Monday, September 3, 2007

Torture and apologies in Bangladesh

Courtesy: UPI Asia Online
SYLHET, September 3, 2007

Column: Humanity or Humor?
Since the state of emergency was imposed in Bangladesh in January 2007, more than 100 influential people, including former prime ministers, ministers and lawmakers, have been arrested. In addition, more than 200,000 others have been put behind bars during this ongoing "festival of human rights abuses" in Bangladesh.

Among them, not a single person has been allowed to speak to the press on the way between the prison or police station and the courts, although many of the detained leaders are highly articulate speakers. Even notorious Islamic militants, who were responsible for nationwide bomb blasts in the last couple of years, were not allowed to speak to journalists although they requested the government and courts to let them disclose the identities of their patrons and "godfathers," details which the nation still does not know.

In this country of "everything is possible" it is very easy for a detainee to speak to relatives or friends, despite being in the custody of the police or court, if the police officer on duty is satisfactorily bribed. A detainee or prisoner can even eat homemade food while in police or court custody by bribing the police. No one minds, although it is illegal.

However, the police have not allowed prisoners detained in the present wave of repression to speak to the media. Now the police are extremely "honest" and rigid as the authorities do not want any information or speech to be published quoting these "troublemakers." This present period is a rare occasion when the police are aware of professionalism.

On Aug. 30, the nation and international community observed a radically different incident, however. Two teachers at Dhaka University who were arrested by the joint forces, comprising the army, police, Rapid Action Battalion and other security forces, for their alleged involvement in the violence at Dhaka University since Aug. 20 -- Professor Anwar Hossain, the general secretary of the Dhaka University Teachers Association, and Professor Harun-ur-Rashid, the dean of the Faculty of Social Science -- were put before television cameras outside the courtroom to deliver speeches, which is unprecedented in Bangladesh.

Given this rare opportunity, what did the teachers say?

According to media reports, Hossain made this statement:

"As general secretary of the teachers association and a guardian of the students, I regret the incident that must have caused pain and hurt to every single member of the ranks, ranging from a [common] soldier to the army chief . . . The agitated students attacked security officials and uniformed army personnel, hurting the dignity of the armed forces as a whole. The incident was unfortunate. Today's military is not the same as the Pakistani army in 1971. This army was the result of the war for independence. I am sorry about the attitude shown towards the army. Our army has a glorious history. This army is the emblem of the state of Bangladesh, [a symbol of its] sovereignty and solidarity, and we can feel how much it pains army personnel to watch an attack on their uniforms. We are sorry for the humiliation and injury dealt to the reputation and esteem of the army personnel. We also felt dishonored seeing an army man in uniform being insulted. From the heart, we offer our apologies for the incident, and we don't feel any shame or anguish to do so."

Hossain, with fellow professor Harun standing at his side and nodding in the affirmative, expected that all misunderstandings regarding the DU events would be put to rest following his remarks.

When these two professors were produced before the magistrate in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court, they claimed that both of them had been blindfolded, kept in dark rooms at different places in the capital and tortured both physically and mentally. Moreover, they said they were forced to witness torture inflicted on other people accused of the same charge while in custody for six days. They also were not allowed to sleep and as a result, they became ill. They requested the court not to send them back to the "dark rooms" again.

However, the magistrate courts of Bangladesh, having no moral, ethical or institutional strength to disagree with the directions of the executive branch of government, returned them to police remand for four days.

The family members of the two teachers also supported the torture claims of the academics, saying they were brutally assaulted by officers of the armed forces and the police while they were detained.

With this knowledge, no one would ask the reasons behind the statements given by the teachers before the TV cameras. It is quite understandable that the intolerable alleged torture for days forced the teachers to realize the "greatness," "dignity" and "honor" of the armed forces. The teachers swallowed the statements to vomit them before the press after being given the unprecedented liberty of delivering a "speech of apology."

It is most likely a correct assumption that the armed forces feel no shame at beating university teachers, as none of the members of the armed forces ever studied in the country's universities. They only have to pass the higher secondary examinations to qualify as candidates for commissioned officers. All lessons -- how to beat, how to humiliate, how to deny a person dignity -- the personnel of the armed forces learn from military academies. They need not qualify to study in the universities.

Such ill-fated and ignorant segments of society have been busy with their "festival of abusing human rights," including torture and ill-treatment, in the country. They apparently can succeed at little else. The professors were forced to apologize, but who will force the military to apologize for the ongoing rampant humiliation and violation of human rights of the citizens of Bangladesh?
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

No comments: