Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Random rule of law in Bangladesh

RATER ZONAKI

THE HIGH Court finally compelled the military-controlled government of Bangladesh to release an imprisoned businessman on Aug. 28, after the authorities ignored the court’s order for more than a week.

The army-led Joint Forces arrested Salman F. Rahman, a top businessman and former president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industries, on Feb. 4, 2007, under the Emergency Powers Rules-2007. He was subsequently charged in seven cases of corruption and land-grabbing. Salman managed to receive bail in six of the cases during his prolonged detention, none of which has yet come to trial.

On Aug. 20 the High Court granted bail to Salman in the last case against him, in which he is accused of corruption in connection with the International Finance Investment and Commerce Bank. The prison authorities received the court order but took no action.

Salman's counsel, Barrister Rafique-ul Haque, a former attorney general of Bangladesh, had been contacting the prison authorities every day until Aug. 25, while the concerned officials kept assuring him that his client would be released on the following day. However, eight days passed and Salman was not released. Haque brought the issue to the notice of the court, which summoned the attorney general and held him accountable for failing to release the prisoner.

On Aug. 28 Salman's counsel attempted to lodge a contempt-of-court complaint against the responsible officials. The court asked the attorney general to produce Salman before it within one hour, unless the top public servant wished to be summoned for contempt of court. The authorities soon released Salman from the Kashimpur jail after this strict intervention.

The day Salman was arrested, and at one point detained in the cantonment police station in Dhaka, this writer witnessed him moving around in the office of the police station, which was surrounded by police and other forces. In contrast, the poor who are regularly arrested by members of the same forces face radically different treatment.

A person like Salman F. Rahman, who could afford to pay for attention at the Supreme Court level, was able to manage bail for the cases against him lodged by the military-controlled government. He had access to a high-profile lawyer, a former attorney general, and enough money to spend on arranging his bail. Still it took around one-and-a-half years for him to be freed.

Similar intervention from the High Court does not happen to the poor like Mohammad Ripon, a hosiery worker who earned only 3,000 takas (about US$44) per month, despite working hard from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day at a tiny factory in Dhaka. He lived in a dormitory in a slum adjacent to the Turag River.

One day before the state of emergency was imposed, when Ripon was walking home late in the evening, the Shah Ali police arrested him. He was detained in police custody overnight and was sent to jail via a Magistrate's Court that implicated him in a case of petty theft.

Mosharaf Hossain, owner of the factory where Ripon was employed, told this writer in front of the Dhaka Central Jail that he had been waiting for Ripon's release. Mosharaf reasoned that Ripon, the only hosiery producer of his factory, had no relatives except his elderly mother, who lived in a shelter in Pabna district, around 300 kilometers from the capital. Due to Ripon's detention Mosharaf's factory was closed, and there was no trusted substitute for him.

Mosharaf spent more than 4,000 takas (US$58) on a lawyer for five days, excluding his transportation and other expenditures, such as bribes to court staff so they would allow him to stand in the queue to present a petition for bail. Every day the lawyer assured him that Ripon would be released, and suggested that Mosharaf wait in front of the jail's gate to receive him. But Ripon did not come out.

Mosharaf was counting the money he spent, planning to deduct it from Ripon's salary once he was released. He needed his employee back for the survival of his hosiery factory. The 4,000 takas he had spent was more than one month’s salary for Ripon; but it was not enough to secure his release or get the attention of the High Court.

Around 500,000 people were arrested as part of the government’s crackdown under the state of emergency. Among them, about 200 are very rich, like Salman. Perhaps 1,000 could afford the cost of legal proceedings in the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the huge majority of those who were arrested cannot afford even the minimum expenses for justice at a district level court.

The victims of arbitrary arrest and detention have been facing unimaginable suffering while large amounts of money are wasted in the process of trying to obtain justice, apparently for nothing. It may require special research to expose the whole situation concerning economic losses incurred in the futile attempt to secure due legal process.

The courts of Bangladesh, especially the Supreme Court, seem unable to remedy this situation. The courts should be competent enough to address the serious problems the nation is now facing. It is not debatable that courts exist to ensure effective and prompt compliance with the law. They should ensure that no one, including legal professionals, is allowed to avoid or ignore their responsibilities. The century-old habits, attitudes and mindset of the judiciary must be changed if the nation is to be saved from the dirty ditch of arbitrary behavior and survive with dignity. #

First published in UPI Asia Online, September 02, 2008

Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications