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A tortured image

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by rahnuma ahmed

I AM against torture. Nothing justifies torture. This is a principled stand, there are no ifs and buts.
But why is it that when I see a recent picture of Tarique Rahman, son of ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia, his face screwed up in sheer agony, I feel no empathy, no compassion? Why do I not allow myself to dwell on his pain? Why do I shut it out, turn to another news item, or turn the pages of the newspaper?

Why does a picture of this torture victim leave me cold?
His medical report (18.06.2008), records, among other illnesses, two fractured discs, D6 and D7. During a remand hearing on January 9 this year, Tarique claimed that he had been physically and mentally tortured. He was unable to stand in the dock, and had to be given a chair. Last week (15.06.08), his lawyer Rafiqul Islam Miah told an anti-graft court hearing that his client was in severe pain, that he could not stand or be seated for more than three minutes. The court was also informed that while in remand, Tarique had been tortured ‘in the most inhumane way’, he was ‘physically impaired’, and might be crippled for life if he did not receive immediate treatment, preferably abroad.
Several days later, a news item catches my eye, Tarique’s spinal problem is an old one, say intelligence agents (Shamokal, 24.06.08). They claim it dates back to 2005. The very next day, members of his medical board express their disquiet (Shamokal, 25.06.08). Dr Idris Ali, associate professor of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, BSMMU says X-ray, CT scan and MRI examinations have revealed disc fractures. The injury, he says, could have been caused either by falling down, or by a blunt instrument. A faculty member of the same department tells Shamokal, the 2005 report is not inaccurate. But the complaint, he says, was an easily curable one. Six weeks of rest; unlike his present complaint. Another medical board member, unwilling to disclose his name, says, to imply that Tarique’s spinal problem is a recurrence of the old one, indicates ‘a lack of respect’ toward the board’s expert opinion.
Around me I hear people muttering, ‘Why only two, they could have broken several more, for all I care.’ ‘I don’t feel sorry for him.’ ‘He deserves what he got.’ A CNG driver tells me, `Yes, this government is making a mess of things, but I can’t get over the pleasure of seeing him detained.’
Tarique was generally not liked. Not at all. Scores of grievances flew all around. He was a novice to politics but was nominated the BNP senior joint secretary general in one go. Not a minister himself, he was reputed to be the most powerful man in Bangladesh (from 2001-2006), to have run a parallel government from Hawa Bhaban. Cabinet members flocked there, they waited on him, attempting to curry favour with the man nicknamed the Crown Prince. His bunch of cronies milked many others dry. CNG auto rickshaw drivers of Dhaka city hated his guts. Many accused him of sucking their blood dry. The costs of new CNGs were set at 3,50,000 takas, instead of its actual price of 75,000 takas. This had led to CNG owners upping the daily rent from CNG drivers many times over, in order to recover their purchase costs. He was also reputed to be ruthless. I was talking things over with a close friend who insisted, ‘… and Tarique can’t get away by saying that much of it was fabricated by his political enemies. The fact that he did not try to undo people’s perceptions of him is itself very serious, after all, we are talking of institutional politics.’
I am against torture. I have always been against torture, and yet I have no sympathy for Tarique Rahman who, in all likelihood, is now a victim of torture.
This ambivalence in me is new. I see it reflected in others. People I know well, and also others who are new to me, who I come across in street corners, stores, tea-stalls ? no, I don’t see anyone shedding tears over fractured discs. I do hear distress expressed over a passenger who was recently run over in Dhaka city, in an altercation over one taka with the bus driver and conductor. I hear sorrow expressed over other incidents that people read about in the papers but Tarique’s ill health? No. Is it part of the ill-famed minus-two plan? Who knows? I remember reading somewhere that ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia has agreed to leave, but stiff bargaining is taking place over who should leave first. It seems that the government wants her to leave first. Only then will her sons be allowed to go abroad for treatment. Political speculation is rife. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction. What concerns me more is our mixed feelings over torture.
Was this foreseen, that the torture of an intensely disliked political figure, one who was perceived by many to be the chief cause of the downward swing in the BNP’s popularity, would turn out to be a torture overlooked? Did this calculation feed into the decision to torture? If so, are not both parties equally sinful? How can chipping away at principles, that torture is inhumane, that it is evil per se, help to build a democratic society?

