Saturday, February 27, 2016

Bangladesh Police: time for reform


Many years ago I was listening to the speech of a police officer in Canada who told his audience that he was trained to be Polite, Obedient, Loyal, Intelligent, Courageous, and Efficient – the very acronym for POLICE. That acronym seemed very proper for police whose prime tasks include prevention and detection of crime, preservation of law and order, and protection of life and property of the law-abiding individuals in a civil society.

But these days when I hear about police involvement in crime and corruption, I smell something fishy, something very rotten! Then the other acronym comes to my mind: Persons Of Low Integrity Controlling Everyone. And that is unfortunate for any society!

In recent months, the precarious role of the police in Bangladesh has become a much talked about subject.

On February 13, a constable with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and four others (including a female) were arrested for alleged involvement in demanding extortion of one lakh Taka (0.1 million Taka, equivalent to 1275 USD) from Mohsin, a residence of Sonargaon upazila. A RAB 11 team arrested them from Ashariyachar area of Sonargaon upazila of Narayanganj. RAB personnel also seized a microbus from their possession. An extortion case has been lodged and the accused were handed over to the Sonargaon police station. 

The next day, on Sunday, a case was filed against 13 people including an army person and a member of the RAB for their alleged involvement in torturing two school boys in Poba upazila in Rajshahi. Zahid was admitted to Poba upazila health complex while Emon went missing after the incident.

On January 31, Ratan Kumar Howlader, a sub-inspector of Adabor Police Station, took a female University student into a shop in capital’s Japan Garden City in Shekerteck and opened her jacket and handbag. He then ordered the shop owner to leave following shuttering down his shop and he sexually harassed her in the name of searching Yaba tablets. A judicial inquiry into the allegation has been proved in the judicial probe report regarding the offence. [Previously, I mentioned about the exploits of a police O.C. Mizan (Kasbah) who similarly abused a female student in Chittagong.]

Two years ago, seven individuals were whisked away from Dhaka-Narayanganj link road on Apr 27, 2014. Their bodies were found floating on the Shitalakkhyya River several days later. Thirty-five persons were indicted in that case. Those charged include Tarek Sayeed Mohammad, a former RAB official, who is also the son-in-law of Relief and Disaster Management Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya.

The above random samples of crimes of men in uniform (let alone the relative of a minister who fought in the liberation war) are quite disturbing. Instead of protecting human lives and preserving law and order, some rogue members of the police force seem to be abusing the system for personal gratification and are tarnishing the name to Bangladesh Police. They need to be given exemplary punishment for their crimes, thereby restoring the needed public trust in the police force.

What we are witnessing today are symptoms of a serious disease, and until the root causes are found and addressed properly with prudent solutions, Bangladesh Police will fail to meet the expectations of the general public, the very stakeholders.

As noted by Mr. Abdullahel Baki, DIG (currently serving as the Police Sector Commander, Sector North, UNAMID at United Nations Organization), in his M.Sc. Thesis in Criminal Justice and Police Management, University of Leicester, UK (2008), based on his application of the PESTEL analysis, Bangladesh police has been politically biased and favorable to the ruling power (thanks to the colonial era Police Act), economically cryptic and weak, socially imbalanced and alienated (because of the lack of community policing), technologically backward, environmentally indifferent, and legally vulnerable.

So, how did Bangladesh Police arrive at this sickening stage of development given the fact that it had a long and rich history? Although the present form was introduced by the British government in 1861 the existence of a structured system to enforce law (which as we will see below was often discriminatory), aiding the ruling administration can be traced back to the reign of Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.

During the pre-Islamic period, there were four main elements in the organization of society against crime: communal responsibility, village watchman, espionage and severe penal provisions. Hindu texts, however, prescribed different punishments for the same crime. Fa Hsien, a Chinese visitor to India in the 5th century BC, observed that a Sudra who insulted a Bhramin faced death whereas a Bhramin who killed a Sudra was given a light penalty, such as a fine – the same penalty he might have incurred if he had killed a dog. One text states that a Sudra who teaches a Brahmin their duty ‘shall have boiling water poured into his mouth and ears’. [Ref: Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, p. 107 (2007), Anchor Books, Knopf Doubleday Publishers]

