Power and Public Safety: A Report

by Sohela Nazneen

A public dialogue on Power and Public Safety was organized by the Center for Alternatives (CA) at Natmondol, Dhaka University on April 30,2000. The objective of the dialogue was to provide a forum for the people to express their views and opinions about the black laws enacted by the various governments for public ‘safety.’ Participants from diverse backgrounds also analyzed and discussed the reasons behind enactment of and effectiveness and abuse of such laws. Moreover, they made general suggestions for rectifying the current situation.

The dialogue was divided into two parts. Zakia Haque and Sharif Atiqur Rahman, MSS students of the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka made two separate presentations on the "Special Powers Act 1974" and the "Public Safety Act 2000" in the first half of the dialogue. The floor was opened for discussion in the second half of the dialogue.

The presentation on SPA 1974 revealed that in the past 25 years it has been used indiscriminately to harass and repress the opposition political parties and the common people. About 80,000 people have been detained under this Act at various times. This Act allows arbitrary detention without trial of any persons who is suspected of engaging in any act ‘prejudicial’ to public safety, public order, security, or acts that may incite hatred, fear, enmity among different sections of the people, etc. The High Court has ruled 90% of the cases under SPA to be invalid. However, the Act has no provisions for compensating the accused. It was pointed out that though both BNP and AL promised to repeal the law during the democracy movement of 1990, once in power both the parties declared the Act ‘essential’ for good administration.

The second presentation laid out the result of a survey on PSA 2000. About 200 persons were surveyed for their opinions on PSA 2000. The survey results reveal the following interesting facts:

  • About 64% of the respondents did not know whether the provisions of PSA, 2000 violated any human rights.
  • Almost 60% thought the law making process of PSA was not transparent, especially the surreptitious way in which it was introduced and passed in the JS. Approximately 47% did not approve of PSA, 2000 being placed in the JS as a money bill. About 58% of the respondents thought the absence of the opposition during the law making process raise doubts about the validity of PSA.
  • A surprising 71% of the respondents favored the nonbailable provision of PSA.
  • However, among those who favored the nonbailable provision, 84% thought the provisions for punishment of law enforcing officials for undue harassment should not have been amended.
  • Moreover, about 64% of the respondents felt that the PSA, 2000 was redundant.

The presenter also drew attention to the fact that corruption among the police and lower judiciary needed to be eradicated to provide public safety.

After the presentations the floor was opened for discussion and the comments, remarks, and questions voiced by the participants broadly fall into the following three categories:

I. Reasons behind the Enactment of Black Laws and the Absence of an Effective Movement against them:

The participants listed various reasons why no strong movement formed against enactment of such laws, though many opposed these laws and feel that they are unnecessary. They also presented an analysis of why these laws are enacted by every single democratic government in Bangladesh. The reasons contributing to this situation are:

(a) Lack of Dialogue: One of the major reasons identified by the participants behind the enactment of such laws was the lack of dialogue between people and the government, and among various political/interest/civil society groups. Imtiaz Ahmed of Department of International Relations, DU drew attention to the fact that the scope for discussion in public forum about the laws that would be enacted is limited and the government does not seek public opinion before making laws that would drastically affect the people. Hameeda Hossain from Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) pointed out that though the political parties themselves have fought against the tyranny of black laws to establish democratic rights (AL during Pakistan period, AL and BNP during Ershad regime), they have not repealed these laws once in power. Furthermore, both of these parties enacted new black laws once they were in power (Anti terrorism Act, 1992; PSA, 2000). Hameeda drew attention to the fact that people have wanted to establish democracy, and actions of GOB/people reflected that during the post liberation period in the Constitution of 1972. However, these provisions individual political freedom eroded slowly over the years. She stressed that the total socio-political process of this erosion needs to be studied, as the black laws were not enacted out of the blue. She also pointed out that the society is sharply polarized along party lines and the distrust, lack of dialogue, less emphasis on institution building leads to the passage of black laws.