Is torture incidental?

Or is it systemic to the state in Bangladesh? Investigative studies carried out by both national and international human rights organisations, accounts delivered by scholars, activists and victims of torture, testify to the fact that torture and ill-treatment ‘particularly during the initial period of interrogation in police custody’ is all pervasive, that it is endemic in Bangladesh. This is equally true for all manners of regimes (civil, military) that have governed the land since independence. This is equally true for both single party, and alliance governments, that have ruled Bangladesh since the overthrow of the Ershad regime. Studies and accounts testify to the fact that the meting out of torture has, thus far, been inherent to the relations of ruling in Bangladesh. A more recent study (M Rafiqul and S M Solaiman, 2004) has argued that custodial tortures leading to deaths and irreparable bodily injuries increased alarmingly in the period after the October 2001 elections.
To turn to the issue of remand, according to the law, the venue of custody during remand can be no place other than the police station. But, as most Bangladeshis know, remand victims are often enough taken to the cantonment, or to unknown locations. Often, they are interrogated by police-army joint cells, notorious for their brutality and savagery. Incumbent governments exploit the police by getting them to arrest political dissidents. The police itself, on the other hand, exploit ordinary citizens, who are often enough randomly picked up, falsely implicated in cases, and then offered the choice of either paying up, or being put in remand.
Victims of torture speak of various methods that are applied: being given urine to drink when thirsty; being kept sleepless for days; being drowned in high-pressured water while hands are tied-up and faces covered; being hung upside down and beaten on the soles of the feet with batons and metal bars; of nails being hammered into fingers; hot water-filled bottles being pushed through the rectum; being beaten in a manner which damages the muscles but leaves no outward indication; pouring acid; drilling into the body with a drill machine.
A recently-published account of torture under remand is provided by Bidisha, ex-wife of ex-president HM Ershad (Shotrur Shonge Boshobash, May 2008). Her detailed account is chilling because of the brutality that it describes, a brutality that is deeply gendered, and sexualised (curiously enough, this was toward the end of Khaleda Zia’s regime). Midway through her account of torture, she wonders, the men who tortured me must have gone home to their wives and children. They must have caressed them as people do caress their loved ones. Could his wife tell, could their children tell what deeds these very hands had performed? I do not know whether the families of torturers here have to bear the brunt of what they do. Testimony from other places indicate that they do. Frantz Fanon, Algerian psychiatrist and theorist, in The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of a French police inspector who tortured not only colonised Algerians, but also his wife and children. ‘The patient dislikes noise. At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact, he does hit his children, even the baby of twenty months, with unaccustomed savagery. But what really frightened him was one evening when his wife had criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much… He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself “I’ll teach her once and for all that I’m master in this house.”‘
Torture is pervasive.

Dismantling the house of torture

Social classes are described as relationships of exploitation that endure. Likewise, torture in Bangladesh. It endures changes in government, in systems of ruling, in the legitimacy provided for ruling. Dismantling it won’t be easy. Those committed to doing so insist that the torturers be identified, and punished. Likewise, that those who are higher-up, those who order it, not be given any impunity.
And what about Tarique Rahman? Can we ever forgive him? Will his experience as a victim bring a sea-change in him? If and when he returns to a normal life, will he be remorseful? Will he turn into a defender of human rights? That remains to be seen.
First published in New Age on 26th June 2008

Published inBangladeshGovernanceHuman rightspoliticsRahnuma AhmedSouth Asia


  1. Ahsan Ahsan

    Nice piece!! Torture is not part of any justice system as far as I know or seem to understand. I believe it is detrimental to the system and brings more injustice than justice to aggregate humanity.

