BANGLADESH: Families Take to the Streets to Demand Justice for Enforced Disappearances

Families of victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, took to the streets across Bangladesh to demand justice. The families organised human chains and rallies in different parts of the country. In the International Week of the Disappeared, the victims defied intimidation and harassment by the agencies of Bangladesh.

Parents, wives, children, and siblings of the victims of enforced disappearances came to the streets to raise their voice in demand of the whereabouts and return of their loved ones. They allege that they faced harassment and intimidation by the law-enforcement agencies while reiterating their demands. They await the factual details about what has actually happened to the disappeared persons. Many children do not know whether they have been orphaned forever by the State. Many wives question whether they are widows and should move on in life. The wives and children, despite being the legitimate heir, face uncertainty in inheriting the assets of the disappeared men. Unwarranted poverty becomes integral part of their life as the State deliberately refuses to resolve the matters by explaining the fate of the disappeared persons.

The struggles of endless waiting and pursuing justice is one of the hardest tasks in the given conditions created under Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarian government. Bangladesh’s incumbent government has institutionalised enforced disappearances, which is a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The state’s law-enforcement agencies, intelligence units, and the ruling party’s goons work together to deny the disappeared their right to have access to justice. Members of the families face threats to their lives for pursuing and demanding answers and justice. The complaint mechanisms under the control of the police, refuse to register the cases of ‘disappearances’ with the names and ranks of their own colleagues within the police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), who are allegedly responsible for the crimes. Lawyers hardly dare to help the victims file a petition to the Magistrate’s Courts, due to lack of motivation and courage to ‘fight against the crocodile while living in the same water ’. Habeas corpus litigations at the Supreme Court’s High Court Division are expensive – both in money and time- especially for families who have lost their sole breadwinner. The High Courts intervention in the habeas corpus cases are extremely frustrating for the petitioner-victims, as no assertive remedies have ever been provided under the incumbent government.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, defends enforced disappearances by making untrue and absurd statements. On one hand, the authoritarian government blocks the paths to redress, through denial of access to justice and through intimidating the families of the disappeared persons. On the other, the government blocks international human rights experts who wish to examine and verify the allegations. Since the institutionalised practice of enforced disappearances was adopted, the government has not entertained the invitation of relevant human rights experts of the United Nations to visit Bangladesh. The calls for stopping enforced disappearances have been met with dumb denials.

The non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who receive foreign donations for human rights-based activities, need to come out of their comfort zone of maintaining silence on enforced disappearances. They should stand beside the victims of gross rights violations. If they are receiving money to consciously do human rights activities – they cannot and must not look the other way when gross violations to human rights are occurring.

The donors who fund Bangladesh need to understand – if they are not deliberately doing so – that their existing funding programmes have resulted in the extreme empowerment of authoritarianism and all that comes with it. Their ‘help’ appears to be counterproductive for the general people of the country and their civil and political rights. This authoritarianism has also rendered the justice institutions dysfunctional; and the process of democratisation has collapsed in that country.

The families of the disappeared victims find themselves in a situation where the options for seeking domestic remedies have already been exhausted and where the judicial system is either unable or unwilling to give them remedy. The international justice mechanisms for crimes against humanity seem to be the ultimate resort. Sensible segments of society need to build broader unity towards and in the struggle of transforming justice institutions and the system of governance, for a liveable Bangladesh for future generations. There needs to be a conviction in the society that without universal access to justice, sustainable development, alleviation of poverty and peace will remain unattainable.