M Jahangir Alam and Abdur Rahman Jahangir
Over 30,000 people have been rounded up and put behind the bar since government embarked on a nationwide ‘war on drug’ from mid-May. According to last reckoning till late June there are now as many as 35,815 people behind bars in drug-related cases. This high figure nearly equates total capacity of holding inmates in Bangladesh’s 68 jails.
Jails across the country are currently overflowing with more than double inmates than their capacity thanks to the wholesale arrest of people during the ongoing anti-narcotic drive, causing immense sufferings to the prisoners.
The jail authorities said they are facing an uphill task to accommodate the growing number of prisoners, especially in the frontier districts, as those are overcrowded with three to four times more inmates than their optimum capacities.
Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Kazi Reazul Hoque and noted right activist Nur Khan voiced deep concern over the violation of prisoners’ human and legal rights in the heavily packed jails.
They said law enforcers should not arrest anyone without any specific allegation while courts need to ensure quick disposal of cases and the judges should consider bail without delay in cases where bails can be granted.
They also think there is no reason to keep people unnecessarily in jail before they are convicted as the trial can be going on keeping the accused out of prisons if they are not hardened criminals and militants.
Sources at the Department of Prisons said the country’s 68 jails have the total capacity of accommodating 36,614 prisoners. But, as of late last month the jail inmates’ number stood at 83,350. Of them, 37 percent are there in jails in drug-related cases.
Among the total prisoners, the officials said, around 35,815 have been put behind bars in drug-related cases. The number of prisoners started rising abruptly when the law enforcing agencies launched the ‘war on drug’ since early May.
Since the crackdown on drug peddlers and addicts got intensified further as many as 30,489 suspected drug traders and users have been arrested in between mid-May to end-June.
According to right bodies’ reckoning over 165 people became victims of ‘extrajudicial killings’ in so called ‘gunfights’ taken place between law enforcers and drug peddlers and their cohorts. Deaths of so many people in such short span of time triggered a public uproar with right bodies and all right-conscious people asking government to show restraint.
Contacted, Assistant Inspector General (Admin) of Prison Headquarters Abdullah Al Mamun said they have long been facing lots of problems due to the sudden rise in inmates in the country’s jails.
Usually, he said, the jails hold double inmates than their capacity, but now the prisons of the country are crammed with too many inmates, beyond holding capacities of the 68 jails.
Replying to a question, Mamun said the jails were holding around 88,000 prisoners during the first week of the June which was the highest number of prisoners in the country’s history. “Several thousand prisoners were released on bail before the Eid-ul-Fitr.”
Even, he said, the number of inmates rose to four times to five times higher than their capacity in some jails, and they have to shift the prisoners to other district jails for accommodation.
As the anti-narcotic special drive will continue, the jail authorities will have to face a serious problem to accommodate the prisoners, a top official at the Department of Prisons said requesting anonymity.
He also said many prisoners who were arrested in drug-related cases are now unwilling to come out of jail on bail fearing further arrest or getting killed by law enforcers in so-called ‘gunfights’ as the drive is still going on.
Contacted, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Kazi Reazul Hoque said the human rights of prisoners are being seriously violated in the overcrowded jails.
“I think the law enforcers should be more careful about arresting people. If we assess the settled cases, we’ll find over 70 percent accused were acquitted, but they suffered imprisonment for a long time. So, no one should be arrested without any specific allegation,” he opined.
Besides, Hoque said procrastination in disposing of the cases or backlog of cases is one of the main reasons behind the rise in jail inmates.
The NHRC Chairman said the judges should be liberal in giving bail to the accused. “The judges should give bail to those who have no possibility to flee the country or influence the cases.”
Human Rights Support Society (HRSS) adviser Nur Khan said jails should be turned into correction centres with various facilities to help inmates to go back to the normal life.
“No one should be imprisoned before getting convicted by the court and steps should be taken to conduct speedy trials of all the cases,” he added.