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Drug case backlog taking its toll

  • Published at 12:04 am February 6th, 2019
Police detained several drug users, along with a huge amount of drugs during an anti-narcotics drive in the capital's Dhalpur area last year Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The High Court has directed lower courts across the country to resolve cases related to narcotics within the next six months

The High Court on Tuesday ordered resolution of all drug cases within six months in the backdrop of long drawn proceedings resulting in backlogs and leading to bail of suspects.

This comes ahead of a deadline for drug dealers to turn themselves in to the authorities on February 16 while the Prime Minister told police top brass to actively strive for completing cases swiftly at an address to mark this year’s police week.

The chronic absence of witnesses compel courts to keep rescheduling which in turn allows prime suspects to cite lengthy proceedings and get out on bail. The HC also observed in its strict order that the trial courts were not active in disposing of the cases.

The HC bench of Justices Enayetur Rahim and Md Mostafizur Rahman passed the order as they heard the bail plea in a three-year old drug case that did could not proceed because witnesses did not appear.

The judges said it would have been possible to resolve the cases quickly if investigation officers could produce witnesses on scheduled dates and if the public prosecutors and judges were sincere.

This HC ruling comes ahead of a looming deadline for drug dealers to surrender. A government move is underway to allow drug dealers to turn themselves in on February 16 following a nine-month ‘war on drug’ that has witnesses 292 deaths, according to Ain O Salish Kendra stats, of drug dealers in ‘gunfights’ with law enforcers between May and December of 2018.

In its stern ruling, the High Court ordered investigation officers (IO) to be active and also asked the trial courts to inform the deputy commissioners (DC) and police superintendents (SP) in case of IO negligence. The DCs and SPs for their part were ordered to oversee the issue of absent witnesses.

Tuesday’s HC order further directed trial courts to inform a Supreme Court committee explaining why they failed to finish trial drug cases within the stipulated timeframe. The trail courts were even ordered to report negligence of public prosecutors.

This strict order was passed during a bail plea of one Mijanur Rahman, who has been in jail because of a narcotics from December 2015 in Madaripur. Police submitted chargesheet two years ago but the trial could not proceed because none of the witnesses appeared in the hearing.

 Where do cases get stuck?

Legal practitioners said it was difficult to charge suspects successfully as they are released on bail citing delayed proceedings. The said once the suspects are out, they take advantage of the situation and resume with their drug business.

Shahdeen Malik, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, blames under-qualified prosecution and their lack of efficiency for the case backlog.

“Public prosecutors are not qualified enough to deal with criminal cases as they are appointed based on their political affiliation. This is why we need to introduce an independent service for public prosecutors,” he said.

He said it was impossible to resolve cases without witness testimony. “But if the police fail to produce witnesses, how is a judge supposed to deliver a verdict?”

Also Read- HC to lower court: Resolve narcotics cases within 6 months

The chief public prosecutor at Dhaka Metropolitan Session Judge’s Court Abdullah Abu, however, said prosecutors could hardly be blamed for the lengthy proceedings when most witnesses are reluctant to testify.

He said another reason was that most of these witnesses moved around a lot and do not inform the police when changing addresses. “Hence, when the trial starts – say six or seven months after a case has been filed – they [the witnesses] cannot be found.”

He also claimed that witnesses are often coerced into changing sides or bought off.

Sources at the police headquarters say investigation officers are often transferred by the time they are summoned to testify. With missing witnesses and transferred officials, courts are compelled to keep rescheduling dates.

Police officials said mobile phone numbers could come handy in locating missing witnesses and suggested that the information be recorded in case documents.

As of June 2018, 425,000 narcotics cases have been filed, and as many as 250,000 have been on trial since 2011.

Law enforcement officials as well as lawyers blamed the long drawn proceedings on systemic flaws, lack of coordination among the related parties and witness reluctance.

Also Read- PM: Settle police cases fast to ensure justice

Added to these reasons are faulty first information reports, contradicting witness accounts and failure to produce neutral witnesses that result over 60% acquittals.

Rights activists expressed their concern, saying many of the accused could be innocent, and may have been imprisoned for weeks and months without any access to legal recourse.

How many prisoners?

At least four out of every ten prisoners are accused in drug cases. Although the Dhaka Tribune could not secure the latest number of prisoners and those accused in drug cases. But as of July 19, 2018, about 43% prisoners, approximately 37,000 people, were behind bars for drug cases. This number alone exceeds the capacity of jails in entire Bangladesh.

Of those inmates, at least 5,725 were convicted, and more than 22,000 were undergoing trial, jail sources said. Among them, 35,842 were men and 1,500 women.

According to the authorities, Bangladesh’s 68 jails can accommodate 36,614 prisoners but were holding 88,722 prisoners in July 2018.

Also Read- TIB lauds PM's call for protecting the innocent

The number of prisoners have risen drastically after the countrywide anti-narcotics drive last year.

Noted human rights activist Sultana Kamal said about two-thirds of prisoners were languishing in jails without trial.

“We are violating the basic human right that prevents detention or arrest without trial,” she said.

PM wants police to play special role to complete case proceedings promptly

 Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday told the authorities concerned to resolve cases efficiently and on time to ensure swift justice.

“You must strive to be a people-friendly police force by building confidence and trust among the citizens,” she said while addressing senior police officials at the Prime Minister’s Office in Dhaka marking Police Week 2019.

The prime minister stated it is a fact that police cases are not completed on time and there are impediments to smooth court proceedings.

“So, you will have to play a special role in monitoring and completing proceedings promptly,” she added.