The uses and abuses of Bangladesh’s law-enforcement and prison systems
“They took me to get to my brother,” Nupur Mustafa (pseudonym) said. “Then they took my daughter to find her father.” Nupur broke down in tears several times while talking about her brother, Rehman Rabby (pseudonym). Rabby had been an outspoken leader of the Bangladesh Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and a popular name in Dhaka’s New Market area. But Rabby’s popularity and political leanings made him – and, eventually, many of his family members – a target.
As tensions between the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP built in the early 2010s, Rabby was first subjected to goom – the colloquial term in Bangladesh for enforced disappearances, often at the hands of security forces or law-enforcement agencies. Nupur ran from station to station, but everyone, including the Detective Branch, a specialised unit of the Bangladesh police, denied any knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts and suggested that he had left town of his own volition.
Twenty-two days later, she saw her brother on television. Nupur says Rabby later told her that he had been coached to say that he was arrested just the previous night on vandalism charges. He was threatened with death via “crossfire” if he did not play along.
The term “crossfire” refers to supposedly unintentional deaths amid a gunfight, typically between law-enforcement agencies and suspects or detainees. Many, however, understand such deaths as staged extra-judicial executions by state forces. Allegations of extrajudicial killings by law-enforcement agencies are not a recent phenomenon in Bangladesh. It is hard to know the true extent of crossfire killings since the right of private defence, embedded in Bangladesh’s Penal Code, allows individuals to defend themselves against an unwarranted attack on a person or property, stipulating that the exercise of this right does not constitute an offence. These killings are often not part of official records.
Once her brother resurfaced, Nupur thought their troubles had ended. But Rabby now had a “record” despite having committed no crime. Four years later, at a time of political volatility surrounding Bangladesh’s 2014 general elections, a heater in Rabby’s apartment exploded, leaving both siblings, Nupur’s daughter and a neighbour’s child with injuries. Nupur says the blade of the heater had spun towards Rabby at high speed, cutting through the fingers on his right hand. People on their street rushed to help.
The trouble began when they got to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and attempted to be registered for treatment. Policemen at the hospital recognised Rabby’s name and described him as a wanted fugitive. Nupur alleges that one of the officials crassly told Rabby that neither he nor his niece would be receiving any medical attention. ‘Bomb banaye ashchos tora, toder kisher chikitsha?’ she recalled him saying.
(You were caught making bombs. What treatment do you expect?)
Nupur was then approached by police personnel who told her that if she wanted her brother to be treated she would need to speak with them. She agreed, but soon found herself being taken to Lalbagh Thana, a nearby police station, away from the hospital where her daughter and brother remained alone and helpless.
In our conversation, Nupur repeatedly stressed that even after they had gotten to the hospital news tickers on television reporting the accident had continued to describe it as the result of a heater explosion. But soon, a different narrative began to circulate: that a bomb-maker had lost his hand while making explosives. Nupur was questioned and eventually placed in remand for ten days. Meanwhile, in the hospital, her daughter was separated from her uncle and sedated.
Nupur said that no trusted doctors, no friends or family members were allowed to enter the wing of the hospital where Rabby was kept that night. Eventually, the area was almost completely sealed. Nupur’s daughter awakened in the wee hours of the morning and learnt that her uncle had died.
In the station, Nupur, too, slowly came to realise – based on snatches of overheard whispering and the morose faces of police officers – that something horrible had happened. Somehow, it had been decided that Rabby’s burns and other injuries necessitated invasive surgery. His hand was amputated, allegedly without anaesthesia. Nupur maintains that this “procedure” was unnecessary and deliberately torturous, and that her brother had simply been left to bleed to death afterwards. And so he did.
Dhaka police did not respond to questions about Rabby and the targeting, harassment and deliberate medical mistreatment of detainees.
Process as punishment
Bangladesh’s prisons remain overcrowded. According to the country’s department of prisons, as of December 2023, the total prison population (including remand prisoners and pre-trial detainees) stood at 84,851 – almost twice the official maximum capacity of 42,866 for the whole prison system.
In the two weeks between 27 October and 10 November 2023 alone, almost ten thousand leaders, activists and general supporters of the BNP were arrested after protests erupted against the ruling Awami League government. This was in the run-up to a general election on 7 January that the Awami League won by a massive margin. The BNP and other opposition parties had boycotted the vote in protest at what they saw as a skewed electoral playing field, and outside observers also described the election as being one-sided.
Political activists in Bangladesh often find their lives consumed by the criminal-justice system. Azizur Rahman Musabbir, a mid-tier BNP worker, is just one example. He found himself caught in a loop of being arrested, posting bail and immediately being re-arrested for over a year leading up to the 7 January elections. On one occasion, he was arrested right outside the prison gates just after he had been released.
