Dhaka/Bangkok/Hong Kong/Manila: 29 August 2017: Bangladesh Government owes answers to the families of the victims of enforced disappearances regarding their whereabouts. Reports show that enforced disappearances, a ‘crime against humanity’ under international law, is being committed systematically since the incumbent government assumed office in 2009. However, the government denies the alleged incidents of enforced disappearances, contradicting the eyewitnesses and families who assert the involvement of State-agents as the key perpetrators.
Between January 2009 and July 2017 at least 388 people have reportedly been disappeared, according to Odhikar’s documentation. Among them, the bodies of 51 people were found after being disappeared; 193 were dropped off, blindfolded, at different spots; some were brought to court and shown as having been arrested in criminal cases, a long time after being disappeared. The whereabouts of 144 people remain unknown. There is concern that the actual figures are higher than the reported incidents as many might not speak out due to intimidation on victim-families and threats from the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies of the State.
The allegations and official complaints of the families of the disappeared persons and their Writ Petitions filed in Court, directly inculpate Bangladesh’s law-enforcement agencies and paramilitary forces for the disappearances. In many cases, according to witnesses, the abductors were dressed in uniform and arrived in vehicles belonging to law enforcement agencies, and/or identified themselves as being members of the Rapid Action Battalion, the Detective Branch of Police or as policemen. The persons who returned after having been abducted, reported that they had all been taken to police stations or the offices and camps of Rapid Action Battalion or to an ‘unknown place’ where they were questioned by ‘men in uniform’. Some victims have claimed that they were blindfolded and had experienced relocation after facing interrogation.
The prevalence, the pattern, the identity of majority of victims (a great many being supporters of the opposition) and the large-scale recurrence of the acts suggest that these crimes could not have taken place without the knowledge of, and permission from, high-level Government officials.
There are pieces of evidence of direct involvement of Government officials, as the following example shows. A Senior Judicial Magistrate of Satkhira, Habibullah Mahmud, submitted a judicial inquiry report to the High Court Division of the Supreme Court on 4 July 2017. The probe report found the involvement of three high-level police officials in the arrest of homeopathic physician Sheikh Mokhlesur Rahman a.k.a. Johny and his subsequent disappearance. According to the probe report, its findings on disappearances showed that some arrested people were later found dead, others were later produced in courts, showing them as having been arrested; some returned home after several days and others were still traceless. The Magistrate said in his report that the police repeatedly denied that the victims were picked up and taken away. This lone judicial probe report shows that law enforcement agents are involved in acts of disappearance and that the police department demonstrats extreme negligence of the duty entrusted upon them, by their refusal to record complaints or cases in such incidents.
Human rights defenders face particular challenges while taking up such cases in Bangladesh. They are subjected to intimidation and threats, including surveillance and harassment by the government and State intelligence agencies and law-enforcement agencies. The families of the disappeared have been long subjected to intimidation, threats to life, or in some cases, they have been detained in order to discourage them from continuing their inquiry or from campaigning for justice. Threats against family members occurred in a majority of the cases that were subjected to fact-finding by human rights defenders. Victim-families were warned about the dire consequences they would face if they shared information publicly or went any further with inquiring into the matter. Relatives are often being told, directly or through anonymous and threatening phone calls, that if they went public and reported the cases to media, they would be killed or be disappeared.
High profile State-actors claim that the victim had ‘run away’ or had been kidnapped by criminals and flatly deny the existence of enforced disappearances. Instead of acknowledging that this violation exists and responding to human rights groups’ call to conduct judicial probes into all the alleged incidents of disappearances, state-actors blame human rights organisations for tarnishing the image of Bangladesh. Constant denials and the tactic to shift blame to ordinary criminals or to the victims themselves are attempts to suppress the fact that enforced disappearances are being perpetrated in Bangladesh. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) and the UN Human Rights Council need to understand that Bangladesh’s human rights problems are directly related to political power grabbing and retaining strategies. The Special Procedures, including the WGEID, need to send further reminders to Bangladesh regarding their requests to visit the country.
The international community needs to accept that the establishment of democracy in Bangladesh can only open up the opportunity to stop enforced disappearances and other gross violations of human rights. Rebuilding and strengthening justice institutions is a must to uphold the rule of law, which is not in existence at the moment.