  2. Imran Imran

    Is the “torture” on Tarek Rahman substantiated?
    I saw a TV news item a couple of day ago concerning his back problem. Apparently it’s an old ailment, confirmed by a medical report and the doctor who wrote the report.
    Moreover, someone told that the PG Hospital specialists are dominated by the BNP-backed DAB chaps. So any medical report on Tarek authored by them would lack credibility.
    On the other hand, have heard so many stories about the famous torture cell run by joint forces…
    Don’t know what or who to believe!

  3. Roman Roman

    My implusive reaction to the write up is, I am not ambivalent about that tortured face as the writer is, I am rather elated (I am sure every one should be) and am with the CNG driver and trust me I was the same when I heard sheikh Hasina could have lost her ear and I gurantee you I will remain the same if the list grows longer with khaleda, Nizami, Nasim and so ….on. I have plenty of issues in my country that brings tears in my eyes and certainly they are not these pieces of sh……t.

  4. Robin Khundkar Robin Khundkar

    Thanks Rahnuma for so courageously writing about this issue. I too feel the same way about Tariq. Our base human instincts to see violence perpretrated on people and things that we dislike is at play. I think we have no option but de-personalize and strive for the ideal of fair play and due process. It will be hard to do but if we dont do it we are nothing better than savages.

  5. Mustafizur Rahman Mustafizur Rahman

    If one takes a survey in Bangladesh today of peoples’ genuine reaction by showing this picture of Tariq’s grimace in pain, I think hardly any one will be moved to tears. This is Allah’s way of teaching the powerful when they forget that tables can be turned in no time. Just imagine the audacity of this man who had made a blue print to come back to power through the 22 January 2007 elections !! He was already an MP unopposed !! Any one who feels any symphathy for him should contemplate what would have happened if those elections were to go ahead. How many deaths of innocent people we would have witnessed? And for how long? There would have been at least five years of turmoils in the country. And many torture chambers would have sprung from the devilish brain of the man pictured here. I am a witness to the ill effects of interference by this man in our diplomatic services. The image of Bangladesh in a country was pulled down to the lowest levels !! So those who have any respect for our country, I would say save your crocodile tears. MR

  6. Syed Rahman Syed Rahman

    I understand the points the author tried to make, but I humbly disagree with the conclusions she drew. When we say we should uphold the human rights issues, it should be done without any prejudice. Does it really matter how Tarique is being handled (or tortured?) now in the cell and what difference would it make to the lives of the general mass? Even if the process could somehow make Tarique repent and make him a superhuman when he comes back to normal life ever, will it give us back what we lost because of his alleged “misrule”?
    The CNG driver is not the only one who believes that Tarique is responsible for all “evils” that took place between 2001 and 2006. Many believe that his intervention with our election system actually brought this 1/11 and that is making us pay even more because of their perceived “inexperience” in managing our economy and certain “hidden agenda”. They simply failed to prove any major allegations brought against Tarique or anyone else for that matter that we have been hearing from our journalists friends during the past regime or even now. The danger is – this will eventually make him a “Hero” which could turn him into a monster!
    I think we should have been very strict in maintaining the legal way of detecting the misdeeds and collect evidence accordingly. This may give us a chance to find out the real truth and the accomplices of Tarique who are now acting as “holier than the pope”. This would also ensure a punishment in course of time. Else, once the emergency is lifted, everything would be shown as statements taken under duress and will have no legal effect and he will be free again and receive hero’s welcome from his party-stalwarts! Is this what we wanted? If that is the case, then being ambivalent to such tortures carries no danger and we can “safely dwell” in injustice and misrule as we used to do in the past.

  7. sotacit sotacit

    Rahnuma Ahmed’s words are, as always, quite profound. But even more powerful, possibly, are the comments on this site.
    First, here’s a thought for all of you who worry about Tareq Rahman coming back to state power: if after keeping a man jailed for sixteen months and breaking his spinal cord, he is still able to transcend that and return to our political scene, then maybe, just maybe, that is where he belongs.
    Then, of course, there are those of my fellow Bangladeshis, who would like the whole lot tortured: Tareq, Khaleda, Hasina, Nijami, and so forth. I hope that the Almighty, in his wisdom, opens your hearts to humanity and empathy.