The current prison system in Bangladesh is a relic of the colonial system that ruled this territory until 1947. At the core of its design, arguably, was a desire to fan terror in those deemed “wrongdoers”, bringing about the submission of the populace. This is achieved through the misuse of broadly defined legislation, as well as the use of torture to extract confessions and the strategic targeting of marginalised communities.
Nupur’s story is a useful point of entry not only because it highlights the extent of the abuse meted out to detained persons by Bangladesh’s law-enforcement agencies, but also because it exposes the fact that much of this abuse begins even before an individual is formally placed under arrest (that is, if the arrest is acknowledged to begin with). It also calls attention to the extent of the surveillance that citizens, especially politically active ones, are placed under even while outside prison, one element of what amounts to an open-air, extra-legal carceral system.
Nupur, while still detained by the police, was allowed to see her brother’s body at his funeral under strict conditions. Veiled from head to toe in a burkha to disguise her from her own grieving family, she was instructed to appear calm, see her brother, and leave with the plainclothes policemen on her tail. They were very clear with their warnings about “not causing a scene”, and prohibited any interactions with her family or the media.
But Nupur burst into tears and eventually fainted, only to wake up much later in the station and realise that she had been sedated and moved away from the graveyard where the funeral took place. However, she does remember the familiar face of a local Awami League leader who recognised her despite the burkha and had proceeded to engage with her. Nupur recalled that the plainclothes officers had quietly asked him to walk away because it would have been a problem if her family realised she was in police custody.
Nupur was sent back to custody. When we spoke, she described the inhuman living conditions in Bangladesh’s prisons. Like chickens on a poultry farm, the prisoners would be let out into the prison compound in the morning and brought back in at dusk. Many women “go crazy”, she said. By the end of her time in prison, she fell ill due to mental distress. Her ill health was exacerbated by various food allergies and skin conditions, as well as swelling of her limbs. The food served to the prisoners often teemed with insects. The women had to filter the lentils using their ornas – the drapes of their saris.
When brought to court, many female prisoners would show their calloused hands, weathered from the intensive labour assigned to them when their families could not grease enough palms. Nupur’s family would make sizable payments every week to ensure that she received at least the bare minimum: a guaranteed “seat” of her own, which included a narrow strip of space the size of a blanket. Overcrowding only strengthened the rigid hierarchies within the prison, with preferential treatment doled out to wealthier inmates because of corruption. It also created security concerns due to the lack of adequate prison personnel to manage all the inmates, and created serious health risks.
Some of the payments Nupur’s family made went to the jailers, some to “veteran” prisoners with power inside the jail. The jailer collected BDT 1000 each week – roughly USD 12 at the time. This would buy Nupur, among other things, a decent breakfast from the food cooked for the prison staff. In the absence of these payments, inmates would be made to cut grass, carry water and heavy loads, clean rooms and till land.
Sometimes the authorities refused to budge even after accepting money. Once, Nupur’s family paid BDT 10,000 to prevent her from being transferred from the former Central Jail in Chawkbazar to another facility in Kashimpur. Regardless, Nupur soon found herself in a prison van along with around 50 or 60 other women. The supposed reason for her transfer was the impending arrival of a high-profile opposition politician.
The Bangladesh Department of Prisons did not respond to questions about prison conditions and corruption within the prison system at the time of publishing this article.
Only 15 days after she got out of jail, in July 2015, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) used Nupur and her daughter as bait to apprehend her husband, who was implicated in the same case as Nupur after his national identification card was found at their house – the site of the alleged “bomb factory”. They were contacted under false pretences, told to appear at a specific location for an ostensibly harmless errand, and then picked up again.
When we look at recent developments in Bangladesh, particularly the frenzy of arrests and lawsuits against members of the BNP, the CID’s fixation on Nupur’s husband can be seen as part of a disturbing trend.
The cases against Nupur are now in their eighth year. Often, she receives threats that she will be driven out of her neighbourhood or be dealt the same fate as her brother. Nupur says those delivering the threats are affiliated with the local chapter of the ruling party.
Khadijatul Kubra, a fourth-semester student of political science at Jagannath University in Dhaka, walked out of prison in November 2023 after being detained for 14 months and 23 days on charges filed under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA).
Khadija was only 17, according to her family, when two DSA cases were filed against her. This was in October 2020, after she hosted a webinar titled ‘Humanity for Bangladesh’, where a guest speaker made comments that were critical of the government. In spite of her age, she was charged as an adult and then arrested in 2022. Despite requiring medical care – she was struggling with kidney issues – the teenager was left to languish in prison for months, some days even in a cell for the condemned, alongside death-row convicts. Her bail pleas were repeatedly rejected, and when a court did finally grant her bail, in February 2023, it was suspended following a plea from the state.
