EDITORIAL: How can a woman just die in police custody?

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - The widespread impunity enjoyed by law enforcers must end if we are to profess to be a country that still believes in and upholds the rule of law.

We demand immediate and impartial investigation into the death of a woman in police custody, only a few hours after she was picked up by the Detective Branch of police in Gazipur on February 18. Her family claims she was being beaten up even before she was taken into custody, when the DB came looking for her husband. Her 17-year-old son told reporters that he saw injury marks on her legs, arms and some other parts of the body. In characteristic style, however, the police has denied any responsibility, claiming she "fell sick" and was later taken to the hospital. The hospital's Residential Medical Officer apparently told reporters that there were no injury marks on her body and that she had probably died from a cardiac arrest.    

Even if we are to take the medical officer's claim at face value, the fact remains that a woman in good health died from inexplicable reasons within a few hours of being picked up by the DB. What happened in those hours? If she did indeed have a cardiac arrest, what could have led to such an event? We must not forget that she was in police "custody" and as such the responsibility to prove that she did not die from unnatural causes lies with the police.

We must also ask whether the DB had enough grounds to take her into custody in the first place. The Supreme Court issued guidelines on May 24, 2016 following the death of Shamim Reza Rubel in police custody to stop law enforcement agencies from making arbitrary arrests on suspicion and torturing arrestees on remand. Were all the guidelines followed? These are questions that must be asked and answered, through an impartial investigation.

A three-member committee has already been formed to investigate the incident. While we hope that the committee will do its due diligence and submit an impartial report about the incident, past allegations of custodial deaths do not give us much hope. Last year alone, according to rights body Ain O Salish Kendra, a total of 14 people died in custody after arrest; six people died due to torture before arrest; 12 died from bullet injuries; and at least 58 inmates in different jails died of diseases and other reasons. How many such incidents have been investigated and law enforcers held accountable? The answer, unfortunately, is none. Instead, the police has repeatedly asked the government to amend the Torture and Custodial Death (Protection) Act-2013 to make it less restrictive.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) has asked the government to ensure that its authorities, preferably independent bodies, carry out prompt, impartial and effective criminal investigations into all complaints of torture, ill-treatment, unacknowledged detention, and death in custody. We must ask the government to do the same. The widespread impunity enjoyed by law enforcers must end if we are to profess to be a country that still believes in and upholds the rule of law.

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