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Jan 26

Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh: A Study (2010-2012)

Introduction

Enforced disappearances have been a matter of rising concern over the past few years in Bangladesh. Historically, the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh was observed early during the post-independence period in 1972, after the government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman instituted the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini on 8 February 1972 through a constitutional order. Although initiated to uphold law and order, the elite para-military force quickly descended towards chaos, becoming involved instead with extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and rape among others.[1] The phenomenon again became a concern after 2010 during the rule of the Awami League as observed by various media and human rights organisations. Human rights organisation Odhikar documented the return of this practice by law enforcement agencies in its 2010 Human Rights report,

There has been an alarming trend that Odhikar monitors, which, if not addressed and reversed immediately, could herald the onset of yet another serious crime, that of (enforced) ‘disappearance’. In all the incidents of disappearances documented by Odhikar this year, it was reportedly members of RAB who pick a person up, and since then, the person remains untraced. [2]

According to information gathered by Odhikar, from January 2009 to July 2016, 287 persons have been disappeared after being picked up by the men claiming to be members of law enforcement agencies. Of them, 38 were found dead and 132 were later produced before the Court or surfaced alive after several days. The whereabouts of 117 persons remain unknown.[3] The BBC in a 2012 report mentioned that according to Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar, only two people had disappeared in 2009, compared with 18 in 2010. In 2013 it increased to 53 while in 2015, 65 people were disappeared. In 2016, from January to July, 52 people have been disappeared. This alarming rise in numbers of cases of enforced disappearances over time has been occurring in face of the general impunity enjoyed by law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Detective Branch (DB) of police, to do as they please in the name of counter terrorism operations. As reported in the media, the victims have been opposition activists, local traders, workers and some who were abducted because of criminal feuds or business rivalries. Some of these people have been found dead – the whereabouts of all the others are unknown.[4]

Definitions

The term ‘enforced disappearance’ is often synonymous to ‘abduction’ in terms of practice and includes kidnapping or abducting illegally, secret arrests or detention. In general, an enforced disappearance takes place when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.[5]

This is in spirit with the universal definition of enforced disappearance found in the draft of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED), held in Paris, France, on June 26, 2006. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED) (2006) defines enforced disappearance as,

“For the purposes of this Convention, enforced disappearance is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” [6]

Likewise, the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons (1994) provides,

“the forced disappearance of persons is an affront to the conscience of the Hemisphere and a grave and abominable offence against the inherent dignity of the human being”.

Furthermore, the Rome Statute of ICC (1998) in its article 7(1)(i) included ‘enforced disappearance’ under crimes against humanity to be tried within the jurisdiction of the ICC.[7] Despite ensuring fundamental human rights and freedoms as per articles 11, 31 and 32 of the Bangladesh constitution, and ratifying the Convention Against Torture, Bangladesh is still not a signatory to the ICCPED.

Analysis of Forced Disappearances in Bangladesh

At this juncture, a chronological analysis of enforced disappearance would assist in the understanding of the severity of this phenomenon in present day Bangladesh, especially when the cases of enforced disappearances are claimed to be much higher that the figures available from the human rights organisations. It is mentionable that the government, along with the security forces. has repeatedly denied these claims, saying that the reports were incorrect and the figures disputed.[8]

Although initially linked to deteriorating instances of law and order, most cases of enforced disappearance have ultimately turned out to be of victims who were politically affiliated to opposition political parties, mainly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI). The supporting statistics is clear in assertion of the fact that most of the victims were subject to disappearance due to their dissenting political roles and affiliations in opposition to the government, whether in raising voice against deteriorating law and order situations, or speaking out against government policies or corruption.

Incidents of disappearance in 2010

Although precise figures were unavailable for the year, the 2010 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Bangladesh by the US State Department[9], quoting Odhikar, said there were 9 disappearances with alleged ties to security forces, with a total of 18 in 2010. There are however, higher figures on record. According to rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra, the number of enforced disappearances in 2010 was 46, with the bodies of 6 victims recovered and 7 of those abducted traced.[10] Among the missing, is Mohammad Chowdhury Alam, a Councillor of Dhaka City Corporation and a member of the National Executive Committee of BNP, who was allegedly picked up by RAB members on June 25, 2010, and remains missing to date.[11] Other cases of disappearance include Md. Selim from Gazipur, Md Akbar Ali Shorder from Thakurgaon, Forkan from Jhalkathi and Chairman Nazrul Islam from Gazipur.

Incidents of Disappearance in 2011

On 21 December 2010, by its resolution 65/209 the UN General Assembly, deeply concerned at the increase in enforced or involuntary disappearances in various regions of the world, including arrest, detention and abduction, declared the adoption of the ICCPED, and decided to declare 30 August the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, to be observed beginning in 2011. In Bangladesh, although precise figures were unavailable, all reports indicated that enforced disappearances and kidnappings, most of which were allegedly committed by the security services, increased during the year. According to Odhikar,[12] in 2011, 30 people were reportedly victims of enforced disappearance. Among them 14 were allegedly picked up by RAB, 11 by Detective Branch police, two by police and three by different law enforcement agencies.[13] According to Ain O Salish Kendro, the number of disappeared is 58 people, of whom 16 were recovered dead, while only 4 were traced. [14]

