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'I Would Rather Die Than Go Back': We Spoke to an Opposition Activist on the Run About Life in Bangladesh's Jails

Thousands of activists have been jailed during three months of nationwide opposition protests, many swept up in mass arrests, and the country's prisons are bursting at the seams.
April 9, 2015, 2:05pm
Image via AFP/Getty

Rimon Khan has been on the run for more than two months now. The 31-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is an activist from Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, the student wing of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is currently leading the political protests that have paralyzed the country since January.

"I have been arrested and been sent to prison twice since 2012," he said to VICE News over the phone. "I would rather die than spend a third term in prison," he added.


Like Khan, numerous activists of the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and other parties of the opposition alliance are trying to escape arrest by law enforcement agencies. The alliance has been been staging a blockade along with nationwide strikes since January 6, in protest at Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's refusal to resign and call fresh elections after she won the 2014 vote boycotted by the opposition. Hasina insists she will serve a full term, and has instructed security forces to take "any action to be deemed necessary" to put down the unrest which has brought the country to the brink.

Thousands have been detained on charges of vandalizing vehicles and buildings, and over the arson attacks which have targeted more than 1,200 vehicles in the country, killing 95 people to date. Just two weeks into the protests, 7,500 opposition activists had been arrested, according to authorities - who have since stopped releasing figures. The BNP-led alliance puts the number of arrests at several thousand more.

Many of those have been falsely accused, critics say, with police often sweeping up large numbers of people in relation to just one incident and slapping them with unrelated charges once in detention. Local human rights NGOs also report that opposition activists have fallen victim to forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings by police, with 15 deaths in custody in the first month of protests alone.


In all, the death toll from three months of unrest stands at more than 150, and human rights groups have called on both sides to show restraint. NGO Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) said in a statement that "the continuous arsons and 'extra-judicial killings' are seriously diminishing citizens' fundamental rights." It also accused law enforcement agencies of "excessive coercion" and "mass arrests."

Khan claimed that security forces are tracking the activists through their cellphones. "That is how officials of the detective branch of Bangladesh police had caught me along with 27 others from different areas of Mirpur in Dhaka on December 20, 2012," he alleged to VICE News.

Charged with mugging, vandalism and extortion - all of which Khan strongly denies - he was sent to court for an initial hearing. "We were shown as the accused in 16 false cases. The court allowed initially three days and later another day's remand to the police to interrogate us," he alleged.

After the second bout of remand was over, the 28 were again placed in court. Having failed to gather sufficient evidence, the police were forced to reduce the charges, and Khan was found guilty and given a custodial sentence for extortion. "Most of us had fractured limbs, and illnesses from wounds after the remand. As the court deemed us 'physically unfit' for more remand time as the police had sought yet again, we were sent to prison," he said. The exact details of the accusations against him were never explained, he claimed, though he said that in court he received the impression they related to alleged extortion from businesses.


Khan spent much of the next nine months of his prison term in Dhaka Central jail. "It is an entirely different world in there, with a hidden economy that accepts cigarettes as a second currency after money," he recalled.

The "business with prisoners" begins as soon as a new inmate enters the jail, he said. "Each cell has a sardar (main man), who makes money from the inmates of the cell," he said.

He explained that the prisoners on life sentences are usually the ones occupying the most powerful positions inside the prison, and force other inmates to pay them weekly sums. "Prisoners get money sent to them by their families," he explained.

Khan was sent to the jail's Monihar block, where prisoners with past political involvement are often held, he said.

"The Monihar block was overloaded with around 400 prisoners, where it had capacity to hold 60 to 100," he explained, adding that the overcrowding made it tough to sleep.

"You have to pay money to sleep comfortably," he said. If an inmate could not pay they adopted the position known as the "Ilish file," sleeping flat on their backs - "you cannot even turn on your side lest you bump into the next prisoner" - or the "Kechki file" - when a number of prisoners intertwine and share a sleeping space."

Food rations were limited, he said, with the prisoners usually given far less than their stipulated daily allowance.

"An usual prison breakfast includes rubber-like tortillas with jaggery [a type of cane sugar]. Lunch includes khichdi [a rice and lentil dish] while dinner was smelly rice with some vegetable, lentils and at times some meat or fish," he said.


He claimed that although each prisoner is supposed to get a daily amount of 16.5 ounces of rice, 5.15 ounces of lentils, 8.04 ounces of vegetables and at least 6 ounces of fish and meat, "most inmates do not receive even 2 ounces of fish or meat during a day."

Khan explained that he paid Tk 3,500 (US $ 46) a week to the cell leader for a sleeping space and for better meals - though he rarely got them, he said.

Hygiene facilities are scant. "Water comes through the taps only twice during a day. So the inmates need to wait for water to collect them for use during the entire day," he said.

Khan said that each block has only one toilet, "making it difficult for inmates to relieve themselves when they actually need to."

The inmates are sent back to their cells by 4pm everyday and allowed family visits once a week. "If an inmate wants to meet his or her family for more than an hour in a week, then he can only do so by paying the guards or sardar a sum of Tk 100 ($1.28) per additional hour," he said.

He said that when he was at the Dhaka Central Jail, its population was around 7,500, more than double the capacity given by prison sources of around 2,682.

The populations at the 68 jails of Bangladesh have spiked over the past two months. In February, the Dhaka Tribune said that the "arrest spree" was taking its toll on the country's prison system and jail resources, saying there were then almost 72,000 inmates across jails were designed to hold a total of 34,147 - more than 51,000 of whom were awaiting trial. It said that some prisons had seen their populations surge by around 20 percent during the first month of protests, with inmates reporting that cells were so tightly packed that they could not find a place to lie down and sleep.


Inspector General (IG) of Prisons Brigadier General Sayed Iftekhar Uddin told the newspaper at the time: "We are doing our best and working hard to ensure maximum facilities to inmates with insufficient resources."

In January 2013, Khan was moved to the high security prison at Konabari - previously used to house those awaiting execution, but now also holding those charged with lesser offences due to the increased pressure on the prison system.

"These were slightly better than the other jails as there are 10 buildings or blocks with rooms allotted to the inmates," Khan said.

Each room was around five by six feet, he explained, adding that three inmates were usually crammed into each.

"At the high security prison, inmates are given 'verandah times' from 9am till 4pm. This is when we were restricted only to the balcony near our rooms," he said.

Khan was released on August 9, 2013. But just three months later, he was arrested again - this time on charges of picketing and vandalism, though he insists he was targeted purely as a known political activist.

During a two-day long remand, the "interrogation procedures" took a serious toll on Khan. "I was sent to Kashimpur prison after I was framed in five cases," he alleged. "Fortunately, the wounds on my body drove the jail authorities to keep me in the medical wing of the jail."

Khan remained in the sick bay until he was released three and half months later.

The only medication available in the prison was paracetemol, he said, adding: "Sick bay is still a coveted area by most inmates as these areas are less crowded and you can sleep comfortably here, unlike in the cells."

The activist said he is certain that in the current climate of unrest, he was again a target for security forces. As he tries to elude the crackdown, he has now not seen his family for more than two months.

"I am still not one hundred percent from the injuries and so when the protests were called by the BNP-led 20-party alliance, I knew that I am more likely to be arrested," he said.