Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) is powerful. And, though the saying goes that with great power comes great responsibility, this is not the case with Rab. Officers have been accused of human rights violations and the use of excessive force, and most importantly, for extrajudicial killings. Amnesty International’s current annual report reveals that at least 54 people allegedly were killed in 2011 at the hands of Rab officers.
There is a dearth of accountability mechanisms in Bangladesh, and even less so where Rab is concerned. The government seems sluggish at best, if not completely disinterested in bringing any of these officers to book, as indicated by both past and current patterns. For example, the year 2003 saw so much illegality on the part of Rab, but the government’s inaction was clear.
Human Rights Watch reports this year state that the home minister refused to even acknowledge the need for accountability. Further, the report states that the Home Ministry even went to the extent of ignoring its own previous findings that Rab was behind at least two cases of extrajudicial killings.
All this points to only one thing: a complete and utter disregard in addressing illegal acts committed by the police and a lack of police accountability. As such, violations of both domestic and international laws continue. And, in the absence of accountability mechanisms, a culture of impunity has developed. What is necessary is some kind of effective oversight of the conduct of Rab officers to ensure that they behave in a lawful manner and are held accountable.
Accountability mechanisms for Bangladesh police are evidently weak. Internal disciplinary mechanisms have long collapsed. Courts have failed to play a proactive role in bringing officers to account. A national human rights commission has been set up recently but it lacks the necessary powers or teeth. External accountability mechanisms solely set up for the police are absent in Bangladesh. Without external oversight, police are essentially left to police themselves. Victims are often reluctant even to report abuse directly to the police for fear of reprisals, or simply because they do not believe a serious investigation will result.
There is a dire need for an independent external civilian oversight body which, along with already existing mechanisms, can create a network of accountability from which law enforcing personnel will find it difficult to escape in the face of misconduct or criminality.
Independent civilian police oversight is essential to build public confidence in the police, as well as ensure improved performance. Policing must be (and appear to be) more transparent and involve stakeholders other than just the police or the political executive. Officers should perform their responsibilities in an unbiased and impartial manner. These are some of the key indicators of success when it comes to police oversight.
Currently, there is no such oversight body in Bangladesh. However, the Draft Police Ordinance introduced in 2007 had called for such a body, called the Police Complaints Commission (PCC). From a statutory perspective, however, the way this body is set up in the Ordinance portrays the PCC as a rather feeble body with no investigatory powers and many unclear provisions. Even if such a body is set up on the ground level, it is doubtful that it will have any real impact on the police violence that plagues Bangladesh today.
Several provisions of the proposed Ordinance, as found in the chapter on the PCC, point towards inherent weaknesses in the PCC if it were to be created as is. For instance, no specific time frame has been put in place to ensure that the PCC begins functioning straight away. This sends a message that stakeholders are not really serious about reform, and are setting up a mere puppet body giving the appearance of police accountability. Rather, a PCC should be set up urgently.
As per the provision, the PCC’s mandate is vague and ambiguous. Though it has been tasked to look into serious police misconduct, a clear definition of what constitutes “serious misconduct” is missing from the Draft Ordinance. This would result in an ineffective commission.
One of the cornerstones of a strong oversight body is independence, both from the police department and the political executive. Here, the PCC is to be composed of five members, including a retired police officer. While many arguments have been put forth on why it is essential to have an ex- member of the department on board, this does not make for a truly independent body, nor does it give the appearance of independence. There is no doubt that retired officers may always be consulted separately when necessary. Ideally, such bodies should be composed entirely of civilian members, selected in an independent manner (such as by submission of applications) and be devoid of any serving or retired officers.
Aside from its members, the PCC must be staffed with independent investigators. As the provisions in the Draft Ordinance read, the PCC is not even set up as an investigative body. This perhaps is its greatest flaw. In terms of its function, monitoring police misconduct is not enough. PCC must investigate police misconduct, look at patterns and trends, and report to a parliamentary body at least on an annual basis. Serious criminality and violence such as custodial deaths must be instantly reported to or looked into by the PCC, followed by a thorough independent investigation. To do so successfully, the PCC must be staffed with independent investigators, preferably with a level of training, skill, and expertise equivalent to that of a senior police investigator.
While the Draft Ordinance suggests a framework for police accountability, and is indeed a welcome step, the way the provisions are drafted does not make it suitable to counter the rampant police misconduct and criminality faced by the people today. Instances of encounter killings or shootouts continue to occur. The question one must pose is, will a body like the PCC, as formulated in the Draft Police Ordinance, be able to put a stop to this?
The writer is Programme Officer, Police Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.