A jailed BNP leader from Gazipur, Ali Azam, was granted parole for three hours on December 20, to allow him to attend his mother's namaz-e-janaza. An understandable gesture on the part of the authorities, and one that we in this part of the world would certainly never begrudge anyone - not even hardened criminals. The special bond between children and parents is worthy enough to override almost any concern. In fact, attending a parent's funeral is one of the commonest, and most straightforward causes for which temporary, hours-long, or at times daylong parole is awarded.
The only problem in this instance was that Azam remained not only handcuffed, but also shackled in leg irons throughout the duration of his parole. The pathetic image that went viral across all platforms showed him standing in front of his mother's coffin in that state, yet leading the prayer at what must have been her janaza. It almost made you want to reach out to the prison authorities and beseech them: 'Why let him out at all then?'
Notably, the outcry that followed was refreshingly bipartisan. Even Information Minister and principal ideologue Dr Hasan Mahmud - no friend of the BNP certainly, and even less known for being impartial - sounded repulsed. Most of the criticism in the end came to be directed at the police, which you can understand in this situation. Having a man enchained like a slave or some inmate on death row at his mother's funeral is not something that jives with the values we cherish as Bangladeshis. Ideally, a state should embody the values of its citizens. It does so through the conduct of its institutions and agencies. This was so far-removed from that ideal, that it had to disturb us.
Not that the police were in any mood to own up to an oversight on their part. They said the matter of whether a prisoner in Azam's position remains handcuffed or not (as well as shackled, presumably) is at the discretion of the district administration, and the Inspector General of Prisons. They added that they have been maintaining an extra degree of caution in such matters, in light of the embarrassing incident a few weeks ago, when two militants convicted in the 2015 murder of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, staged an audacious escape from right under their noses, while being taken for a court appearance.
But the National Human Rights Commission has since come out with a statement condemning the entire act of 'taking a prisoner to his mother's funeral in handcuffs and leg irons'. Not only that, the NHRC statement signed by its deputy director Farhana Saeed, asserted it was "against the constitution of Bangladesh and fundamental human rights". 'Against the constitution' could of course only mean one of two things: illegal, or unlawful. It goes on to say, "Directives of the High Court regarding who can be handcuffed and when, were not followed." The statement has been backed up by renowned human rights lawyer Z. I. Khan (Panna), who acknowledged the breach of the rules, but also expertly diverts all of the blame for the entire incident (almost) to the 'colonial mindset' that still prevails, and afflicts the police force in Bangladesh.
It is also mightily interesting that Indians and Pakistanis are burdened with that same colonial yoke that we're trying to overturn here. All three at birth inherited the Police Act, 1861, and at least in the early years, the respective police forces were indeed regulated according to its text. The only purpose of such a force at the time, just four years on from the first Indian War of Independence that had to be brutally suppressed, would have been as the means to quell any budding new hopes of independence among the populace before they bore fruit. To that extent, it may have some merits as an instrument to fight crime. But when it comes to embodying the best, along with the most cherished values, of the people whose taxes fund their wages, far too often it leaves a lot to be desired.
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