union Parishad-er Graam Adalat O Shalishi Parishad Karjalaya. Halim saw one of the two people trying to put handcuffs onto Afzal’s hands and Afzal trying to escape which was why they threw him to the ground and continuously struck his head with pistol butts. Afzal was kept against the ground when a RAB officer pressed his leg onto Afzal’s throat. Afzal continued to try to release himself and this led to them tie up Afzal’s legs, grab him by his hair and smashed his face against the ground. As people were beginning to gather, the two men introduced themselves as RAB officers and threatened to shoot if the people didn’t go away. Then a RAB officer asked where the village police were, Halim Sardar came forward and grabbed hold of Afzal. He also informed that 8/10 minutes later, two more RAB officers arrived. The RAB officers then ordered the shopkeepers to shut down their shops. When the religious men from the mosques came forward, the RAB officers also chased them away. Afzal tried to escape and while trying to do so hit the hands of a RAB officer, Mokbul. When Afzal hit another officer’s arm, a RAB officer came forward with a stick and began to beat Afzal with it. When the stick broke, he took another stick and continued to for about 20/25 minutes. Bloods were gushing out of his nose and mouth and then he vomited. The RAB officers then twisted Afzal’s left hand and broke it by trampling on it. Later on two more RAB officers arrived and they too began to beat him.

Doctor Mijanur Rahman, Shariatpur Sadar Hospital, told Odhikar that on March 18, 8 officers of RAB-8 admitted Afzal to the hospital. Afzal’s body bore multiple injuries and the veins of his ankles were slit. Doctor Momtaz, Ward No. 32, Dhaka Medical College Hospital informed that Afzal was admitted to Bed no. 15 at 8:30pm on March 19 under police custody. There were injury marks all over Afzal’s body and his neck was swollen, which prevented any food from reaching his stomach.

Sekandar Ali, who assisted the doctors in the post mortem, said the victim had lost excessive blood due to slitting of his ankle’s veins. Since a metal instrument was pushed into Afzal’s mouth, his mouth and throat were excessively swollen. Afzal’s neck was dangling towards the left and it could not be readjusted. There were wounds on his abdomen and at various other places of his body.




Election Commission draws up CHT Voter List: malafide and malicious to hill peoples interests?

November 2, 2007

Shikhori Changma, November 2007

The present caretaker government in Bangladesh took power on 11 January 2007, and soon after, initiated reforms within the Election Commission by appointing new Election Commissioners. More recently, it brought into effect the Electoral Rolls Ordinance, 2007 (Ordinance 18 of 2007). This ordinance enables the Election Commission to register voters for different electoral bodies, to register them with the assistance of computerised databases which will also have their photographs. By `electoral bodies’ the Comission means the national Parliament, and local government bodies that are elected, such as Union Parishad, Upazilla Parishad, Zilla Parishad, and Municipal or City Corporation.

According to the new law, the Election Comission will prepare a complete voter list for the 2008 Parliamentary election, and for elections to local government bodies. The army will assist the Commission in this task. The work of registering voters has been concluded in many upazillas and zillas of Bangladesh. The task of registering voters in Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagracchari, the three districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, began on 22 October.

Voters in the Hill Tracts have been registered for national elections before, but this registration is different to previous ones, and there is consternation in the air. Differences between previous registration methods and present ones are considerable. The new voter list is a computerised one, the voter list will provide national identity cards, and elections to local bodies (Zilla Parishad, Pourashava, Upazilla, Union Parishad) will be held on the basis of this voter list. Herein lies the reason for consternation and anxiety.

That the Chittagong Hill Tracts is an indivisible part of Bangladesh, is undeniable. Similarly, it is undeniable that the CHT is a special area. The paharis or hill peoples have enjoyed a special status for many hundreds of years. The area has been governed by the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900, in addition to other laws prevalent in the country. The Regulation ensured its separate legal status. It was recognised as such during the British colonial period. Its special status continued during the Pakistan period. It did continue after the independence of Bangladesh but for a brief period, only to be totally disregarded later. To defend their existence the hill peoples rebelled; the rebellion soon took the form of an armed strugle. In the name of suppressing the rebellion, the armed forces conducted genocidal operations in the Hill Tracts, killing, maiming and uprooting hills peoples from their ancestral land, raping women, destroying villages, and settling outsider Bengalis on pahari land. On 2 December 1997, after 24 long years, the government of Bangladesh signed an accord with the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS, or JSS for short). This accord later came to be known as the Peace accord, and although it did not seriously attempt to redress the injustices and wrongs done to the hills peoples, it did reduce the level of systematic violence, and the general lawlessness that had been characteristic of the region for many decades. After the signing of the accord, a Regional Council was formed in the CHT, alongwith three District Councils.