(b) Insecure Government: Participants argued that feeling of insecurity in the government is a major impetus behind enactment of black laws. Muzaffer Ahmad from IBA, DU stressed that the government passes these laws when it feels that the existing laws do not serve its interest. He pointed out that to allay the feeling of insecurity and to maintain its position of power insecure governments in weak states have a tendency to enact such ‘special’ laws, and the history of Bangladesh illustrates this fact.

(c) Tendency to Think That ‘Special’ Laws Will Solve Social Problems: Salma Sobhan from ASK pointed out that the law is not viewed as an aid/ instrument for tackling social problems. She argued that the existing perception about the law is that tougher sentences and stringent laws would solve social problems. Sobhan felt that such “problem with the house, so burn the house down” mentality led to the enactment of laws that violate the fundamental essence of the law.

(d) Weak Role of the Opposition Parties: Many of the participants expressed that the opposition did not play an effective role when the various black laws were enacted. Md. Jahangir, noted media critic, stated that the activities of the mainstream opposition centered on certain issues, i.e., CHT treaty, transit etc, they did not play a proactive role in building any effective movement in and outside the parliament against PSA, 2000. The participants also pointed out that the reason behind the opposition inertia is that they also hope to use these laws to suppress people/opposition when they are in power. None of the major parties trust the democratic system to function properly and in their desperation to cling to power, enact new black laws.

(e) Weak Role of the Civil Society: The majority of the participants felt that the civil society did not play an effective role in opposing the enactment of such black laws. Furthermore, over the years they failed to create a strong movement for repealing such laws. Many thought that the weak voice of the civil society was due to the partisan nature of Bangladeshi civil society. Sharp polarization among the members of civil society diminished the possibility of a dialogue among them and development of an effective movement against such laws. Muzaffer Ahmad argued that the dominant role played by the NGOs reduced the effectiveness of the civil society, as many NGOs are more concerned with their institutional interest than the public interest. However, Salma and Hameeda stressed that the NGOs have not “highjacked” the civil society as stated by Muzaffer Ahmad. Salma agreed that since other sections of the civil society are less organized than the NGOs they do not play a more visible role as the NGOs. Furthermore, both Salma and Hameeda emphasized that the partisan nature of the civil society was the major factor behind its ineffectiveness.

(f) Low Level of Awareness: The participants pointed out that a strong opposition did not materialize because the majority of the people are not aware about the provisions and dangers posed by these black laws. General Jamil of BIISS argued that the common people felt that the debate about whether human rights are violated by the black laws are issues with which only the ‘educated’ sections are preoccupied. The participants maintained that ordinary citizens always felt confused by archaic language of the various laws. They also stressed that the media, the civil society, the political opposition failed to present the provisions of the black laws and their likely misuse to the people in a language which is simple and easy to understand.

II. Abuse

A major part of the discussion focused on the abuse of these black laws. The participants voiced that the enactment of PSA increased their feeling of insecurity instead of making them feel safe! They felt that since the police was corrupt the abuse of the provisions of PSA was inevitable. Many voiced their concern about the fact that the provisions designed to redress the abuse by the police was no longer in place.

Extensive discussion took place about the corruption inside the police force. Faisal from BIISS, an ex-police officer, detailed his experience as an employee. He pointed out that low salary, inadequate logistic support (that has to be met by the police staff) contributed to the rampant corruption. He said that at the police-training academy, a recruit has to pay a ‘salami’ to the instructors to pass the fitness and other tests. He also stated that a percentage of the salary has to be handed over to the immediate superior police officer, which is used to buy grocery for the superior officer. Faisal stressed that with the immense power placed in the hands of the police after enactment of PSA, selective use of this law, incidents of corruption will increase.

