Bangladesh retains death penalty in law as well as in practice for thirty three offences (twenty-five of which are non-fatal in nature), and has been recording a significant increase in executions since 2000. However, the death penalty regime in Bangladesh has gotten little to no space in academic and public debate. Further, almost nothing is known about the demographics of the death row prisoners, and their lived experiences of interaction with the criminal justice system.
In this backdrop, in 2019-20, the Department of Law at the University of Dhaka, in collaboration with Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and the Death Penalty Project, UK conducted a rigorous pilot study to investigate socio-economic characteristics of death row prisoners in Bangladesh, and to explore their experiences and perspectives on the criminal justice system. A virtual launch of the study report titled 'Living under sentence of death: A study on the profiles, experiences, and perspectives of death row prisoners in Bangladesh' was organised by the Department of Law on June 17, 2021. This study brings the death penalty regime of Bangladesh into conversation and makes a modest attempt to fill the existing knowledge gap.
The study has been led by Dr Muhammad Mahbubur Rahman, Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka, who previously undertook a thorough examination and comparison of all murder cases reported in major law reports during the period 1972-2010 in his book, Criminal Sentencing in Bangladesh: From Colonial Legacies to Modernity (Brill Nijhoff, 2017).
The present study concentrates on data relating to 39 death sentenced prisoners, hailing from 17 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh. To collect socio-economic information on the prisoners, it primarily relies on relevant case records. Additionally, it uses interviews of the family members of the prisoners and followed up progresses of relevant Death Reference Cases in the HCD (up to February 2019).
The study report proceeds in five substantive parts. The first part introduces the background and objectives of the study and discusses the method of data collection and limitations. The second part provides information on the legal background and administration of the death penalty regime in Bangladesh, providing tools to interpret the findings. The third part, as the crux of the study, describes the socio-economic profiles of the death row prisoners: their age, gender, religion, education, economic, criminal, and family backgrounds. Part four underscores the prisoners' experiences of the criminal justice system. Finally, the report concludes by articulating the implications of the findings.
The study reveals some significant findings, most of which are largely consistent with the findings of studies from other countries that convincingly demonstrate that the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable and marginalised sections of society along the lines of economic status, racial identity and levels of educational attainment.
It finds that the judicial sentencing appears not to be significantly influenced by the growing legislative trend of prescribing the death penalty for non-fatal offences. In practice, the courts, by and large, do not impose death sentences unless someone dies as a result of the offence. The study suggests that most death sentenced prisoners (74%) within this study were below 30 years of age at the time of the offence, with the largest proportion being 20-30 years of age; the death sentenced prisoners were overwhelmingly male (97%); most death sentenced prisoners in this study had low educational attainments; the majority had not been educated beyond secondary school, primarily because of family poverty; more than half of the death sentenced prisoners were low-paid salaried employees or unemployed, with almost three-quarters of them being economically vulnerable; almost a quarter were the sole earners within their families; there was no prior criminal or delinquent records reported for three-quarters of the prisoners; none of them were earlier convicted for any other offence. The socio-economic profiles of death sentenced prisoners in the present study, to a great extent, reinforce the popular belief in Bangladesh that the death penalty is imposed mostly upon the poorest, most powerless, and marginalised people. None of the prisoners under the study belonged to the upper or upper-middle classes of socio-economic strata.
Most interview respondents were not satisfied with the quality of the legal investigation, primarily because of the alleged use of torture as an investigation tool, with at least a third of the families claiming that prisoners were tortured in custody. Most interview respondents (60% of those responding) were not satisfied with the trial process. Most felt that the trial courts failed to properly appreciate the evidence and wrongly relied on false evidence adduced by the prosecution. Some were also dissatisfied with the sentencing process and outcome.
On the quality of legal representation, two-thirds of interviewees who responded appeared to be satisfied, while one-third had negative impressions, particularly regarding the quality of state defence lawyers. Delay in proceedings was underscored as yet another predicament in the criminal justice process, which tends to be largely responsible for prolonged detention of prisoners and their protracted isolation on death row. The cases in the present study took, on average, four and a half years for adjudication by the trial courts (from the date of registration of case) and, thereafter, another five and a half years for disposal by the High Court Division (HCD). From filing of the cases to their disposal by the HCD took more than 10 years in almost half of the cases.
Almost all families suffered huge economic losses and other problems as a result of legal proceedings against prisoners. The families of just more than half of the prisoners were subjected to harassment by local people, forcing four families to relocate.
Because of the relatively small sample size, the study report time and again cautions against generalising from the quantitative data to the situation of all death sentenced prisoners in Bangladesh. It does not make any claim from these statistical findings beyond the sample. However, the findings of this study 'provide indications of the socio-economic profiles of death sentenced prisoners in Bangladesh more generally and, therefore, provide an impetus for future research.' Furthermore, though the numbers are relatively low, the qualitative findings are rigorous and they expose sobering details about the experiences of justice and the debilitating impact of the death penalty regime in Bangladesh.