  8. Mustafizur Rahman Mustafizur Rahman

    In response to the comments by Sotacit let me state that if a vile person reaches the top of the ladder does not mean he deserves that place. Tareq’s contemporaries have judged him. And their unified judgement: he is guilty as charged. Method of gauging their judgement: their mute appreciation to his present fate. No street protests to free him. No write ups singing his virtues barring a few die-hard supporters like Khondokar Delawar Hossain. But that is also understandable. This is his way of investing in future. Just in case the tables turn again, then he will reap his harvest. Another vile strategy !! As for history to judge Tareq, we will wait to see that if we live that long.
    Sotacit has invoked the Almighty ” to open our hearts to humanity and empathy”. The same Almighty has decreed ” an eye for an eye,” unless pardoned. Only those who have suffered directly or indirectly at the hands of Tareq and his goons will comprehend the pain. Its easy for others to advocate for mercy. And this nation has continued to suffer because collectively they have time and again pardoned their oppressors, and also for their collective amnesia. Let their be a “French Revolution” where the guilty were guillotined in public and that brought an era where no more had to be guillotined. Those blood soaked guillotines are still displayed in museums the world over for the subsequent generations to see and take lessons. Those who have taken the correct lessons have not repeated the same fate. If Sotacit imagines that Tareq and his cohorts may be able to return to the political scene, then the question that begs answer is, will that be possible through a truly democratic manner? In the next elections will he be returned as an unopposed MP by the peaople of Bogra? If you feel that it is possible then no use reasoning. MR

  9. Actually, “an eye for an eye” is from the Old Testament.
    You say that the fact that there are no street protests show that the public condone his treatment? But look at the Bangladesh around us nowdays. In this state of emergency, Bangladeshis are getting bludgeoned and brutalised every day, just for trying speak up for their basic rights. Workers of jute mills in Khulna are starved and beaten up by the police as their factory is closed. In Feni, a police vs. people fight got so fierce that Feni’s SP, Harun Hazari, had to be rescued from the angry populace, by the joint forces. Everyday, workers of different garments are coming out in the streets to protest their lack of pay. Coming out in the streets, and getting bludgeoned by the police.
    In this situation, when no one’s livelihood is safe and getting the basic essentials means standing for house in front of a BRD-run shop, who will speak out for Tareq Rahman, when we can not even speak out for ourselves?

  10. Mustafizur Rahman Mustafizur Rahman

    The quote could be from the Old Testament but what is meant here is that the Almighty’s justice system also allows for ‘a life for a life’, though He is also the Most Merciful. Societies which have adhered to this directive have seen much fewer wanton killings. Those which have not – shown mercy to murderers – senseless killings are repeated frequently. Strict punishments save lives. One murderer hanged in public after due justice will save many others. The Western concept of pardoning the guilty brought into our system has been one of the causes of its decadence. In Saudi Arabia three persons guilty of raping and murdering a girl were hanged in public. Their dead bodies were left for public view on high cranes for three days. The effect? No such rape and murder reported for the next six and half years !! You think that is bad? To whom will your sympathies go? To the murdered girl or to the rapists whose bodies were displayed? So save your sympathies. As for right to protest, those were muzzled during so-called full democratic systems too. Were protesters not beaten up during that period? Haven’t people risen up against injustice during Emergency rule too? So if they felt so bad about Tareq/Koko they would come out on the streets despite the ban. Thats the truth.

  11. gypsy gypsy

    As usual the supporters of AL is the most vocal in news papers and all the media outlets but they are also the cause of ALs continuous defeat in elections in bangladesh.
    But luckily most ordinary people of bangladesh know hypocracy of these people.

