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Negotiating justice?

The Story, published @ Xtra, reveals how the National Human Rights Commission, formed in 2010 to challenge human rights violence by state forces and perpetrators, have swayed in directions that compromises its independence.

With the mission to ensure the rule of law, social justice, freedom and human1000719_392599140849075_1382303483_n dignity through promoting and protecting human rights in Bangladesh, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was reconstituted on June 22 in 2010 under the NHRC act passed by the national parliament on July 14 in 2009.

Although, according to the NHRC act, the commission will work in order to protect, promote and foster the human rights issue as envisaged in the Bangladesh constitution and international instruments, a volley of questions has already been lifted up against the commission’s activities and also against a number of controversial commentaries from the commission chairman during its three years journey from June 2010 to June 2013.

The achievement of NHRC during this period seems barely anything more than public statements and recommendations, falling in deaf years of the government without any remarkable action being taken against the perpetrators. The commission has been unprofessional at protecting human rights, says the secretary of Odhikar, Adilur Rahman Khan.

‘Except doing consultancy, working with pro-government NGOs and visiting different countries the commission does nothing because we do not see exemplary activities where the NHRC could stand beside the victim families whose relatives are still missing or killed or injured by law enforcers. Not even the security of the family of a victim is ensured.’

He also says that it is high time to think whether the NHRC has become a burden for the people.

Criticisms became rife last week among the human right defenders, legal experts and general people after the NHRC boss, Mizanur Rahman, requested Limon Hossain, a college student who is the victim of RAB shooting, to withdraw the case which his mother filed against law enforcers for shooting him during a raid near his village home in Jhalakati on March 23, 2011.

ASK Director Nur Khan

RAB filed two cases against Limon branding him as a criminal and police filed the charge sheets in both the cases describing him as a member of a local gang ‘led by Mizan and Morshed’ while accusing him of obstructing the law enforcers in their duties.

On June 23, Mizanur made a proposal to Limon and his family at the commission office at Magbazar in Dhaka when he just attended the first day of his office as a chairman after being reappointed for the next three years. Earlier, on June 20, the chairman had phoned Limon asking him to meet him at his office.

Limon said to New Age that the NHRC chief had also asked him what he actually wanted and said it would be impossible for him (Limon) to fight against the government while Limon replied that he wants to be rehabilitated and demanded withdrawal of the false case filed against him by RAB.

‘If they (RAB) withdraw their cases, you will also have to withdraw your case,’ Limon quoted NHRC chief as telling him.

Mizanur’s proposal for mediation soon spread throughout the country through most of the print and electronic media. However, such mediation from NHRC neglecting justice for Limon generated suspicion among the people and human right activists whether the NHRC works independently or it only works as a toothless tiger for the sake of ensuring human rights issues around the country.

Shaikot Sadique, a student from Jahangirnagar University, says, ‘I only see NHRC in the Limon case where they fight for Limon. But recently this act of mediation seems he is going to compromise with the government.’

‘The commission’s mediation in the case of social justice can be considered but how can they go for mediation in such a criminal offence?’ asks Adilur.
The Limon case turns into a drama as the people have seen many segments of it where the NHRC chairman has shown his zeal in front of the media over the issue but in reality his office failed to bag proper justice for Limon’s life, says Nur Khan, a director at Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).

Only by ensuring proper justice to Limon, the NHRC could bring the state into a place of liability for explanation, he observes. Without doing that the chairman made a mediation proposal where he excused that no explanation would be achieved from the state by standing against it.

Odhikar Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan

As state organs cannot reach justice by going against the state, the essentiality lies upon there to establish human rights organisation, Nur tells Xtra, while questioned that, if the commission fails to grab that position of securing human rights, justice and ethical values, where do general people go.

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) expressed deep concern and resentment over the NHRC chairman’s mediation in withdrawing the cases filed by Limon’s mother against RAB.

In another ‘disappearance’ case, it is found that the NHRC did nothing except only sending a report to Ministry of Home Affairs requesting to take necessary action through investigation.

On March 5, 2012, Imam Hassan alias Badal, a worker in a shutter and grill making factory, was abducted by a group of people from Anwara Park at the Farmgate area in Dhaka and asked for ransom. His father Ruhul Amin came from Panchagarah to RAB-2 office in Dhaka and informed them about his son’s abduction.

The next day, RAB-2 officers phoned Ruhul and claimed that they had arrested two men, namely Babul and Zahid, in this connection. The officers suggested Ruhul to come in person in Dhaka to receive his son from custody.
However, according to Odhikar, a Dhaka based human rights organisation, RAB-2 officers asked Ruhul not to come empty handed, suggesting him to bring Tk one lakh as a ransom for receiving his son back. As Ruhul could not pay the amount to RAB-2 officers, he did not get his son back.

Under the circumstances, Ruhul sought help from NHRC. The commission on May 5, 2012, wrote a complaint to the senior secretary of the home ministry requesting to take necessary action through investigation.

The ministry then assigned RAB to investigate about the complaint brought against its officials. However, it is learnt that there has been no progress of that investigation. Whenever Ruhul contacted the NHRC, they would always blame the home ministry for not sending the report or update about the investigation. Imam meanwhile remains missing.

In addition, a NHRC official says we have received a huge number of complaints from people who have fallen victim of human rights violation during its three years of reconstitution.