The participants also felt that PSA would be used to stifle the voice of dissent. Saleem Samad, journalist cited examples of how SPA and other black laws were used to apprehend journalists. He also narrated the case of a Janakantha reporter who was arrested under the PSA. Saleem mentioned that the present Law Minister had promised that no journalist would be victimized for carrying out journalistic duties, but that is what has been done earlier.

Moreover, the participants feared that the criminals and influential people would be able to bypass these stringent provisions of PSA. Network and contact in the right places will enable them to walk scott free even if they belonged to the opposition political party! Many cited the recent case of the Chief Whip’s son who was not apprehended even after it was widely publicized that he was forcibly occupying an apartment in Kalabagan, Dhaka. Meghna Guhathakurata of department of International Relations, DU narrated a case about her caretaker’s son who was arrested under the PSA and was able to get bail. He was arrested because his employer failed to pay toll money to the police sergeant in charge of the area where the son sells flowers. The bail was arranged after certain amount of money exchanged hands. The participants stressed that those without connections would be harassed but PSA would not be effective in curbing extortion and other mastan related violence.

III. Recommendations

The participants came up with a wide range of recommendations. Some of them were drastic, while others were very basic but essential for rectifying the situation.

(a) Policing the Police? The large numbers of suggestions put forward by the participants in this category perhaps indicate the extent of fear and mistrust participants have about the police force because of the corruption, abuse by and ineptness of the law enforcing officials. Many of the participants argued that the salary and other benefits of the force needed to be raised in order to curb the incentive for corruption among the police personnel. They also mentioned that the government needed to provide adequate logistic support (i.e. papers for filing cases, vehicles for transporting bodies of murder victims etc), which at present has to be borne by the police officials.

Some suggested that the whole force should go through repeated training, fresh orientation and reform. Shabnaz from British Council pointed out that channels of communication should be built between the police and the community. She stressed that lack of interaction and communication creates a sense of indifference among the police personnel and the community is not aware about the services they can rightfully demand from the local force.

Some felt that the culture of corruption was so deeply entrenched in the police force that no amount of training, fresh orientation would eradicate or reduce corruption. Rob Khan of BIISS pointed out that increasing salary and range of benefits may not curb corruption among the police, as it would be like “pouring more ghee into the fire.” Shaheen Afroze from BIISS felt that the existing police personnel would have to be retrenched and a new force should be formed! Some suggested that an independent agency should be created to monitor the activities of the police.

(b) Reforming the Existing Laws: Many of the participants stressed some of the existing laws in the Penal Code needed to be reformed, reinterpreted and made applicable to the present situation. Salma and others pointed out that the basic rights provided in the legal system should not be suspended in the name of tackling present disorder. The focus should be on which specific part of the old laws are not applicable and only those need to be changed.

(c) Reaching Out to the Grassroots: The participants, mostly students, suggested that the media, the civil society (even the political opposition) ought to try to build a strong people’s movement for repealing black laws. The focus of these agencies should be on communication with the public in a simple language. Guhathakurata felt that a case -by -case analysis of various black laws, how they violate human rights should to be conducted. Md Jahangir suggested reports of Law Commission reviews could be publicized in ‘understandable’ language. Also public opinion can be gathered on what type of laws people relay want. The participants felt that limiting the civil society and the media efforts to just high flown dialogues, seminars and reporting these to the newspapers is not enough. Although how a people’s movement would be formed was not discussed.

(d) The Civil Society Finding A Neutral Ground: The proactive role of the civil society was identified as a way for creating an effective movement against the black laws. To tackle the partisan nature of the civil society that might effect the movement, Rob Khan suggested they needed to find a neutral ground. He pointed out that the movement to protect Osmani Uddyan was successful because it was not a political issue. The anti-PSA movement by civil society should focus on the basic rights violated by the sections of this law, not on AL-BNP mudslinging. This suggestion is directly related to the point made by Hameeda and Salma that a dialogue was needed among the various sections of the civil society.

The author is a Lecturer, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.