  12. That you are a supported of Saudi Arabia’s justice system, where people may be tried in secret, without a lawyer, and sentenced to death, and where the punishment for killing a woman can be half that of killing a man, is entirely consistent with your views about torture in Bangladesh.

  13. #11
    In the same just state of Saudi Arabia, you need 3 people(read: men) to testify that you have, in fact, been raped and brutalized.
    The French Revolution was a revolution of the people, not of elites and their arms in the army. The people rose in 1789 for liberty, equality and fraternity. The SOE imposed on 1/11 took away all our civil liberties, created further social divisions by giving undemocratic power to an unelected government and their civil society backers, and took charge at the very essence of fraternity by trying to break up the political parties. 1971 was more akin to 1789. 1/11 is more of a case of Marie Antoinette taking power back from the people and using her own judgement of ‘let them eat cake’ to provide justice to people. We’ve lost more freedoms and rights post 1/11 and than pre. We can kill all the Tariques in the country in the name of justice, but the fact of the matter remains, that really makes little difference to the masses. The only purpose it serves is give some people the sadistic pleasure of watching a despot being taken apart by his own tools. The master’s tool cannot dismantle the master’s house..the tools can only be used to strengthen the house of torture.

  14. Lot of lacking has to go to the politicians account no doubt but what we have achieved during last 36 years all are contributed by our honorable politicians – is it not? About torture I dont have any comment because I dont know why torture is occurred? Legally a man will be punished after judgement no harm, why before judgement we loves to call some one criminal or corrupted, is it not injustice? By any means if we allow injustice for other, why not I will suffer for that? I hope, all respective writer kindly try to realize the opinion what I passed.

  15. Mustafizur Rahman Mustafizur Rahman

    The question was whether torture to Tareq Rahman is justified. This man or the likes of him – in any Party for that matter – can never be punished in the normal courts of law for the harm they do to the body politic. So? Does that mean he should not taste the pie he made? The picture above shows him tasting just that. Gypsy – any one criticising Tareq and his deeds should not automatically be lumped into the AL camp. Bad apples in any Party should be criticised. As for the justice system in Saudi Arabia – at least it has kept the social rot like we are in, in check. What is bad about it? In management I read once, that the best test of a city’s governance effectiveness is if a young, beautiful woman can walk alone at the middle of the night from one end of the city to the other with out any fear. In Riyadh she can. If at all, she will be stopped by the police to enquire what compels her out alone at that hour. But not by a molester or rapist. So here the end justifies the means. 1/11 is certainly not the French Revolution. The reference was brought in support of strict punishment to the criminals. The French then did not go for arresting their elites, sending them to VIP jails and treatment in VIP cabins and starting a slow and long process of judgement. They just got hold of the Marie Antoinettes and killed them. You don’t seem to criticise that. Because – the end justifies the means. As stated earlier, the French did not have to guillotine any one since. Is that bad? So to the writer – torture, nay even summary executions are required in the greater interest of humanity at times. All you have to do is come and see the sufferings of the people first hand instead of sitting in far away lands of Bushes and Blairs and passing judgements in favour of criminals.

  16. sotacit sotacit

    If a young and beautiful woman is found walking in the middle of the night in Riyadh, she will be arrested and lashed. It is illegal for women to be outside without their male relatives after a certain time in Saudi Arabia.
    All of us who protest against torture do so out of the belief that the ends do not justify the means. If you disagree on that point, you are entitled to your opinion.
    Actually, once the French started killing people using the guillotine, they kept using it, until all those who had so enthusiastically sent people to be guillotined, such as Robespierre, had been guillotined themselves, and their nation was back under a military dictatorship/absolute monarchy. A good lesson for us, I think.