With the advent of Islam - with its militant sense of equality - in South Asia in the early 8th century since the days of Muhammad bin Qasim many of those discriminatory laws were replaced with a uniform code of law. Muslim rulers were dedicated to offer peace, safety and security to all citizens, including foreigners or visitors, irrespective of creed, color and religion. During the Mughal period judiciary and policing system was well organized in a very balanced way so that injustice could not prevail, and peace and order would be ensured. The entire empire was into many administrative units from provincial (Shuva) to union (Mahal) level.  The Kotwal system was introduced in urban areas to maintain law and order. Kotwal-e-Sadr was in charge of policing for the entire province; similarly, Fouzdar, Thanadar, Jamadar and village Chawkidar were in charges of other units from the division down to the village level. They also performed night patrolling and surveillance activities. The Kotwal was in charge of town administration. His force patrolled the city and guarded important points. He prevented crimes, investigated and reported offences, registered city dwellers and kept informed of their activities. He also inquired about arrivals and departures of strangers. He acted upon cooperation with the citizens and appointed leading men as Wardens in every part of the city, making them responsible for peace and order in their respective areas.  [Ain-i-Akbari]

Maintaining law and order in the vast Mughal Empire was a Herculean task, which was achieved through benevolence, impartial justice, personal supervision of the criminal administration, speedy remedy, emphasis on prevention and punishments, drastic enough to inspire awe and sustain public confidence.

The present legal and judicial system of Bangladesh owes its origin mainly to nearly two hundred years of British rule in the Indian Sub-Continent although some elements of it are remnants of Pre-British period. The police were used more for aiding the revenue collector for the East India Company (and thereafter for the British Raj) than crime control. Torture of the peasants and raiyyats who failed to pay the revenue on time became an official practice of the police. Thus, they came to be viewed as the oppressive arm of the colonial administration. As a result of these oppressive measures with the focus on maximizing profit for the EIC (and the Raj), soon Bengal was plunged into anarchy, disturbance and famine. [Baki]

After the failed Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British government effectively took control of India and enacted some new laws and regulations to solidify its control. These included: the Penal Code (1860), the Police Act (1861), Chowkidar Act (1870), Evidence Act (1872), Criminal Procedure Code (1898) and Police Regulation of Bengal (1943). The Indian Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860) and the Criminal Procedure Code (Act XXV of 1898) laid the foundation of criminal law in British India.  

The philosophy of police of the British regime had never been complementary to democratic values and political development. The British had a twisted idea of using police as an instrument of coercion for their own interest rather than providing service to the people. The Police Act, 1861 enabled to form a well-organized and well-structured police force only to serve the interest of the colonial masters.

After 1947 (the independence of Pakistan from Great Britain), the title of the Indian Penal Code was changed to that of the Pakistan Penal Code. Police were compelled to carry out unpopular orders. The act of shooting on the participants of language movement demonstration in 1952 was a glaring example of colonial rule and suppression. 

Similarly, after 1971 (the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan), the Pakistan Penal Code came to be known simply as the ‘Penal Code’ in independent Bangladesh. Except for the changes in title the Penal Code more or less remained an immutable document with only minor modifications. The same can be said of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898 and the Police Act of 1861.

Bangladesh Police is the primary state agency responsible for investigating criminal activities.  Its mission is to enforce law, maintain social order, reduce fear of crime, enhance public safety and ensure internal security with the active support of the community. It is administered by the central Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of Bangladesh.

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Part 2:
Bangladesh Police has a glorious past. During the War of Liberation (1971), many members of the then East Pakistan Police actively revolted against the central government and sacrificed their lives. As a teenager back then, I still remember many such police constables and Ansars taking shelter in late March and early April in our home ‘Prantik’ on Zakir Hossain Road (located not too far from the Police Station) in Chittagong. They were put to retreat from their positions by a much superior and better equipped Pakistani military, and yet their morale was not subdued. They wanted to fight back and headed out for the Indian borders to join the liberation war. To escape unnoticed from the city, by then well surrounded by the Pakistan forces, some of them buried their rifles in our backyard. Some 1262 members gave their lives during the war.

In recent decades, since 1989, Bangladesh Police has been playing a major role in peace-keeping missions around the globe. Some 15,729 personnel have served in 21 UN missions in places like Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, Liberia, Haiti, Mali and Somalia.

In spite of such a remarkable past, since 1971, Bangladesh Police suffers from a widely held perception that it is corrupt requiring reform. It has also been accused of crime and brutality, esp. during police remand.

As noted earlier, brutality and corruption are not new phenomena of the police force of Bangladesh (and the entire Indian subcontinent), rather the available history witnesses the reality from the British period. After the creation of the new police force in 1861, the British rulers understood that they had created a Frankenstein. In 1869 they took some initiative to reform the police, but it failed to bring any good result. In 1902 the Fraser Commission was appointed and it found the police high-handed, incompetent and corrupt.