Khadija’s prolonged detention has impacted her mental health, something she is struggling to navigate while trying to catch up on a lost academic year. She also has lingering physical health issues, including kidney complications as well as back pain owing to the intensive manual labour she was forced to perform in prison. Khadija also noted in an interview with the Business Standard after her release that the medical reports compiled by jail authorities could have been falsified to help justify the harsh treatment she was subjected to.
Kalabagan and New Market police have said they pressed charges against Khadija for 'tarnishing the country's image' and 'spreading anti-government statements online' for hosting the webinar. Khadija was also accused of contributing to ‘deteriorating law and order’ under section 31 of the Digital Security Act - a non-bailable offence. In media reports, prison authorities said they had conducted health checks on Khadija, including an ultrasonography, which showed she was healthy.
Khadija is an example of the many people whose lives have been violently disrupted for supposedly attempting to harm the country’s image. Members of opposition parties are dehumanised through phrases like “treason”, “defamation” and “conspiracy to overthrow”, which the ruling party and its supporters often use to justify their detention. As a result, even news of custodial deaths is largely met in Bangladesh with indifference. The victims of such deaths include Sultana Jasmine, who worked at a union land office and died while in the custody of the Rapid Action Battalion; the writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in Kashimpur prison; and scores of others who have lost their lives under murky circumstances while in army custody in the heavily militarised Chittagong Hill Tracts. Most recently, there have been the deaths in the span of four days of Asaduzzaman Hira Khan, a BNP worker in Gazipur, and Golapur Rahman, a BNP leader in Chattogram, after they were imprisoned under separate cases at the Kashimpur High Security Central Jail. So far, in total, at least eight BNP leaders and activists have died in prison custody since large opposition rallies on 28 October 2023.
Those detained under the DSA often report the use of torture. In January 2023, the journalist Raghunath Kha alleged that he was tortured while in the custody of the Detective Branch following his arrest by the Satkhira district police. Kha is an advocate for minority communities and landless people, especially those affected by land grabs in the Khalishakhali area. At the police station, he says, he was blindfolded before being taken to the Detective Branch office, where he was electrocuted for half an hour, and also had his feet beaten with a stick. The police who arrested Kha said he was involved in an alleged bomb blast in coordination with landless people in the area. Initially, the police also said they did not know anything about Kha’s arrest.
Solitary confinement and barring access to legal counsel are other methods of punishment, utilised even when there is scant evidence of wrongdoing by the targeted individuals. This can be seen in the case of 16-year-old Poritosh Sarkar, the first person convicted in cases related to the communal violence that resulted in the burning of 60 Hindu homes in Pirganj in October 2021. Several of the other accused in the case posted bail, while some were never apprehended. Poritosh was in the 10th grade at the time, and comes from a struggling family of fishers. He seems to have been made a scapegoat. To date, he firmly denies committing any crime.
Until the day of the verdict, no evidence surfaced to support the state’s assertion that Poritosh’s Facebook posts led to the violence. As his phone had been irreparably damaged, the CID was unable to run forensic tests on it. Despite this, in February 2023, Poritosh was given a five-year prison sentence by the Rangpur Cyber Tribunal for “hurting religious sentiments” under the DSA.
While speaking to the Daily Star at the Rangpur court premises, Poritosh said he had been kept in solitary confinement for eight months. Prison authorities argued that this was done to protect him from other inmates. Poritosh told the Daily Star, “I was not allowed to step out of my jail cell for eight months, not for a single day. There were no windows – just a vent at the top of the cell, which was blocked. I had no way of knowing if it was day or night from inside the cell. I counted the days by the meals being given to me.”
He added, “Not a single person spoke to me during those days. I tried talking to the guards, but they would not respond.”
Poritosh said that the inhumane conditions in which he was detained led him to even consider taking his own life. Not only were his lawyers unable to reach him, but Section 29 of the Prisons Act, which entitles a prisoner to communication with a jail officer and mandatory daily visits from a medical officer, was also violated in his case. Police officers said Poritosh was arrested for posting a ‘blasphemous’ image on Facebook, leading to the communal violence. Police said while they were able to prevent Poritosh’s house from being burned, an angry mob had burned the village instead. They claimed that Poritosh was kept in solitary confinement ‘for his safety’ as several people involved in the communal violence in Pirganj were also being detained in the same facility. Incidentally, Poritosh was also arrested under Section 31 of the Digital Security Act.
