According to article 35(5) of the Constitution of Bangladesh a person cannot be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment
It took the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) five days to issue directives for the force and other officials asking them "to act professionally".
The belated directives came following media reports that police and admin officials were beating up and humiliating people in the capital and many places across the country.
The allegations came from people who went out of their homes to buy essentials and also an on-duty medical officer who were among those attacked.
One of the most outrageous cases to take the social media by storm took place on March 27 when Assistant Commissioner (Land) Sayeema Hasan publicly humiliated a group of elderly rickshaw-van pullers at Monirampur of Jashore for not wearing masks.She made them hold their ears and squat and recorded the incident on her phone. Wearing a mask while outside is not mandatory anywhere in the country. It is an advise at best.
Two pictures of the incident went viral on social media and she was later withdrawn from her post. Later, the upazila nirbahi officer of Monirampur met the elderly persons and apologised for the excesses of Sayeema.
A similar incident was reported from Burichong of Cumilla where another Assistant Commissioner (Land) and executive magistrate Tahmida Akhtar conducted a mobile court and ordered lathi charge on the citizens at a market.
These "extra measures" the police and admin officials have exercised is totally unacceptable in the current circumstances and a breach of the Constitution.
According to article 35(5) of the Constitution of Bangladesh a person cannot be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.
The article applies to all the incidents of beating and humiliation by police and admin officials that took place in the last few days. It also breaches Article 31 that expressly states that every citizen should be treated in accordance with the law.
Bangladesh confirmed its first three cases of the novel coronavirus on March 8, and reported the first death just ten days later. On March 23, authorities announced that the country will go under a lockdown and everyone should stay confined in their houses to ensure social distancing. As of March 28, 48 people were found infected and five had died.
The lockdown situation prevailing in Bangladesh is as novel as the virus because there is a confusion even in the government whether it is a lockdown or a shutdown.
On March 23, Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam unveiled the government's measures to contain the novel coronavirus. In his written speech he used the term "lockdown".
His statement advised people to stay home unless emergencies like treatment, buying food and medicine or attending funerals show up.
In her address to the nation on March 25, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also asked the people to only go out if a necessity arose.
She also advised the citizens to wear masks, use gloves and maintain social distancing while in public.
On March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a total ban on Indians leaving their homes for the next 21 days. But nothing of that sort was imposed in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, following the public outrage on social media, on March 27, Friday, the Information Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud said that the country is not under lockdown and regretted the excesses by the police on the general public.
"No lockdown has been imposed in the country…. anyone can come out and go to the streets, if necessary. It's very regretful that people face harassment when they come out and go to the streets. Police have not been asked to do so," he said.
Barrister Aneek R Haque, a lawyer of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, said such actions by the police and executive magistrates were a violation of the Constitution.
"We are not in a state of emergency, nor under curfew. Hence, whatever the police are doing out there in the street is illegal. Police have no authority to beat the public in the present situation," said the lawyer.
A lockdown is an emergency protocol that usually prevents people or information from leaving an area. The protocol can usually only be initiated by someone in a position of authority.
But it is worth noting that it is not a "state emergency" as described in Article 141A of the constitution. Therefore, the fundamental rights of the citizens cannot be suspended and the actions by the law enforcers cannot be justified, he also added.
From the above, two things are clear: first, we are not in a state of curfew, and, second, also that the police and admin officials were not empowered to inflict forces on the civilians.
"Curfew can be imposed under section 24 of the Special Powers Act 1974. If a curfew is imposed, it gives the law enforcers some special powers, which they cannot exercise otherwise. As the government did not impose a curfew, it is clear that the police action is a violation of our constitutional rights," Barrister Aneek added.
Meanwhile, on March 27, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mohammad Javed Patwary had to come out with instruction to his men to be humble and behave more professionally while handling the situation to maintain social distancing to curb Covid-19 spread in the country, after videos of police beating people went viral on social media.
The question remains why did this happen in the first place? That is because the authorities have failed to give clear instructions to the subordinates on power and accountability. Thus, they are accountable too.
This is not the first time that civilians have been subjected to illegal police actions. There are countless examples when the police have abused its powers. This situation could have been avoided, if and only if, the authorities provided clear guidelines to the subordinates.
With great power comes great responsibility. When will those sitting in power learn to act more responsibly?
The writer is a journalist at The Business Standard and a lawyer.