Rights custodian not doing it right
The National Human Rights Commission could not resolve nearly half of the cases filed with it over the last decade.
Between 2011 and June 2021, a total of 6,736 complaints were lodged with the NHRC, the nation's rights custodian, but the average case disposal rate over the decade was 55.11 percent. This figure is based on NHRC's annual report 2020 and additional data for 2021.
In addition, a recent report by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) analysed the commission's decade-long activities, and found that some of the main reasons behind the NHRC's deficit are an acute lack of manpower, and the founding law itself which restricts the commission from investigating any disciplined forces, including the police and Rab.
Even as just over half of the overall cases were solved each year, only a fraction of the complaints against law enforcement agencies were resolved, said the report, titled "A decade of National Human Rights Commission Bangladesh: Efficacy, Existing Challenges and Opportunities."
"According to the annual reports of the last five years, only one custodial death complaint has been disposed of out of 26. Of the 34 custodial torture complaints, only 10 has been disposed of; and of the 43 complaints of extrajudicial killings, only seven cases were disposed of," said the report.
According to the NHRC's 2020 annual report, 22 cases against the law enforcement agencies (including custodial torture, death, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings) were taken up by the commission and only three were resolved.
However, it is to be noted that seven of these cases were initiated by the NHRC on its own accord.
Similarly, ASK found that in 2019, seven out of eight cases of custodial death remained unresolved. Not one of the eight complaints of custodial torture were disposed of, and only one of the 11 extrajudicial killing complaints was resolved.
None of the seven complaints of death in custody filed in 2018 were disposed of.
"Resolving a case" is also loosely defined by the NHRC, the ASK report found.
"In most cases, the Commission classified a case as resolved when the Government replied that no evidence was found of any involvement of the law enforcement agencies into human rights violations or that the matter is still under investigation. Only in a handful of cases, the authorities state that steps had been taken against those responsible," notes the report.
"In most cases, the Commission only takes nominal measures."
NHRC measures can include issuing a public statement, sending notices to a relevant ministry and reminding them to address human rights violations.
"I think they [ASK] brought out the truth. The National Human Rights Commission has an inherent weakness. In its statute, it says that they are not legally mandated to investigate anything related to the disciplined forces," said Prof Dr Mizanur Rahman, who was its chairperson from 2010 to 2016.
"In India, the human rights commission can at least investigate the police forces. But here, other than writing letters to the home ministry, we cannot even do anything about the police, or even investigate."
According to the NHRC's own 2020 annual report, the commission approached the home ministry regarding 401 cases between 2012 and 2020, and received "satisfactory" responses in about of the cases.
They received absolute silence in 32 cases.
Current NHRC Chairperson Nasima Begum, however, said that the government is very responsive to the commission now.
"We have also approached the law minister recommending that the law be amended to allow us to investigate the disciplined forces," said Nasima Begum.
On May 28, 2018, the NHRC even submitted a demi-official letter to the Home Minister, where it recommended, among other things, "that arrested persons should not be taken along during drug raids, and that if absolutely necessary, then an executive magistrate is also asked to accompany them; that if an unwanted death does take place, an investigation must be ensured through the executive magistrate and responsible persons must be brought to book."
However, it did not follow up on whether their directives are being followed, noted the report.
Former NHRC chairperson Kazi Reazul Hoque, who served from August 2016 to July 2019, was the one who sent that recommendation.
"We used to send 30 to 40 reminders for a response but to no end. We repeatedly sent letters because that is all we could do legally. We can approach the President regarding any complaint, and twice we took advantage of that.
"Following that, the response rate of the ministries periodically improved," said Reazul.
Dr Mizanur said that sometimes they were even able to identify the exact perpetrator but found the ministry unresponsive.
"When we asked the home ministry to clarify how a member of a law enforcement agency is involved in human rights violations, they hardly ever responded. Often they were just sent back to their mother forces, the disciplined unit they came from," he said.
The death of the visually impaired general secretary of the Rangamati Naniyarchar branch of the Pahari Chhatra Parishad Rumel Chakma is an exemplary case where the NHRC's involvement was absolutely nominal, the report claimed.
According to a complaint submitted to the NHRC by Rumel Chakma's father, Rumel was allegedly tortured to death by security forces in Rangamati.
The family claimed that Rumel was picked up on April 5, 2017, and handed over to the police in the evening. He was later admitted to the hospital the next day with serious injuries and died on April 19, 2017 while undergoing treatment.
"The Commission did not take any immediate action on the matter. After Rumel's death on April 24, the Commission issued a statement expressing that the death of an innocent person through inhumane torture was the ultimate violation of human rights.
"The Commission formed an investigation committee. In the investigation committee's report, the Commission concluded: 'If a person dies while under the supervision of the law enforcement agency, then his responsibility cannot be avoided by those involved.'
"On this matter, the Commission did not take any further steps," stated the report.
Dr Mizanur said that during his tenure when he could not legally investigate, he used to send fact-finding missions. "Sometimes we were successful, mostly we were not."
The NHRC, however, is empowered to do more -- it just chose not to.
For example, even though the commission is legally allowed to direct the government to compensate victims, and even sue the government if it does not comply, it did not implement this power until September 14, 2020, and that too for a case that happened long back.
Khadija Akhter, a teenage domestic worker, was brutally tortured by her employers at Mirpur in Dhaka in 2013.
"In March 2019, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court noted that the Commission had failed to exercise its power in the case of the Khadija Akter," stated the report. The verdict noted that the NHRC did little else except sending letters to the home ministry.
Seven years after the incident, and for the first time in the NHRC's history, it recommended that the government compensate the victim, said the report.
Such initiative was a rare sight, the report observed. "The Commission should have extended a helping hand in recovering the compensation of all such victims."
The ASK report also opined that the NHRC is leaning towards the ruling party, and as evidence, they pointed out its investigation into the gang rape of a housewife in Noakhali's Subarnachar during the last general elections.
The NHRC said that there was no link between the election and the rape, while human rights bodies and journalists found that the rapist was directly present at a polling centre as an agent.
"The Subarnachar report by NHRC was nonsense. We expect better from the NHRC," said Dr Mizanur.
LACK OF MANPOWER
The report found that the NHRC has historically been woefully understaffed.
Although an organogram of 93 staff was approved during the formation of the commission, the body initially had only 28 staff, out of which 16 were associate staff. Of the remaining 12, four were working on deputation from the government according to the NHRC, Annual Report 2010.
At that point, there were only eight members to conduct the fact-finding of the human rights violations.
It was only in 2018, that the Ministry of Public Administration agreed to appoint 40 people, including 19 officers -- however, employees at the Commission said that the pandemic put that process on hold.
According to its 2020 annual report, the NHRC is staffed by 48 people. "In reality, the Commission cannot accept and resolve all the complaints it gets because of an acute lack of manpower," the annual report stated.
While the Dhaka office tottered under its heavy caseload, district offices are even worse off.
"The existing regional offices have only a staff member or two. The Cox's Bazar office has only one staff member who is the head of both the offices in Cox's Bazar and Rangamati.
"None of the regional offices have their own vehicle, although the office in Cox's Bazar works with the Rohingya community, and it takes about two hours to drive from the city to Cox's Bazar," states the ASK report.
In May 2017, nearly 10 years after the formation of the NHRC, it got its first panel lawyers. Currently, the commission has 153 panel lawyers in 63 districts of the country.