Amended Speedy Trial Act and unanswered questions

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THE Law and Order Disruption (Speedy Trial) Act was promulgated on November 24, 2002, by the then BNP-led government for a period of two years with an intention to speed up trials of some offences like extortion, disrupting the transportation services, vandalism, tender manipulation, mugging, creating terror among the people, etc. The then opposition party Awami League seriously opposed the law, calling it a “Black law” which would be used to oppress the opposition party activists, and walked out of the Parliament to show their resentment. The law, however, went through several extensions by the government though the political parties inter-changed their positions as the ruling party and the opposition. The reaction becomes “pro” while in power and “against” while in the opposition. The law received a further extension for five years on February 17, 2014 in a cabinet meeting.
The law until now has been for the welfare of two major political parties rather than for the welfare of the nation. The main ground for its extension advanced by the government is that the law and order situation will deteriorate. This will always be an apparently valid excuse. In this open economy crimes will never decrease, so the need for the law to control them. But the question is somewhere else.
The law was passed in violation of the express provisions of our Constitution, specially the Article 27, which ensures equality before law for all the citizens, and Article 31, which ensures equal protection of law. The offences which had been clearly stated in the Act to be tried in the Speedy Tribunal deprive other people from getting their redress for the offences which don’t fall under the purview of the Act. Thus, this law clearly discriminates among citizens in terms of getting judicial remedy. For example, if a person is mugged on the street then he would get redressed very quickly through this law, but if a person is robbed in his own house he will not get the same speedy remedy. Why this discrimination? This questions the intention behind the enactment of this new law, which still remains unanswered.
The procedure to deal with criminal offences in our country, the Code of Criminal Procedure, was enacted by the British rulers in 1898. Amendments were made to this procedural law a few times, but it has failed to keep pace with the needs of changing socio-political society. Enactment of a completely new set of procedures to deal with criminal offences is imperative. But we neither see any such attempt by the government nor has there been any demand from the civil society.
The Law and Order Disruption (Speedy Trial) (Amendment) Act, 2014 is partly substantive and partly procedural. It suggests that the procedure begin with the lodging of a complaint, and completion of the trial within a specific timeframe (Sec. 9-12). But the law does not suggest a new set of procedures for the court, but is rather provisioned for summary trail as per Chapter XXII of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898. Section 4 of the Act provides for punishment of the offences, which would be not less than two years and up to five years of jail sentence and also fine. But Section 260(c) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (Chapter XXII) clearly states that “Any Bench of Magistrates invested with the powers of a Magistrate of the first class shall try in a summary way all or any of the following offences – (a) offences not punishable with death, transportation or imprisonment for a term exceeding two years.” The contradiction in relation to the term of sentence is apparent from the plain reading of the above provisions and there has been no effort to eliminate the contradiction so far.
The law further bypasses the need for amendment of the Evidence Act, 1872 by way of making digital evidences admissible in the trial. The concept of evidences has been radically changed in the past two decades and the core law which governs the trial of cases in our judicial system needs major and crucial amendments. The ornamental changes or making this new scope will only run for a limited period of time but the recent scientific changes gave us permanent solution to resolve many issues more efficiently, like the DNA profiling, digital photographs, video recording, etc.
The enactment of the Law and Order Disruption (Speedy Trial) Act to deal with a handful of offences and the subsequent extensions of its validity period year after year totally undermine the need for amendment of regular procedural law to serve more efficiently and expeditiously. The government implicitly agrees to the fact that there are delays in getting legal redress for the common people. In this regard, a maxim is worth quoting: “Justice delayed justice denied.” If the government knows about the inordinate procedural delay then why not take initiatives to make the regular law more expeditious, or if the latent defects are not mendable then why not enact a new set of procedures for all? It is for the government to show that it intends to do justice to all rather than a closed group of people, and also to show that the law has no hidden purpose.

Published on 24 March 2014 at the Daily Star

 

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