II. Torture in Bangladesh

Torture has long been a familiar and widespread problem in Bangladesh. It is a routine feature of criminal investigations, used by the police to obtain confessions. And it is used for politically motivated purposes against alleged national security suspects, government critics, and perceived political opponents to obtain information, to intimidate, or to convey more broadly a message of fear. Torture has been perpetrated by law enforcement officials, paramilitary groups, and the army regardless of which government has been in power.

The torture techniques employed in Bangladesh, whether of longstanding practice or of more recent origin, are brutal. Methods documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations include burning with acid, hammering of nails into toes, drilling of holes in legs with electric drills, electric shocks, beatings on legs with iron rods, beating with batons on backs after sprinkling sand on them, ice torture, finger piercing, and mock executions.1

Domestic and international prohibitions on torture and other ill-treatment are simply disregarded in Bangladesh. Torture is banned under the Bangladesh Constitution, which states: “No person shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.”2

As a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment3 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),4 Bangladesh is not only obligated to prohibit torture, but to proactively adopt measures to end the practice, bring those responsible to justice, and provide redress for the victims. During an officially proclaimed state of emergency, the ICCPR permits limitations on some rights to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Certain basic rights, such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, may never be restricted.5

The military-backed interim government, which was appointed on January 12, 2007, has no better record than its predecessors regarding torture. In its popular public campaign against corruption, the interim government has routinely used torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects or to gain information against those charged with corruption.

Torture has also been used to punish and intimidate peaceful critics of the interim government and de facto military rule. For example, Shahidul Islam, founder and director of the human rights organization Uttaran, was beaten with sticks, boots, and rifle butts in an army camp, according to relatives who saw him carried unconscious from the room where he had been interrogated.6 One man who was present at the camp told Human Rights Watch, “I saw that they took him to the bathroom. I could hear them beating him. I could hear the sound of sticks. When they brought him out, his shirt was covered in blood. He could not walk and had to be carried. I think he was unconscious.”7 As of the time of writing Islam is out on bail, but charges are still pending against him.

Torture is also rampant in nonpolitical cases. A driver in Dhaka told Human Rights Watch that in February 2007 he had been granted leave while his employers visited relatives; the next day, soldiers detained and questioned him about his boss, who was suspected of corruption. The man remained in illegal detention for two weeks and was tortured. “I said that I was only a servant and had simply been told that they were going away,” he said. “But they kept beating me. They said that since I was the driver, I would know where they were hiding…. They beat me so much I still need medicines.”8

One reason torture remains rampant is the use of emergency rule by the interim government for more than a year. This gives unprecedented powers to already abusive military, paramilitary, and police forces. Adopted on its first day in office, the Emergency Power Ordinance allows the interim government to, “by notification in the official Gazette, make such rules as appear to it to be necessary or expedient for ensuring the security, the public safety and interest or maintaining public order or for protecting the economic life of Bangladesh or for maintaining supplies or services essential to the life of the community.”9

On January 25, this was followed up by the issuing of the even more draconian Emergency Power Rules (the “Emergency Rules”). The Emergency Rules initially prohibited political activity, processions, meetings, assemblies, demonstrations, industrial action, and trade union activities.10 Political meetings have since been allowed but under severe restrictions.11 Section 5 imposes severe restrictions on press freedom, banning any reporting that can be considered “provocative.” Section 10 allows all offences under the Emergency Rules to be brought before a Speedy Trial Court or Speedy Trial Tribunal where proceedings can be held in secret, with the public and press excluded. Section 16 (2) allows non-police law enforcers the same powers as the police to search and to arrest, without a warrant, any person on suspicion of acting against the interests of the state.12

These broad emergency powers, which were purportedly put in place to end violent demonstrations and to enable the government’s anti-corruption drive, deprive people of legal protections and due process rights including the right to a fair trial. The emergency regulations have also facilitated arbitrary arrests of a wide range of government critics, peaceful protesters, and political party members. Although exact figures are unavailable, tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily arrested under emergency rule.13

Those detained include nearly 200 senior political leaders, prominent businesspeople, and government officials. The leaders of both major political parties, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have been arrested and denied bail.