In September 2023, the DSA was replaced with the Cyber Security Act (CSA), which the government said was a significant improvement on the much-criticised old legislation. But critics have dubbed the CTA old wine in a new bottle. Several key sections of the DSA were retained in the CSA – including prohibitions on propaganda marring the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, on loosely-defined false and defamatory content, and on content that might hurt religious sentiments or insult the national anthem or flag. Several sections of the new law, just like the old one, still contain sweepingly broad definitions, paving the way for its abuse.
Punishments have been reduced for some offences, and more offences that were earlier non-bailable have been made bailable under the CSA. But as the case of Mushtaq Ahmed, who died after being held in pretrial detention for nine months, or of Khadijatul Kubra, whose bail was stayed in the Supreme Court, have revealed, simply making an offence bailable has little practical effect in a context where persecution begins even before trial, and where there is no guarantee that bail will be awarded at all.
Often, there is brazen collusion between the executive and judicial branches of the state in the mistreatment of targetted individuals. The logic around who is punished in Bangladesh appears arbitrary, but ethnic identity, socioeconomic class, gender, geographical location and political affiliation often play a role in who is criminalised. In Bangladesh, even children are not spared.
Figures collated by the research wing of the non-governmental organisation Drik indicate that an alarming number of children were charged under the Digital Security Act. Drik’s monitoring tracked that between June 2020 and June 2023 more than 60 out of the 3876 people implicated in DSA cases were teenagers, the majority of them between 13 and 17 years of age. Alongside women and journalists, children were among the three most vulnerable groups subjected to DSA cases.
According to 2012 data from the World Prison Brief, juveniles constituted 0.7 percent of Bangladesh’s prison population. The recurring charges that children were detained under included criticism of the authorities, spreading offensive remarks, defaming religion, or even using electronic devices for gambling. The cases against them have mostly been filed by ruling-party legislators, the police, and media personnel, according to a report by the daily Prothom Alo. If found guilty, children face fines ranging from BDT 1 million to BDT 50 million – roughly between USD 9000 and USD 45,000 – along with prison terms ranging from five years to life.
Homeless children who enter the system face additional vulnerabilities, as Pother Ishkul, a venture to educate Bangladesh’s working-class and homeless children, knows. On 8 July, the writer and activist Marzia Prova wrote on social media that six children were recently picked up near the Gulistan area and the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. Those who had taken them had identified themselves as law-enforcement officials. Those who had been picked up – Sabbir Fahim, Nowshad, Yasin, Akash and Shanto, aged between 14 and 17 – were all regular students at Pother Ishkul with no prior records. Prova noted that not finding any trace of these children after checking with several police stations was particularly alarming since most of them were “easy targets” – orphans without a home or any guardians to speak on their behalf or come looking for them.
On 9 July, Prova provided an update. Five of the six missing children had been found. They were presented in court on charges of “preparations for robbery” and sent to the Karatoa ward of Dhaka’s Central Jail. In her Facebook post, Prova wondered whether this – being caught up in the system in the name of security concerns and forced into a juvenile correction programme – was still a better-case scenario than them vanishing without a trace.
Bangladesh’s 2018 Justice Audit, conducted by the law ministry, statistics bureau and several international non-profit organisations, illustrated the general public’s perception of the law-enforcement system. There was some scepticism about the ability of the system – which includes village courts, the traditional shalish system for community-led adjudication of disputes, the Union Parishad Chairman and the police and district courts – to deliver justice. Around 27 percent of the citizens surveyed for the audit said that they felt the chances of getting justice from the system were limited. Six percent said they had no faith at all in the system, while 41 percent said they “possibly” hoped for justice from it, even as 27 percent said they did have confidence in the system.
These perceptions do not exist in a vacuum.
Popular Western liberal models of prison and justice-system reform, often presented as progressive pathways for countries across the world, cannot succeed anywhere without adequately engaging with local contexts and power structures. Cases of innocent persons being found guilty, or even deliberately being made a scapegoat by the economically and politically affluent, are not new in Bangladesh or elsewhere. Neither is the use of prison sentences as tools of political punishment and theatre.
Individuals with the means to access various loopholes to defeat the system will continue to do so, while those without will remain trapped.
Philosophically and practically, Bangladesh’s punitive carceral model warrants doing away with because it is prone to corruption, metes out punishment disproportionately and arbitrarily, and is often found unfairly punishing innocent people. It does not appear to deter crime, nor does it appear to have any net positive impact for the public.
Regardless of where one stands politically, a collective reconsideration of such a punitive, anti-poor, ineffective, inhumane and virtually commandeered carceral system may be inevitable. But any collective breakthrough must begin with the radical centring of the value of each life as indispensable and worth saving.