On 19 June 2018, a pedestrian was struck and killed by a speeding SUV near Mohakhali flyover in Dhaka. Soon after, grotesque pictures of the crime scene emerged which showed the motionless body of a man lying on the road with his head smashed open and the number plate of the car which had presumably run him over. A shiny metal piece depicting the logo of the high-end German car manufacturer Audi glistened beside the bloodied corpse. Subsequently, news outlets reported that the car was being driven by one Shabab Chowdhury, son of Md. Ekramul Karim Chowdhury MP of Noakhali constituency and subsequently BRTA officials confirmed that the car was in fact registered under the name of the MP's wife. The deceased was identified as Selim Bepari, a 55-year old father of two who was working as a chauffeur for a company called Nawar Properties Ltd. for the past two decades and served as the sole breadwinner of his family. The next day, the victim's family filed a case with Kafrul Police Station naming 'unidentified persons'.
Two days after the incident on Friday, Md. Imran Hossain Khan, the managing director of Nawar Properties, told the press that the MP had called him to offer a settlement: “He (Ekramul) wants the case started at Kafrul Police Station be withdrawn and in return, he will stand by the victim's family (Golam Mujtaba Dhruba, 'MP Ekramul 'offers financial settlement' over deadly Dhaka hit-and-run', bdnews24.com, 22 June 2018). The offer included the payment of 30 lakh taka by way a fixed deposit in a bank, the interest payments of which can be used by the family to meet their monthly expenses. Mr. Imran, seemingly echoing the incentives of the MP stated: “A life cannot be compensated for with any amount of money. Then again, what's the point of pushing the case? I've responded to the MP's call mainly considering the family's future,” Imran said. Sadia and her husband, Ariful, were present during the discussions and the latter said they would agree to whatever Imran considers best for the family.
It is deeply regrettable that there is such brazen disregard for the rule of law on part of both: the MP (who, we ought to recall, is meant to be a lawmaker himself) and the Managing Director who is meant to be representing the interests of the victims, both of whom are pretending as though the victims' right to compensation is mutually exclusive with their right to seek criminal justice. As though the victims have to choose whether between putting the killer of their loved one behind bars and receiving monetary relief for the untimely death of their sustainer.
It should be clear to anyone with even an elementary understanding of the law that certain acts such as reckless driving can have repercussions in both civil and criminal law, the proceedings for which exist in parallel and certainly not in exclusion to one another. Reckless driving leading to death is a criminal offence under section 304 of the Penal Code which simultaneously gives rise to civil actions for damages under both the common law of tort and specific legislation dealing with wrongful death such as the Fatal Accidents Act 1855 and the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983, etc. However, despite the theoretical existence of this duality of actions, we must recognise that the MP's offer exemplifies a wider and prevalent culture of exploiting class disparity to purchase impunity in such criminal cases. Victims from poor socioeconomic backgrounds (such as the family members of the deceased in this case) are frequently offered paltry sums of compensation as out of court 'settlements' in exchange for vitiating the criminal trial. Technically this is unlawful since charges under such criminal cases are bailable, but not 'negotiable' in the sense that a crime is a public wrong against the State which therefore cannot be pardoned by victims if they so desire. However, since victims play a crucial role as witnesses in a criminal trial, they can effectively nullify the criminal proceedings by giving their testimonies in a tactful manner. Indeed, several police officials (who requested anonymity) admitted they themselves think a settlement is highly likely in this case as 'the victim's family do not have the financial ability to continue with the case for long'.
Road fatalities in Bangladesh are among the highest in the world and this hit and run incident would be the ideal case, at least in theory, to utilise and build on from the crucial legal precedents set by the landmark Bangladesh Beverage and Catherine Masud cases, both of which pertained to compensation in civil law for road deaths arising out of reckless driving. Increasing the enforceability of victims' compensation rights is not just imperative to ensure civil justice but also criminal justice.
The writer is a Research Specialist, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST).