Bangladesh’s High Court has cleared the way for family members of people who died while in the custody of a joint security force more than a decade ago to seek justice against those responsible for their deaths.
The court on Sunday scrapped the Indemnity Act of 2003, which had shielded members of the joint force immunity from prosecution, with a two-judge bench ruling that the law violated the Bangladeshi constitution’s basic tenets.
“The law put the joint forces above the law. The verdict proved once again that nobody is above the law,” Supreme Court lawyer Shahdin Malik told BenarNews.
“The court also gave the victims’ relatives the right to seek compensation from the state, which never happened before.”
The Indemnity Act had made it impossible for affected people to go after the perpetrators legally, Deputy Attorney General Motahar Hossain Saju said.
“The police also refused to take any case. The verdict has now opened the door for the aggrieved to seek justice against those who were responsible for killing their loved ones,” Saju told BenarNews.
Not so clean?
The court ruled in favor of a writ petition filed in 2012 by Supreme Court lawyer Z.I. Panna, which challenged the act’s legality.
The joint force of police officers, military personnel, and soldiers with the Bangladesh Rifles had taken part in “Operation Clean Heart,” during the course of which 57 people died between Oct. 16, 2002 and Jan. 9, 2003, the petitioner had noted.
The then-Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government launched the operation in the name of upholding national security and clamping down on terrorism and illegal arms nationwide. In February 2003, the government adopted the Indemnity Law in order to grant joint-force members immunity, but that move drew protests from legal experts and rights activists.
In their verdict, justices Moyeenul Islam Chowdhury and Ashraful Kamal said that every human being had an inherent and fundamental right to life and that no one could be deprived of that constitutional right, according to news reports.
“Torture and death in law enforcers' custody is not permitted by the law,” news reports quoted the court as saying in its ruling.
“Nobody, including the president, prime minister, judges and law enforcement personnel of the country is above the law,” the court added.
“Under the constitution, a hardened criminal is also entitled to seek justice from the court.”
The BNP, which is now the main opposition party, gave no formal reaction to the High Court’s ruling. But a senior lawyer and adviser to BNP Chairwoman Khaleda Zia agreed with the ruling.
“We do not endorse any extrajudicial killing, no matter under whose tenure in power it was committed. Punishment should be meted to any overenthusiastic member of the law enforcement agencies who committed murder,” lawyer Khandker Mahbub Hossain told BenarNews.
He added that extrajudicial killings were also taking place under the present government.
“This ruling should serve as a warning to those who are committing these crimes now. There’s no reason for them to believe that they can get away with these crimes in future,” he said.
Older indemnity law
The High Court also observed that another ordinance had previously been promulgated to protect those who assassinated the nation’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of his family members in 1975, from prosecution.
In 1979, parliament ratified the ordinance under the military rule of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the husband of Khaleda Zia, through the fifth constitutional amendment that also legitimized his rule.
But that law was not repealed until Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister and the daughter of the slain leader, came to power in 1996.
In 2010, five of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s killers were hanged after being convicted by the Supreme Court. At least five of his other alleged killers are believed to be hiding overseas.