The 1861 law does not define the parameters of the magistrate’s authority nor does it prescribe any checks or balances. Not only do these dual controls over the force at this level mar police functioning in each of the districts, but in effect, they also limit the capacity of the IGP and his deputies from effective supervision of the police.

Between 1976 and 2009 six laws came into force regulating the police administration in Bangladesh’s six metropolitan areas of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Sylhet and Barisal. These laws, known as the Metropolitan Police Acts, stripped executive magistrates of their authority over the police and vested regulatory and licensing powers with the IGP and metropolitan police commissioners. However, on 7 April 2009, the Awami League-dominated parliament passed the Code of Criminal Procedure Act 2009, effectively reinstating bureaucratic control – the hallmark of the 1861 system – over the various metropolitan police forces. Other legislation governing police functioning also enables police abuse.

How to reform this institution so that it can be functionally neutral, organizationally autonomous, functionally specialized, institutionally accountable, and socially service- or people-oriented, and not locked into the colonial era modus operandi?

As pointed out by Mr. Abdullahel Baki in his M.Sc. Thesis (2008), Bangladesh Police needs reform in three major areas: administrative, legal and policing style for making the organization a pro-people, accountable, efficient, effective and benevolent public service organization.

Crime statistics, recorded by Bangladesh Police, shows that there were reported cases of 491 dacoity, 933 robbery, 4035 murder, 2494 burglary, 6821 theft, 806 kidnapping, and 629 police assaults in 2015. A comparative study of the data, compiled by the Nation Master, a global resource on crime statistics, would show that such numbers pale in comparison to most western countries (per capita basis). However, they do show appalling trends in a country like Bangladesh that had almost no culture of owning weapons or gun violence until quite recently.

The total police force in Bangladesh is approximately 150,000 showing that it has less than 1 police for every thousand people. It has the lowest police to public ratio in South Asia and nearly three times lower than the UN’s recommended ratio of 1:450. Almost 80% of the force is made up of constables that don’t have investigation power further limiting the capability to fight crime. Many of them, esp. in the metropolitan areas, are devoted to protecting government servants and diplomats.

Bangladesh Police suffer from serious budgetary constraints. In its review of 2009 [BANGLADESH: GETTING POLICE REFORM ON TRACK, Asia Report No. 182 (11 December 2009)] the International Crisis Group (ICG) stated that “the $420-million annual police budget is simply insufficient to meet the policing needs of the country and undermines the force’s ability to perform effectively.” Numerous officers complain of a lack of funds for basic materials such as radios, fuel for vehicles, bicycles and even stationery to write reports. Many officers are often forced to pay out of pocket to complete even the most routine police functions. Expense claims are sent from the districts to Dhaka and reimbursements often follow months later – and not always in full, which further drives corruption.

Many of its training facilities are ill-equipped with antiquated curricula, procedures, policies, tools and techniques to investigate and fight modern-day crimes of the 21st century. Quality training cannot be expected of police officers when funding is inadequate. [Baki]

Increasing the police force and budget would alleviate many of the human resource problems facing the force.

The police recruitment process also suffers from the fact that although most officers take the legal route into the force, it is not uncommon for prospective officers to buy their way in. The ICG observers noted that “admission bribes” for constables and SIs (sub-inspectors) ranged between Tk 60,000 and Tk 100,000 ($870-$1450). At the ASP level, entry into the force can cost anywhere between Tk 150,000 and Tk 400,000 ($2170-$5800) or higher but officers say political connections at this level are more important than money. Some legislators “are involved so often in illegal recruiting that some SPs reserve a quota of constable vacancies for the MPs to sell.”

For most officers, life in the police force is difficult and unrewarding. Conditions of service and facilities, particularly for the subordinate ranks, esp. constables, are abysmal and drive police morale downwards. As heard by the ICG observers, “A rickshaw puller can make more in a day than some officers. It’s foolish to expect a police officer to adequately perform his duties – or distance himself from corruption for that matter – when his primary concern is making financial ends meet.”

Because of the low police-to-public ratio on average, most officers work long hours: anywhere from 12 to 16 hour shifts. But they are rarely compensated for more than an eight-hour day. Pay raises and promotions are few and far between and do almost nothing to improve the lives of officers or promote competency in the force. In spite of such flaws with pays and perks, it is to the credit of the force that many of its officers remain unmolested by bribe and corruption.

Political and bureaucratic interference are the most significant impediments to police efficiency and have resulted in the worst forms of abuse including illegal detention, death in custody, torture and pervasive corruption. Often times, the police have been used by corrupt politicians to abuse and victimize ordinary citizens.