  17. Mustafizur Rahman Mustafizur Rahman

    If a young and beautiful woman is found alone a night in Riyadh she will NOT repeated NOT automatically be arrested and lashed. Those who believe this are motivated and biased by a certain thought process. Torture to people who have tortured others is legal. The example of French revolution’s end result by sotacit proves again that to end torture, once and for all is to torture the same people who have tortured others. The debate started with the picture of Tareq Rahman grimacing in pain. And the writer expressed her sympathy for him – albeit indirectly. The question is, does he deserve any for what he and his cohorts have done to this country? Spare the rod and spoil the child is a time tested idiom. Mustafizur Rahman

  18. P Munshe P Munshe

    Rehnuma prove herself dangerous and detrimental for her thought. Immaturity in realising social human issue made her dangerous. Being an anthropologist we expect her to be sensetive and critical in social human issue. But, she slaps our natural expectation.
    Let’s assume and say, Tareq’s political role for our society is seriously harmful. Even Having this assumption at hand, through the comments and write up, Rehnuma defeats herself not Tareq as a torture victim.
    However, Rehnuma benifited us a lot. Her write up instigated us (as we see most of the commetators here above)to expose our deep inside which is full with facist ideas.
    Rehnuma could have say, I have no sympathy seeing Tareq’s tortured face, I denounce Tareq’s political role and deeds. Personally I don’t like a potical Tareq. But Still I don’t want to see a tortured Tareq. Torture is wrong. I stand by Tareq just because he has been tortured.
    Only then Rehnuma could say, I have taken a Principle Stand against torture. Obviously that would have been meaningful.
    But we see here the commantators including Rehnuma arguing proving Tareq’s personal nature, political role in the name of Principle Stand. None the commantors realises through this attitide and mental make up we are providing justification to our represive State. We are in help building a represive State. Our society become partizan, deviding along partizan line not along Political ideas.
    Let’s immagine, Awami League isssue a statement saying like, Tareq should not be tortured. Nobody should undergo Torture in custody. We have no sympathy seeing Tareq’s tortured face, We denounce Tareq’s political role and deeds. He should brought under justice. Our legal system should examine throughly Corruption Charge against him. It is not a question of personally liking or disliking Tareq.
    That would unite are society on a Principal Stand, our politics rose up a stage advance. We could help building a National State, a step forword to a democratic State. With all our political differance we all including political parties would be benifited.

  19. asif asif

    this is a very bad thing hasina done. she should know that , like khaleda, she also has a child (joy) and tareq is not that poor, he should take his revenge, if he is not, then his supporters and deligated fans will surely wait for the chance to crush JOY. and its abvious !!!
    how long Joy can hide himself…ha ha ha

  20. […] I myself do not know whether the families of torturers here bear the brunt of what they do. Testimony from other places indicate that they do. Frantz Fanon, Algerian psychiatrist and theorist, in The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of a French police inspector who tortured not only colonised Algerians, but also his wife and children. ‘[o]ne evening when his wife…criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much… He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself `I’ll teach her once and for all that I’m master in this house.” (A tortured image, New Age, June 26, 2008). […]

  21. rebecca smith rebecca smith

    I know this article is years old, but I wonder, the author never did continue with the theme of his own lack of empathy towards
    the victim of torture?in this case. ?
    Of course there are always people we feel LESS sympathy for, since many victims of torture are either innocent people, victims
    of political power mongers who are tortured for simply speaking out against tyranny. ?But I very rarely would have the ability
    to feel NO empathy for people who are tortured or who are in pain. ?I sometimes feel it is a WEAKNESS on my part, that I can
    feel pity on bad people who are suffering, even if it’s not torture and just regular consequences of legal consequences of bad
    actions – when I see their fear or terror, or their crying – I feel a sharp pang of pity. ?At that moment, all I see is another person
    in pain.
    The fact that one is ‘against’ torture but feels nothing for particular victims ‘they don’t like’ is troubling. ?I think it’s also proof
    that there are some people who deserve it, but the problem is WHO DECIDES WHO DESERVES what? ?People are messed up,
    and let’s admit it MEN PARTICULARLY because they are usually the arbiters of torture, rape, murder, war, etc., and once given
    that kind of power – it tends to get abused.
    I wonder, was there any conclusion or closure to the author’s realization of his own hypocrisy??

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