On May 10, 2013, officers from the Immoral Trafficking (IT) section of the detective department of Kolkata Police arrested a Bangladeshi youth along with two minor girls from Millennium Park in Kolkata. The cousins, aged between 13 and 15, were residents of Hajarigunj village within Charfashion police station limits in Bhola district of Bangladesh. The youth was their brother-in-law. The youth, accused of trafficking the girls, landed in jail, while the girls were sent to a welfare home.
Nearly four years later, the victims are still waiting eagerly to go back home.
Government papers necessary for their repatriation to Bangladesh are ready, but the case is still being heard in the City Sessions Court. They cannot go back because the case against the accused will become weak without their statements (prime witnesses) are recorded and cross-examined.
“I’ll speak to you only if you can expedite our return to home. We have been waiting to return home for a long time,” said Rubia (all names of victims changed), the elder of them, who never went to a school.
Sayera, her cousin, however, was in the fifth standard when they were brought to Kolkata.
During this period, the investigating officer of the case and the public prosecutor changed that contributed to the delay. The girls occasionally get the chance to speak over phone to their parents, whom they never met since landing in India. Their restlessness to go home increase every time they speak to their family.
“We can’t stand this life of confinement anymore,” Sayera told HT.
None knows how long will the cousins have to wait. Roshenara Khatun, who was rescued by officers from Chanditala police station in Hooghly district in September 2012, was released by Serampore court on February 28, 2017 for going back home. Ironically, the accused spent three months behinds bars before being released on bail, while the victim spent nearly five years in a shelter. The process of recording her statements started only in January 2017.
Sixteen-year-old Sweety, whose family live in Norail village of Sunamgun district in Bangladesh, is possibly in for a longer stay. She was rescued from South 24-Parganas district in May 2014 but authorities in India are yet to receive nationality confirmation from Bangladesh authorities.
Khulna resident Shampa Akhtar, who was repatriated to her family in Bangladesh on March 7, 2017, was indeed luckier. She had to spend little more than two years in waiting.
“A large number of victims are getting stuck in India due to delay in courts and government procedures. It often takes three to four years to send a victim back to her home,” said Tapoti Bhowmik of Sanlaap, an NGO that runs shelters for the trafficking victims.
“The judiciary needed to be sensitised but there has been no interaction between the members of the state task force and members of the judiciary. There is no representative from the judiciary in the task force either,” she added.
According to senior lawyer Ghanashyam Agarwala, who practices at Serampore court in Hooghly district, the repatriation should not take more than six months.
“The police should submit the charge sheet within 90 days so that the trial begins while the accused is still in judicial custody. Once the trial starts, the victim’s deposition should be recorded and cross-examined first, so that she is free to move out as soon as nationality confirmation comes,” Agarwala said, adding, “But it does not happen in most cases.”
In the case of the two cousins from Bhola district, however, the government pleader was first asked to examine all witnesses. The lawyer of the accused will cross-examine them after the government’s pleader has finished. In Roshenara Khatun’s case, people in the additional chief judicial magistrate’s court simply forgot to transfer the case to a session judge’s court for trial until October 2016.
According to a government pleader working in a Kolkata court, the state government adopted the ‘Operational Guidelines for West Bengal on Rescue, Safe Return and Repatriation of Women and Child Victims of Trafficking and Cross-border Movement from Bangladesh’ in November January 2013 but it has not yet been made into an Act. An 18-member task force, headed by the secretary of women and child welfare department of the state government was also constituted.
“However, since the guideline is not an Act yet, judges often disagree to go by the SOP and ask the children’s parents to be produced before the court,” Agarwala told HT. Most of these parents are extremely poor and they almost never manage to come to India to receive their children.
Despite repeated attempts, HT could not speak to state women and child welfare minister Shashi Panja to know whether the government has any plan to turn the repatriation guidelines into law. City-based rights activists working with trafficking victims, however, said that they were unaware of any such initiative by the state government.