Arrests under the emergency powers encourage mistreatment in detention. The security forces frequently arrest people in the middle of the night without warrant. They are often in plainclothes and offer no identification, and cite the emergency laws to justify their actions. Instead of bringing those arrested immediately before a magistrate, the security forces routinely take them to army barracks and other unofficial places of detention where they are subject to mistreatment and torture.

Of particular concern is the use of torture by Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). The DGFI was established in 1978 under the dictatorship of General Ziaur Rahman and modelled after Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. In Dhaka alone, the DGFI maintains at least three unofficial detention centers, known as “black holes.” “Black Hole 1” is located in DGFI headquarters inside Dhaka cantonment near BNS Haji Moshin naval base. “Black Hole 2” is near Kachukhet, a civilian residential area inside Dhaka cantonment. “Black Hole 3” is maintained in the Uttara residential district near Zia International Airport. Research by Human Rights Watch has established that the DGFI also interrogates and tortures detainees in the facilities of other security agencies, such as those located at Special Branch headquarters in Mogbazar, Detective Branch headquarters on Mintoo road, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) headquarters and RAB-1 camp in Uttara.

Successive governments, including those of military ruler General HM Ershad and the elected governments of Prime Ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, have used the DGFI to serve partisan interests in violation of its organizational charter. For many years, the agency has been employed as a weapon for quashing political opponents and engineering covert campaigns that benefit those in power.14 The DGFI’s covert campaigns, which have resulted in widespread human rights abuses, have ranged from engineering anti-Hindu communal riots to aiding “ethnic cleaning” of ethnic minority communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.15

Since the declaration of a state of emergency on January 11, 2007, the DGFI under its current director general, Major General Golam Mohammed, has been a driving force behind de facto military rule in the country. It has carried out overt and covert operations against government critics and opposition party leaders and members, threatening and intimidating officials in the two main political parties and members of the media.

In the past year alone, the DGFI has arbitrarily detained and tortured numerous politicians, journalists, businesspersons, academics, professionals, and activists. Among the cases reported to Human Rights Watch include those of businessmen Abdul Awwal Mintoo and Noor Ali; Dr. S Mollah, a physician; Anwar Hossain and Harun ur-Rashid, professors at Dhaka University; Manabendra Dev, a student leader at Dhaka University; and, Deen Islam Angel, a student at Dhaka University. The methods of torture used by the DGFI reported by victims to Human Rights Watch include general beating, electric shocks, beatings of hands and soles of the feet, and forcible water intake.

1Human Rights Watch, Judge, Jury, and Executioner; Torture and Extrajudicial Killings by Bangladesh’s Elite Security Force, vol. 18, no. 16 (C), December 2006, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, Country Report-Bangladesh, (retrieved January 22, 2008).

2Constitution of Bangladesh, art. 35 (5). However, there are no specific laws in Bangladesh that provide a clear definition and prohibition of torture in custody.

3Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987.

4 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art 7.

5 See ICCPR, art. 4.

6 Letter of Kaniz Sayed Binte Sabah, wife of Shahidul Islam, to Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmen, Chief Advisor, Bangladesh government, March 29, 2007. Copy on file at Human Rights Watch.

7 Human Rights Watch interview, April 2007, details withheld.

8 Human Rights Watch interview, all details withheld.

9 Emergency Powers Ordinance, 2007, art. 3. Unofficial translation. Copy on file at Human Rights Watch.

10 Emergency Power Rules, 2007 framed under the Emergency Power Ordinance, January 25, 2007. Copy available with Human Rights Watch. Asian Legal Resource Center, “Bangladesh State of Emergency is Unjustifiable and Ensuring Abuses of Human Rights,”Statement to the UN Human Rights Council, September 6, 2007 [online] (retrieved January 22, 2008).

11 “Partial Lifting of Ban on Politics Falls Short,” Human Rights Watch, press release, September 12, 2007 [online]

12 Emergency Power Rules, 2007 framed under the Emergency Power Ordinance, January 25, 2007.

13 Local human rights groups such as Odhikar suggest that the numbers who have been arbitrarily arrested runs into the hundreds of thousands.

14 Bibhuti Bhusan Nandy, “DGFI: State within a state” in Jaideep Saikia, ed., Bangladesh: Treading the Taliban trail (New Delhi: Vision Books, 2006), pp. 173-187.

15 Ibid.