Cases against BNP-Jamaat leaders: Trials now rolling well into the night
On August 28, when Golam Akter Iqbal finally came out of a Dhaka court, he looked pale, his eyes sunken from fatigue. He had a very long day at the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court-3.
In the packed courtroom, the proceedings began at 10:30am and continued till around 3:45pm. After a break of about 15 minutes, the hearing resumed around 4:00pm and lasted till 8:00pm, three hours beyond the official 9:00am-5:00pm court hours, according to one of his lawyers.
At 71, Iqbal has high diabetes, blood pressure, an enlarged prostate, and a failing vision.
But the ward-level BNP leader also has 52 cases against him, and must present himself before courts for frequent, prolonged hearings in these cases over arson, explosion, vandalism and attack on police.
Iqbal, from the capital's Shantinagar, has spent a good part of the last 10 years in court corridors. But for the last few months, he has been shuttling between courts almost every day except for the holidays.
In the past, hearing dates would be months apart and hardly any prosecution witness would appear to testify. The interval between hearings has now shortened, as the trial is now moving fast upon government instructions to quickly dispose of old cases like those Iqbal is facing.
The Daily Star can confirm seven such night-time trials between August 28 and October 18 – all involving BNP and Jamaat leaders and activists.
On August 28, for example, the court recorded statements of 16 witnesses, all police personnel, in two phases. The hearing of one case against Iqbal lasted from 10:30am to 12:15pm, and that of another from 5:30pm to 8:00pm, the lawyer said, requesting anonymity.
"The court was able to record testimonies of only three witnesses during the office hour. As darkness fell, I pleaded with the court to fix another date to complete recording the witness depositions. But the court continued with the hearing," the lawyer added.
"I have been practising in Dhaka courts for 17 years. I have never seen any night-time trials in my career," said Syed Zaynul Abedin Mesbah, who is not representing Iqbal, but is a defence lawyer for at least 700 cases filed against BNP leaders and activists.
The Daily Star has analysed the court records of the last six hearings in one case and five hearings in another case filed against Iqbal with Bangshal police. The records show the intervals between hearing dates have grown noticeably shorter, even falling within days, since July this year.
In one case, his last six hearings at the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court-3 were on September 20 last year, and January 1, May 22, August 23, August 28 and September 13 this year.
The same court heard the other case on December 15 last year, and April 30, June 11, August 28 and September 19 this year.
Asked about the legality of court proceedings at night, Dhaka Metropolitan Public Prosecutor Abdullah Abu said, "It may have happened once or twice. But when you have such a large number of witnesses before the court, you cannot help but break the norm."
THE RUSH TO FINISH
On October 10, Law Minister Anisul Huq admitted to The Daily Star that the government has instructed the prosecution to take steps for quick disposal of old cases.
"Since there is a backlog of cases, I have asked the public prosecutor's office to be active ... . Otherwise, the trials would not end," he said, adding that the government did not issue any separate order to dispose of the cases against BNP leaders.
But a mid-level police officer, who was present during Iqbal's trial on August 28 to make sure that his junior officers gave their statements "properly", told The Daily Star they have clear instructions from the government to finish off the trials involving BNP and other opposition party leaders before the national election.
The urge on the part of the prosecution to do so is evident in the way proceedings of some 250 cases, filed against top BNP leaders and key activists a decade ago in the capital, are progressing over the last few months.
Many of these leaders are potential candidates in the upcoming election, and their conviction might mean they will be ineligible to contest in the polls.
Multiple lawyers dealing with some of these cases said a number of Dhaka courts have been recording depositions of prosecution witnesses beyond court hours.
Latest on October 18, Metropolitan Magistrate Court-14 held trial proceedings until 8:30pm, Metropolitan Magistrate Court-6 until 8:00pm and Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Court-2 until 7:00pm, lawyers representing the accused BNP and Jamaat leaders and activists told The Daily Star.
The Metropolitan Magistrate Court-14 recorded statements of 11 prosecution witnesses from 1:00pm to 8:30pm in a case filed with Paltan police, said Mohi Uddin Chowdhury, a lawyer for accused BNP leader Rafiqul Alam Majnu.
At the Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Court-2, a defence lawyer for BNP leader Mohammad Adil requested the court to set another date for hearing after the clock struck 5:00pm. But the court rejected the plea and recorded statements of five more prosecution witnesses.
The lawyer, requesting anonymity, said the court did not consider his appeal although he told the court that he was feeling unwell.
BNP leaders say this is proof that the government is using the judiciary to keep their leaders and activists busy in courtrooms, even at nights, before the election.
BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's Adviser Habibur Rahman Habib is one. Along with 18 others, Habib faces a case over alleged vandalism in front of Jamuna Future Park during a political programme on January 4, 2015.
Not a single hearing took place all these years as no prosecution witnesses -- all police members -- appeared before the court, said his lawyer Syed Zaynul Abedin Mesbah.
When witnesses skip hearings repeatedly, the court first sends summons twice, followed by an arrest warrant (courts can issue arrest warrants for witnesses too). When this does not work, the court sends non-bailable arrest warrants first to the police commissioner, then to the police chief and finally to the home ministry, asking them to produce the witnesses before the court to testify.
"In Habib's case, all these legal options were exhausted, but no prosecution witnesses appeared before the court all these years," he said.
Suddenly on August 17, all seven prosecution witnesses, including the investigation officer, came to the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court-3 and testified.
"The testimony began around 4:00pm and continued till 8:30pm," Zaynul said.
On October 9, Habib and several other BNP leaders were sentenced to four years in prison in this case.
Advocate Abu Bakar Siddique, who is representing hundreds of BNP and Jamaat leaders and activists in dozens of cases, also gave a similar account of how cases against opposition men are suddenly coming to life after nearly a decade.
On July 24 and October 1, prosecution witnesses, all of them police officers, appeared before two courts to testify in two cases for the first time since Paltan police filed the cases in 2013 over vandalism and crude bomb explosions.
In the first case, the proceedings lasted eight hours till 8:30pm, with about an hour's lunch break, at Dhaka Metropolitan Special Tribunal-13. The court recorded depositions of seven witnesses in presence of all 13 suspects, including Jamaat leaders Al Amin and Nurul Alam.
In the second instance, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court-2 heard testimonies of nine police officers in a separate case against the 13 over the same incident until around 9:00pm, Abu Bakar said.
Like in the case of Habib, the BNP chairperson's adviser, not a single prosecution witness came to the court over the last one decade despite repeated summonses, arrest warrants, and non-bailable arrest warrants, he added.
'DESPERATE TO PUNISH'
BNP leaders allege the government has taken the move to imprison their leaders and activists to "vacate the field" ahead of the general election.
They say the move also aims to keep thana and ward-level BNP leaders and workers busy in courts so they cannot join the anti-government movement.
"The government is desperate to punish our leaders and workers using the courts to hold an election like the ones in 2014 and 2018," BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told The Daily Star.
He also alleged that since assuming power in 2009, the Awami League government has been using the state machinery in a planned way to file "ghost cases" against thousands of BNP leaders and workers.
There is no official data on the number of cases filed against opposition party leaders and activists.
According to BNP's case record preservation cell, 1,41,636 cases have been filed against 49,26,494 leaders and activists of the party and its affiliated organisations since 2009 till September this year.
The Daily Star could not independently verify the data, but if the BNP count is right, its leaders and activists were sued in 10,000 cases every year or 27 cases every day since Awami League took office in 2009.
In Dhaka division alone, 15,079 cases have been filed against 6.16 lakh leaders and workers during the same period, according to BNP's case record preservation cell.
In different Dhaka courts, trials of around 30 cases are at the final stage, meaning judgments in these cases are expected in the coming months. Recording of witness depositions is underway in some 220 other cases.
Around 15,000 central, thana and ward-level leaders of BNP and its associate bodies are accused in these 250 cases filed between 2012 and 2015, mainly on charges of vandalising and torching vehicles, blasting crude bombs, and obstructing police to carry out their duties.
According to BNP sources, at least 97 leaders and activists of BNP and its front organisations have been convicted and jailed across the country over the last eight months or so. At least 59 of them are from Dhaka, including Jubo Dal Organising Secretary Ishaq Sarkar, former ward councilor Hamidur Rahman and Dhaka city Jubo Dal (north) Convener Sharifuddin Jewel.
BNP leader Amanullah Aman is already in jail on corruption charges. Iqbal Hasan Mahmood Tuku faces an arrest warrant after he was convicted in a graft case and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Lawyers say there are hundreds of BNP leaders and activists who face more than 50 cases each, and their trials have gathered pace. They have to come to the court almost every day for hearings in three to four cases.
Dhaka City (south) Chhatra Dal Joint Convener Golam Rabbani Robin is one of them. A civil engineer, he has lost his job as he needs to appear before the courts almost every day in the 62 cases he faces.
"Brother, I am tired of coming to the court every day. I would rather be hanged than tortured this way," he said.