As a fellow victim I could testify to the immense pains that my family suffered in 2005 when the BNP leader Salauddin Qader Chowdhury (now hanged for war crimes) and his son Fazlul Qader Chowdhury (Fayyaz) tried to grab our Khulshi properties in Chittagong with a known criminal land-grabbing syndicate of Jaker Hossain Chowdhury, Shahjahan Chowdhury, Abdul Mabud, Mahtabuddin Ahmed and gang. The local police station would not accept our GDs (General Diary), nor would the police investigate the crime simply because ‘their hands were tied’ and advised ‘not to poke their nose’ into the criminal affairs of the BNP leader (who was an adviser to PM Khaleda Zia), thus allowing eviction of 16 tenant families from our properties and later demolition of ten homes built by my father in the late 1950s.

The Police continue to serve the interest of the ruling party based on the invasive 1861 code, and are, as such, viewed by public rather negatively. At all levels, however, they resent the power politicians hold over them. They suffer from vulnerability in the hands of politicians, which create susceptibility of loyalty and politicization to executive power. Unless they are insulated from political interference no meaningful changes will occur in the way the force functions.

The 1861 Police Act must be repealed as the starting point in reform since its very spirit is hostile to the public and alien to an independent democratic Bangladesh.

Corruption in the police is rampant and systemic. Often officers will refuse to file a GD or a First Information Report (FIR) without payment. Police and criminals sometimes have a relationship; bribes are exchanged to forgo investigations or even abet criminals in some cases. If a case is investigated, the process is often purposefully drawn out to exact more bribes from both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. The ICG noted that “a similar process occurs in the judicial system if the case goes to trial. There is little expectation that the police will deliver justice.”

The ICG also noted that many police posts are bought and sold, costing lakhs or millions of Taka for upward mobility or job postings in lucrative places, metros, etc. “High prices are paid to politicians, government bureaucrats or commanding officers for lucrative postings where officers can make side incomes larger than their salaries.”

A patrol cop in a major metro on a lucrative patrol – a busy intersection, e.g., – can earn more money by extorting money from truck drivers, rickshaw pullers, and street vendors.

It will be impossible to eliminate corruption until poor salaries and working conditions are improved, particularly for officers at and below the rank of sub-inspector. In recent years since 2009 the pay scale has been significantly improved, which may constrain the toxic impact of bribery and corruption plaguing the society.

Not the least of the problems is the faulty prosecution system, which often lets criminals go free, thus creating a bad impression of the police performance. The problem needs remedy through close collaboration between the police and the prosecuting office.
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Part 3:
In his M.Sc. Thesis, Mr. Baki has suggested many recommendations based on McKinsey’s 7S model (structure, system, style, staff, skills, strategy and shared values) to find the reform need and direction required for Bangladesh Police. He also used the SWOT analysis to identify strength, weakness, opportunities and threats to the organization. Interested readers may like to read his work.

I shall share below some salient points of his recommendations along with those proposed by the International Crisis Group (unless otherwise stated):
  1. Replace the Police Act of 1861 with a law similar to the draft Police Ordinance (2007) or better so that it is compatible with the spirit of the Constitution of Bangladesh and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [I am not sure if the Bangladesh Parliament or its standing committee on home affairs has already examined provisions in greater detail and provided recommendations after seeking the feedback of serving and retired police officials and the public.]
  2. Reduce police corruption and protect officers from political manipulation by: a) removing corrupt, inefficient or politically biased officers from senior positions and positions of authority over the police; b) preventing premature transfers of officers by requiring them to remain at their duty stations for two years except in special cases; c) increasing the period between rotations to three or four years to enhance stability and allow better relations with local communities; d) making the Police Internal Oversight (PIO) department a permanent aspect of the national police; e) criminalizing political interference in police affairs; e) taking measures to avoid any politicizing of the police force; and f) initiating broader reforms of the civil service, a first step being the implementation of the recommendations of the pay commission to boost salaries of government employees.
  3. Rebuild police morale and increase their efficiency by: a) allocating more funds for improving facilities and securing the welfare of police rank and file and their families, and ensuring this money is spent on better salaries, housing, transport facilities and health care for the rank and file; b) creating a fund, administered jointly by the police and parliamentarians, for public service awards for exceptional policing; c) modernizing training methods and procedures and the recruitment system; and d) increasing police numbers so that they are not overworked.
  4. Improve police performance and redress public grievances by establishing a Police Complaints Commission similar to the one envisioned by the draft Police Ordinance (2007).
  5. Ensure a greater presence of women in the police by: a) increasing the number of female police officers and facilities for women officers and detainees in police stations; b) increasing the visibility of female police officers and improving their standards of training; and c) filling current vacancies in the force with women officers wherever possible, particularly senior positions with those who are qualified.
  6. Reduce public’s negative perception of the police by: a) amending the emergency provisions and preventive detention provisions in order to strike a balance between the needs of state security and those of protecting human rights; b) exerting closer scrutiny by the judiciary on conditions of detention and interrogation by the police during the remand procedure; and c) ensuring that police investigations are streamlined and strengthened through material and forensic information collection, thus minimize the needs and practice of torture on suspects of terrorist activities. [Syed Sarfaraj Hamid, Police System of Bangladesh: A Study (published in the South Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2)]
  7. Ensure community policing to close its gap with the public by making the Police to work closely with the community for the benefit of the community, which can be accomplished by CAMP methods of a) Consultation with local people; b) Adaptation of policing methods to local conditions; c) Mobilization of local people and agencies against crime and disorder; and d) Problem solving in the locality.

