Our Rights and the Role of Police in a Democratic Society
CHRI successfully held the second in a series of workshops on “Our Rights and the Role of Police in a Democratic society” in Bangladesh (Barisal district) from 22-23 April 2011 . The workshop was held in collaboration with Bangladesh Legal Aid and Service Trust (BLAST) and Nagorik Uddyog with support from the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a leading German organization. The first workshop was held in Dhaka in August last whereas the next one is scheduled for Khulna district later this year.
The main objective of these workshops is to popularize and widen the debate on police reforms in the country. That policing in the country (as the region) is in need of reform is evident by the consistent reports of wide-scale human rights violations by the men in blue. In fact, the Bangladesh Police till recently was notorious for being the most corrupt public department in the country (Transparency International surveys). Recognizing the need for radical police reform, the Care-taker Government (CTG) had drafted a Police Ordinance in 2007 in order to replace the 1861 Police Act currently in place, but successive governments since have failed to pass the Ordinance into law. As a result, a legislation that would significantly improve policing in the country is languishing in the corridors of power, and it will continue to do so unless people are made aware of its existence, and how it will benefit them in return. In any public reform agenda, it is critical to make the people believe they have a stake in a particular policy. To this end, the workshops strive to put forward these debates before the people in the hope of catalyzing interest in, and demand for, police reform.
The program in Barisal began with a plenary session on the role of police in Bangladesh. Prominent figures such as the Mayor of Barisal city, the Deputy Inspector General (Barisal), Deputy Commissioner (Barisal Metropolitan Police), and several prominent advocates addressed the crowd. A recurring theme in each of the presentations was how the role of police has changed since Bangladesh’s Independence (1971). During the freedom struggle, the force played a crucial role in fighting and upholding the rights of people. But today, the same force is seen as anti-people and repressive. It is often found violating the rule of law – harasses people at the time of registering complaints, fails to complete investigations on time, tortures people in police remand and so on. Instead of working as a service to people and addressing their grievances, the mindset of the officers is to underplay crime in their area of jurisdiction. The problem is compounded by the unsatisfactory performance of the judiciary that often exercises its discretionary powers without proper investigation. The performance of Rapid Action Battalion force in particular was criticized for its blatant human rights violations.
Notably, even the police officers present at the workshop recognized these problems, but also pointed out that situation is much better today as compared to last five years. No less than the police chief himself has called upon the force to reach out to people. Through initiatives like the monthly Open House (where people can come and voice their problems at the police station), regular visits to schools and colleges, the police is working to bridge the trust deficit. Particularly noteworthy is the Victim Support Center established in Tajgaon police station, Dhaka, by the Bangladesh police with support from the Police Reforms Programme, UNDP. The Center provides complete support to victims of violence including medical support, legal help and social services such as shelter homes etc. It is a remarkable model of partnership between government and non-government bodies in addressing violence against women and children that has emerged as ‘a social disease’. Apart from these initiatives, the police also expressed discomfort at being equated with the RAB , for although the force falls under the ultimate jurisdiction of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), it is governed by a separate legislation, namely the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act.
Given the disillusionment against the police, CHRI made a presentation on two key principles necessary for overcoming the arbitrary and repressive nature of policing and which are also enshrined in the Police Ordinance 2007 – significance of external oversight body monitoring the functioning of the police, and an independent complaints body to address the public grievances against the police. It was pointed out how the proposed National Police Commission will bring about greater transparency in the functioning of the department by overseeing transfers, postings, and appointments (these often lie at the heart of ineffective policing), whereas the Police Complaints Commission will help increase police accountability and building trust of the people.(For a detailed analysis of the Police Ordinance 2007.)
The second day of the workshop focused on two themes: role of police in investigating Violence against Women (VAW) and exercise of police powers particularly registration of FIRs, arrest, detention, and legal aid. The participants were divided into three groups, each assigned a case study around one of the above themes. Through role play, each group fleshed out the procedures as laid down by law and the police duty in protecting citizen’s rights. For instance, the role play on FIR highlighted how the police has a statutory duty to register complaints in the case of commission of cognizable offences and cannot turn away anyone who wishes to report such an offence. The role play also listed out the information that needs to be provided in an FIR. Then, the session on arrest underscored the principle of innocent till proven guilty and strongly criticized practices such as public labeling of an arrestee as a criminal.
Apart from the role play, a talk show was conducted by Sara Hossain, Honorary Director, BLAST, with a veteran lawyer and police officer (non-commissioned) as panel members (as the workshop was conducted under Chatham rules, the names of the panelists are withheld). The theme of the talk show was role of police and people’s rights. The legality and practice of issues such as police remand, safe custody, detention, nature of FIR, rights of arrest, rights of arrestee, dealing with domestic violence cases, custodial treatment and so on were discussed. It was underscored once again that the police is a public department and is equally accountable to the law as the citizens. Taking note of the high expectations of people of the police, the officer, however, flagged the issue of resource shortage often coming in the way of better delivery of services. This is corroborated by latest stats provided on police strength, according to which 1 police officer serves more than 1200 people, an obvious deficiency in manpower that results in inefficient service.
Overall, the workshop facilitated a dialogue between NGOs and police officers and highlighted the working circumstances and challenges confronted by both sides. It is hoped that this will result in a holistic understanding of policing as also a greater involvement in reform debates.
 RAB is a specialized unit of the Bangladesh Police established in March 2004 and consists of members from the Bangladesh police, army, navy, air force and the Border Guards Bangladesh. The special force was established to improve law and order situation in the country. Governed by the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act, 2003, the force is entrusted with undertaking intelligence work related to crime and carrying out any investigation on the direction of the government.