Also, a large number of complaints were sent by both Odhikar and ASK to NHRC for their cooperation to take necessary investigation and action against the accused but it is also found that all complaint reports are returned to them as ‘order’ where the commission requests to Ministry of Home Affairs to take necessary action on behalf of Odhikar or ASK.

The role of NHRC thus, appears to be no more than a postman’s job where it gets released only by sending an ‘order’ or recommendation letter to the home ministry.

An official from NHRC, requesting anonymity, tells Xtra, ‘We are not allowed to say anything about the NHRC activities as it is strictly barred by the higher officials. But as human rights activist I do not support such activities of obscurity in NHRC.’

‘If NHRC cannot be transparent and not work as an independent organisation then there is no meaning to run this commission,’ he adds.

However, the commission’s chief has come under questions on several occasions for his controversial commentaries. According to various newspaper reports, on December 31, 2011 at a discussion at Magura district, he said that the number of extrajudicial killing by law enforcers has come down in the country.

On May 30, 2013, the chairman said that the ban on rallies in Dhaka is logical, adding that, the commission finds the order to be in the greater interest of the people and not against the constitutional provision.

It appears that the NHRC is a mouthpiece for the government and at present their role is to save the government from all kinds of responsibilities to provide explanation, says Adilur.

On October 16, 2011, Mizanur commented over the beheading of eight Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia who were accused for killing an Egyptian. He, at a workshop held at the University of Dhaka, said the Saudi Arabia government although violated human rights by beheading Bangladeshis, it has also benefited Bangladesh in a way. According to Mizanur, Saudi Arabia now cannot protest the death penalties for war criminals.

However, on September 29, 2011, the commission’s chairman was prevented by Sylhet Central Jail authorities from entering the jail while he wanted to visit the jail to take stock of the human rights condition of the inmates and forward some proposals to the government for reforms, if need be.

Nur asks, ‘Why did the chairman not take necessary action against the home ministry and why did he not report to the President as the Jail authority did not permit NHRC to enter the jail?’

Limon and his mother

What the act says

The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh was reconstituted in 2009 as a national advocacy institution for human rights promotion and protection. According to the NHRC, it is committed to the accomplishment of human rights in a broader sense, including dignity, worth and freedom of every human being, as enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh and different international human rights conventions and treaties to which Bangladesh is a signatory.

The formation of the commission consisting of a Chairman, who will be the chief executive of the commission, and six members while the chairman and one member will be full time and other members, will be honorary.

In addition to the chairman and members, the commission has one secretary and 27 officers and support staffs.

According to the NHRC Act, under section 6 in chapter 2, the President shall appoint the chairman and members of the commission.

The Act describes functions of commission in chapter 3. The key functions are to inquire suo-moto or a petition presented to it by a victim of human rights violation or abetment caused by a person, state or government agency, institution or organisation.

The commission can visit any jail or any other places where persons are detained or lodged for the purpose of correction, custody, treatment, or such other welfare.

The commission can review the safeguards of human rights or any other law to make recommendation to the government while to examine the draft bills and proposals for new legislation for verifying their conformity with international human rights standards and to make recommendations for amendment to the appropriate authority for ensuring their uniformity with the international human rights instruments.

NHRC can give advice to the government for ratifying or signing the international human rights instruments and to ensure their implementation.

Under section 12 in chapter 3, it says, to enquire and investigate into complaint related to the violation or probability of violation of human rights and resolve the issue through mediation and consensus.

The section also says in its sub-section 1 (m), the commission to advise and assist the government by providing necessary legal and administrative direction for protection and development of human rights.

The commission can only provide legal support to a victim.

However, the commission has no power to take any legal or administrative action against any kind of violation of human rights. They only can investigate the complaints received from directly a victim or from anyone on behalf of victim or from their own suo-moto rule. After investigation and inquiry the commission then will send a recommendation to the government to take necessary action.

Adilur says it is not clear whether NHRC is performing its duties properly and independently to defend human rights violation. The UNDP funds the NHRC only to work for ensuring human rights in the country.

While the people cannot say exactly how a national human rights commission should perform, Adilur says, the least it should be impartial if not in favour of the people at promoting and protecting human rights in Bangladesh.

After the fall of military ruler Ershad’s regime, people expected democracy will be established in this country where they can get social justice, democratic, human and civil rights, says Adilur. They however, seem to be a wishful aspiration.

Despite repeated calls and visits to the office of NHRC last week, its chairman Mizanur Rahman could not be reached for comment about questions surfacing over the role of the commission. Lastly, his office said Mizanur has left for Germany on July 1.

Often the commission has blamed lack of manpower and weakness of the law behind delay in investigation and delivering justice to the victims.

Adilur in response to such explanations, tells Xtra, ‘Then how do they travel around the world and what do they do with the fund? They should then face it that that they cannot work properly and independently.’

As human rights activist Nur tells Xtra, the activities of NHRC are questionable under the ethical values and norms of human rights. Such appointments should not be maintained in political consideration.

‘The appointments of the commission should consists of human rights activists, civil society, journalists, lawyer, educationists and all should be independent, expert and morally responsible in promoting and protecting human rights in Bangladesh,’ he says.

At least three names should be proposed to the President in the post of NHRC chairman which will be suggested by people from all class and profession, Nur suggests.

‘We do not expect a state mouthpiece defending the government on human rights violations,’ says a rights defender. Such activities ruin his chance to be honoured by the general people, the activist concludes.

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