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Human Rights Watch sent written inquiries to Mudabbir Hussain Chowdhury, the Inspector General of Bangladesh Police, and Professor Mizanur Rahman, Director General of the Bangladesh Directorate of Health regarding the human rights abuses reported here. Neither responded. Representatives from two NGOs working with sex workers, CARE-Bangladesh and Socio-Economic Development Agency of Bangladesh (SEDAB), met with Inspector General Chowdhury in late 2002. The NGO representatives raised the issue of rampant police abuse of sex workers. According to Irina Baumgartner, one of the CARE staff members present at the meeting, Chowdhury’s response was that sex work was illegal and that as long as women were engaging in work that was illegal, the police were just doing their jobs.241

Chowdhury’s reported indifference toward the rights of sex workers unfortunately may not be atypical among policy makers. But violence against women and girls in general has gained some political attention in Bangladesh in recent years. Public outrage in the nineties over several highly publicized cases of rape, including the rape of a girl in police custody, led in part to the 2000 Repression of Violence against Women and Children Act.242 The law imposed stiffer penalties, made attempted rape a crime, and authorized the establishment of special courts for crimes of violence against women and children. The special courts are meant to provide a swifter and more victim-friendly prosecution process; trials are held in private and are supposed to be completed within 120 days of the date a First Information Report (FIR; the form for lodging a complaint about a crime) is filed. Sixty-four courts are planned in total across the country; twenty-seven are operational at this writing. One human rights lawyer involved in the process estimated that the courts have produced approximately 100 convictions so far. None of these, to his knowledge, was for a crime committed against a sex worker.243 The vision for the special court system is encouraging, but the system’s practical usefulness for the vulnerable persons addressed in this report is yet unproven.

Another initiative aimed at addressing violence against women in general that could potentially help sex workers is Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s plan, announced in March 2003, to create twenty-four-hour crisis centers in all divisional hospitals to provide treatment and legal aid to women survivors of violence.244 A survivor would be able to file an FIR at the center itself. One such center is already active in Dhaka. In its first year, the center has investigated 100 cases. Seventy-two were in criminal proceedings as of March 2003, and five had resulted in convictions.245

Reform of the law enforcement system, like dealing with the problem of violence against women, is essential for addressing the abuses described here; perhaps even more than violence against women, police reform is at the forefront of Bangladeshi public debate. Part of Prime Minister Zia’s justification for Operation Clean Heart was the ineffectiveness of the police force in controlling crime. The army mobilization raised the pitch of longstanding demands from civil society for police reform. A November 2002 editorial in the Daily Star, for example, argued that the army mobilization was necessarily a short term solution and that long-term responsibility for law and order lay with the police. The editorial described the police as “overworked, underpaid and extremely vulnerable to reprisals,” and called for “better compensation, stricter departmental discipline, comprehensive training regime and, most importantly, civilian oversight of [the police’s] services.” The Star concluded: “We really believe that the police can rid themselves of their corrupt and inefficient image if they are given the support they need from the government.”246

Though little action has been taken as of this writing, the government has announced plans for several reforms of the police and judiciary. Addressing a Women Lawyers’ Congress on March 17, 2003, law minister Moudud Ahmed stated that, according to the Star’s paraphrase, “police do whatever they like because they have been given ‘too much power’.” Ahmed announced that an independent investigation unit would be formed to monitor police misconduct and that changes would be made to the police recruitment process, in particular a raising of educational requirements. Home minister Atlaf Hossain Choudhury, addressing the same congress, stated that the size of the police force was inadequate and would be expanded.247 The High Court ruled in April 2003 that the government must amend several provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure that govern detention and interrogation, including section 54, in order to provide safeguards against their abuse. It is not clear at this writing how the ruling has been implemented or whether it will be appealed.248

Regarding the judiciary, Law Minister Ahmed declared that public prosecutors, assistant public prosecutors, government pleaders, and assistant government pleaders would be made into civil servants rather than political appointees.249 Ahmed stated that “I am ashamed that all assistant public prosecutors and assistant government pleaders are political appointees. The BNP is now in the government, that’s why we have appointed persons who are loyal to the BNP . . . . Previous governments also did the same.” Second, Ahmed acknowledged: “Many people have been languishing in prison for years without any trial,” and promised that the government would identify such detainees and give them legal support. Finally, Ahmed said that district-level funds for legal aid had not been used for three years, and that those funds would be used to provide counsel for women and children in detention.250 Many of the government’s plans, in sum, point in the direction of greater protection for human rights. But most of the action is yet to be taken.

241 Human Rights Watch interview with Irina Baumgartner, Dhaka, December 23, 2003.

242 See, for example, Hameeda Hossain, Ain o Salish Kendra (a Bangladeshi human rights organization), “Women campaign for law reform,” A Partnership for Change, Issue 11, August 1998; Saira Rahman, Odhikar (a Bangladeshi human rights organization), “Reflections on Women and Violence in Bangladesh,” Human Rights Solidarity, Asia Human Rights Commission, vol. 11, no. 5, May 2001.

243 Human Rights Watch interview by telephone with human rights lawyer Hossain Shaheid Sumon, Dhaka, March 22, 2003.

244 “PM Opens March; Unite to Fight Discrimination, Repression on Women,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1241, March 9, 2003.

245 Human Rights Watch interview by telephone with human rights lawyer Hossain Shaheid Sumon, Dhaka, March 22, 2003.

246 “Police Reform Can’t Wait,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1126, November 6, 2002, editorials.

247 “Public prosecution system to be recast,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1249, March 18, 2003, p. 1.

248 “Detention on suspicion made illegal: High Court issues 15-point directive on lawmen,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1282, April 20, 2003. See discussion in Background chapter.

249 In Bangladesh, public prosecutors prosecute criminal matters on behalf of the government while government pleaders pursue civil matters on behalf of the government.

250 “Public prosecution system to be recast,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1249, March 18, 2003, p. 1.

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August 2003