In closing, let me share a personal story. In early April of 2005 when my family property was grabbed by the criminal land-grabbing syndicate that colluded with former BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (hanged for war crimes last year) and his notorious older son (Fayyaz), we were simply shocked. I could not believe that such a terrible crime could happen to my family who had been living in our Khulshi properties for nearly half a century with all the legal rights and possessions. Because of the presumed power of SaQa my class mates Mahmudur Rahman and Sayeed Iskandar (now dead), sadly, betrayed my trust and failed to bring the matter to the notice of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Even my letter to the Madam Zia, sent through Bangladesh Ambassador to the USA – Mr. Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, remained unanswered. The latter nonetheless succeeded in arranging a meeting at the PMO with SaQa after he had returned from his treatment overseas. Unfortunately, it was a zero-sum meeting. Puffed up by crude power and sheer arrogance, and lack of fear of accountability before Allah, SaQa was unwilling to let go of the illegal land-grab of our properties.

Our situation looked simply bleak and hopeless. Even our press conference at Dhaka Press Club failed to draw the necessary attention and awareness from the government to intervene. The only thing I could do was pray, complain and submit petitions at the ministry and the US Embassy to rescue us from the sad situation.

I left Bangladesh in utter frustration in early May of 2005. Soon Fayyaz’s (SaQa’s son) goons demolished ten homes in our property.

Ultimately, our prayer to Allah was answered. One of my petitions reached an honest deputy police commissioner – Mr. Abdullahel Baki. He came to investigate the matter and found out that we were victims of a powerful land-grabbing syndicate in Chittagong that had also eyed the nearby Ispahani Properties. He was threatened by SaQa’s APS Abu Bakr Siddiq and other criminal thugs. But he remained steadfast. Based on his recommendation, and approved by the CMP Commissioner Abdul Majed, the police raided, arresting some goons and restoring back full ownership of our properties. Not a single dime was paid as a bribe by my family to the police for their civic duty. We remain indebted to these noble souls within the police force. However, Mr. Baki faced trouble from the government and was soon transferred away from Chittagong. He was even sued by the criminal land-grabbing syndicate. 

Some readers may find my story an exceptional case. But over the years, as we endured repeated harassment from the criminal land-grabbing syndicate, which, by the way, still exists (with new political patrons), we have come across quite a few honest police officers who give me the hope that not everything is lost in our ill-fated motherland that has seen so much of bloodshed, crime and corruption and abuse of the power by the greedy snobs.

The people of Bangladesh expect fairness in everything. They deserve security of their lives and properties from criminals that have, sadly, corrupted the system.

If Bangladesh Government is sincere about bringing irreversible change for the better, I am sure much can be accomplished soon. It can start that process by implementing the recommendations above and not overlooking the crimes of its rogue elements within the ruling party and the administration that are tarnishing the very image of the party. It also needs to strengthen the Anti-Corruption Commission so that it can do its needed tasks without any constraint.

As we expect reform of the police force, however, we ought to know that the responsibility for preventing and detecting crime and anti-social behavior, and combating the fear of crime is not the preserve of the police alone. Nor is it a task left to the politicians and bureaucrats. We all – residents and NRBs (expatriates) – matter. Local authorities, schools, health services, the private security industry, business, voluntary organizations, NGOs, faith communities and individual citizens and the police all have a role to play in establishing a civil society of law and order, checks and balances. Let’s also remind ourselves of what Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (the late president of India) famously said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”

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