Sunday, April 25, 2004

Heading Towards a Fascist State?

The government, faced by an opposition ultimatum to quit before April 30, has been resorting to indiscriminate arrest. According to an unofficial estimate, around 10,000 people, mostly innocent, have so far been arrested within days by the Home Ministry and its faithful. While sheer arrogance runs high in the ruling coalition; the question remains is, are we heading towards a fascist state?

The dingy custody room of Motijheel Police Station on April 23 resembled a Pakistani-era concentration camp. The air of the small room was filled with the agony and trauma of hundreds of citizens, mostly young men, arrested from different places of the city.

It was not any different elsewhere on the following day. Twenty-five policemen lined up outside the Kamlapur Railway Station (KRS) in two rows as Jayantika Expresse had just arrived from Sylhet. The team spotted Sujon, a student of Akhaura Degree College, walking about outside KRS, along with his cousin Pavel. Moments later both were arrested and hauled up to the van to be produced later to the court. By evening, some 1,000 youths were picked up from the railway stations, launch and bus terminals and different city points under the section 54.

The treatment is, however, quite different for a lucky few; police have been sparing the active members of the ruling party. A young activist of the Jatiatabadi Chatra Dal, student wing of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party BNP, was arrested, and later released after the police received a phone-call from the BNP high command. Encouraged by his release, a Daily Star (DS) reporter says, Sharif, a welder and one of the other picked up youths, begged for his release, saying he went to the railway station to pass his day-off at the KRS. “After hearing this, the police on duty took a sneaky look at me and said, ‘Don’t you have any other place to go?’”

The police have customarily been abusing the infamous Section 54 of Criminal Procedure, which allows the law enforcers to arrest practically anyone on suspicion. But this time, while the wholesale arrest goes on, the Police are violating a High Court order that says that the arrested must be produced before the court within 24 hours and their relatives be informed about the arrest. But, according to newspaper reports, none of these dictums are followed when police swing into indiscriminate arrests.

Advocate Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendro has termed police highhandedness as a gross violation of human rights, the constitution and the High Court ruling. But, to rub salt on the wounds of those who still believe in the rule of law, the court itself has violated the law when it has sentenced scores of people to a three-day imprisonment without the people arrested being produced before the court, a DS report says.

While the number of arrests has reached five figures, the government and its intelligentsia have so far remained unmistakably silent. The home ministry has not found it necessary to let us know the reasons for this mindless act of state terrorism. “We have nothing to do; we’re doing what our higher authorities have instructed us to do dutifully,” reasons a police officer, when being asked the reason for the indiscriminate arrests.

The mass arrest, however, has given the police a chance to make “a windfall in bribes”. Kahinur Begum, a private tutor, has told the DS how she was picked up and then later freed by the police in exchange of a bribe on April 21. “I was picked up from the Maghbazaar residence of an Awami League leader where I stay. I begged them for mercy. But they said they would only let me off if I paid them money. Even then I had to pay Tk 500 to get myself free,” she claims.

Kahinur’s is not the only case. The police even did not spare a 16-year-old, whom they had arrested on “suspicion” at the Airport Police Station that day. His brother had to bribe the officer on duty to get the boy free. The boy and his brother want to remain anonymous, fearing police reprisal.

Meanwhile, mindless arrests, in the name of so-called national security continue. The courts had worked into whole nights to convict those arrested on April 20 and 21. “The huge pressure of cases have dragged the procedures on, leaving the people waiting in the intense heat without food and water in cramped lockups,” a newspaper report says.

The arrested were also made to sit outside the court prison cells, which can only hold 96 persons, because of space constraints. The General Records section of the court prepared files against the people arrested without any documents. The authorities of the already crammed jail are struggling to accommodate the newcomers. With a capacity of 2500 inmates, the jail usually houses 10,000 prisoners, the report informs.

Commenting on such gross violations of human rights, Shadin Malik, a legal expert and rights activist, says, “Mass arrests at launch and bus terminals and other entry points into Dhaka indicate that they are not based on suspicion, but on arbitrary presumption.” He describes the arrests as illegal and unconstitutional.

The trauma through which thousands of innocent young men have been going will surely haunt them for the rest of their lives. Jewel, Fazal and Murad, three HSC examinees came to Dhaka for shopping when they were arrested on April 23. “Do you know brothers, what will be our fate? Our examinations will begin on May 11; will we be released before that or will we languish in jail?” Jewel asks.