Those eligible to vote in the Regional Council and in the three District Councils, under existing CHT laws, are those who are permanent residents of the Hill Tracts. That only permanent residents can be enlisted as voters, is clearly stated in the Parbatya Zilla Parishad Ain, 1989 (section 17). According to this law, voter eligibility is based on (i) Bangladeshi citizenship (ii) age (must be above 18 years) (iii) mental health, and on being a (iv) permanent resident of Rangamati/ Bandarban/ Khagracchari. The Chittagong Hills Regulation, 1900 (34 (1) rule) defines permanent settlement clearly. A non-tribal person can be considered to be a permanent resident, only if he or she has been a house-owner in CHT for at least 15 years, and in addition does not own a house outside CHT. Or, a non-tribal person can be a permanent resident if he or she has a house, coupled with agricultural land which has been settled on the person by the Deputy Commissioner of CHT, and has no house or agricultural land anywhere else, that is, in any district outside the Hill Tracts.

Since these laws still exist, it is incumbent that Election Commission officials sit with Regional and Zilla Parishad representatives to determine first and foremost the list of permanent residents in the CHT. But instead, the EC has jumped headlong into the task of preparing a voter list. In effect, this means that the Election Commission is preparing a voter list which enrols Bengali settlers as voters, it thereby turns them into permanent residents of the CHT. And in effect, this means that the Election Commission is subverting the laws of land.

Bengalis enter into the Hill Tracts almost every day, even though the CHT enjoys special status. They are also able to settle down, often with the direct or indirect assistance of the government, both civilian and army administrators. This has continued even after the signing of the Peace accord. Recent attempts at rehabilitation sparked off a confrontation between paharis and Bengalis in the Dighinala area of Khagracchari district. A situation of unrest still prevails. Pahari suspicions have been further deepened as EC officials, aided by the army, continue in their task of enrolling voters.

Through preparing voter lists, the government and the army is ensuring that demographic changes in the CHT are made more irreversible than ever before. Further, there are parallel attempts to invalidate the Peace accord. One such instance is a writ petition filed in court by advocate Tajul Islam himself on 27 August 2007. The petition (writ petition no 6451/2007) calls on the Government to give reasons as to why the Peace Accord signed between the government of Bangladesh and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) should not be considered unconstitutional. The petitioner maintains that the accord violated the provisions of the Constitution, it contravened the sovereignty of Bangladesh and the supremacy of its Constitution. Hence, it should not only be declared illegal, it should not have any legal effect. The Court has simultaneously directed one of the respondents i.e., the Election Commission, to not deprive any non-tribal citizen from being enlisted as a voter during the voter enlistment process, on grounds of beings non-permanent residents of the CHT.

The High Court has issued a rule against the government, and at present the case is pending in the High Court. What is remarkable about the writ petition is that the petitioner has not made the PCJSS (or the Regional Council) a respondent in the case, even though it is a party to the Peace accord. The petitioner hmself does not reside or live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As a matter of fact, according to insider sources, the learned advocate has never even visited the CHT. Further, the petition makes no mention of two other writ petitions on the same issue that are at present pending in the High Court. One of these petitions was made soon after the Peace accord (writ petition no 4113/1999), asking that the Peace accord be declared illegal and unconstitutional. The second petition was filed by a Bengali settler, and asks why the Regional Council Law, 1988 and Rangamati/Bandarban, Khagracchari Zilla Parishad Law, 1998 should not be declared unconstitutional. Both these cases are pending. What is of further interest is that though the latest writ petition is of great public interest and concern, the Attorney General who represents the government, made no attempt to put forth a strong rebuttal of the petition.

The hill peoples have fought the Bangladesh army for many decades in the CHT, in order to ensure their survival. These two forces are still suspicious of each other. In this situation, army assistance in preparing voter lists can only serve to exacerbate tensions. It is not far-fetched to assume that many paharis may not even turn up to register as voters. That the government or the EC does not seem to be concerned about these realities, is quite remarkable. Equally remarkable is the fact that neither of the pahari political parties, neither the PCJSS nor the UPDF (United Peoples Democratic Front) which have represented and fought for pahari interests have either been consulted, or made a party to the government’s voter registration process. This has only served to deepen pahari fears and anxieties that the mechanism and process of voter registration in the CHT is malicious in intent.

An Election Commissioner had recently commented that the new “voter list will be a source of pride for the nation and its peoples” (Prothom Alo, 26.10.2007).

It might well be so for the rest of Bangladesh, but surely not for the paharis.