Shamim Ahmed, a father of a seven-year-old boy and an activist of Bangladesh Student Union, was abducted from Paltan area on September 29, 2011. Locals of the area were told by men, who had cuffed Shamim and were pushing him into a vehicle, that they were plainclothes policemen. Habibur Rahman Haoladar, a 48-year-old fishmonger of Bagerhat district, was arrested from his house by the local police around 5.30 am on July 6, 2011. Although Jasmine, Habibur’s daughter, even recognised the sub-inspector of the local police station who arrested Habibur, the police still deny arresting him.[15]

Moreover, Odhikar has documented several cases of enforced disappearances, including Stamford University student Tawfique Ahmed Hasan on 22 February 2011, Mizanur Hossain, Jewel Sarder and Rajib abducted by DB police on 31 July 2011 and later found dead, Old Dhaka businessman Tapon Das on 3 August 2011, Savar Awami League ward 41 President Nur Mohammad Haji on 19 October 2011, and three leaders of the BNP student wing, Ismail Hossain, Shamim Hasan and Masum Hossain, who disappeared from Hatirpul, Dhaka on 28 November 2011. [16]

Incidents of Disappearance in 2012

The year 2012 saw a number of high profile cases of forced disappearance that generated both national and international documentation, scrutiny and interest in the worsening human rights practices of the Bangladesh government. Rights groups identified abducting and killing people, particularly political leaders, mainly through ‘enforced disappearance’, as one of the major tactics to ‘rule by terror’, along with repression of socio-political opposition, abuse of the judiciary to punish opponents, repression of media and silencing dissenters and the abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009. According to information gathered by Odhikar, in 2012, 24 persons were allegedly ‘disappeared’. Among them, 10 allegedly by RAB, six by Detective Branch (DB) of police, two jointly by RAB-DB police, one by Industrial Police and five by unidentified persons.[17] Ain O Salish Kendro, the other hand, reported 56 people as disappeared in the year 2012, of whom four were found dead and 38 are still missing. It said that like the previous years, families of the victims alleged the involvement of law-enforcement agencies, especially the Rapid Action Battalion, in most case.[18]

On April 18, 2012, former Member of Parliament of Sylhet-2 constituency and Organising Secretary of the Central Committee of BNP, M Ilias Ali and his driver Ansar Ali were allegedly picked up by members of law enforcing agencies from Banani in Dhaka city. Tahsina Rushdir, wife of Ilias Ali, claimed that her husband had been picked up by the ‘agency of the government’. The incident led to the onset of wide scale political unrest in Bangladesh, leading to nationwide blockades and shutdowns by the opposition political alliance and the supporters of the missing leader. Despite the wide scale protests and accusations of the Awami League government being behind his disappearance, Ilyas Ali remains missing. Human Rights watch, while voicing its concern, noted that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the police to investigate Ali’s disappearance, but also said that she believed Ali and his driver were “hiding” at his party’s orders to create a situation that would allow the opposition to blame the government.[19]

On April 4, 2012, Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation and a staff of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), was allegedly picked up by members of the law enforcement agencies from Ashulia, Dhaka, taken to an unknown destination and allegedly tortured to death. The deceased’s body was recovered by police on April 5, 2012 from Ghatail under Tangail district. Amnesty International, in a report, stated that his family saw evidence of severe injury and torture on his body and suspected that he was abducted by security forces.[20] Aminul Islam’s wife Hosne Ara Begum Fahima informed Odhikar that her husband was arbitrarily detained several times in the past and tortured in 2006 and in 2010 by law enforcement agencies.[21] Islam’s death inspired a fledgling global campaign, with protests lodged by international labor groups and by European and American diplomats, including then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. [22]

Amnesty further reported that two other BNP members, Iftekhar Ahmed Dinar and Junaid Ahmed, went missing on 2 April, 2012. Iftekhar Ahmed’s family say they were taken from their homes by plain clothes officers. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

On February 5, 2012, Al Mukaddas (22), 4th year student of the Department of Al Fiqah and Mohammad Waliullah (23), a Masters candidate of Dawah and Islamic Studies Department of Islamic University, both members of the Islamic student organization Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, were allegedly detained by persons identifying themselves as RAB-4 and DB Police members from Savar. The duo has not been heard from since and their whereabouts are unknown. RAB has denied detaining the two men in a statement to a Bangladeshi newspaper. [23]

Conclusion

As observed above, the heinous practice of enforced disappearance saw a resurgence during the rule of the Awami League government, and has been meticulously documented with growing concern by all human rights groups reporting on the issue. However, as we shall see in further study in the next installments, this phenomenon only increased in incidence and occurrence in the later years, and took on the distinct flavour of suppression of political activism and opposition against the government, with scores of opposition activists and leaders going missing over the years, often after being visited in their homes by plainclothes or uniformed men in the dead of the night.

(To be continued)

Endnotes

[1] “Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini”, Wikipedia, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jatiya_Rakkhi_Bahini (accessed on October 10, 2016)

[2] Annual Human Rights Report, 2010, Odhikar, available at http://1dgy051vgyxh41o8cj16kk7s19f2.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Annual_Human_Rights_Report_2010.pdf (accessed on January 25, 2017), p.33

[3] Asian Legal Resource Centre, “Bangladesh: Enforced Disappearances should not be taken for granted”, Human Rights Council, 33rd session – September, 2016, available at http://alrc.asia/bangladesh-enforced-disappearances-should-not-be-taken-for-granted/ (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[4] Ethirajan Anbarasan, “‘Enforced disappearances’ Haunt Bangladesh”, 21 April, 2012, BBC News, Dhaka, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17451178 (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[5] See, “Amnesty International,” available at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/enforceddisappearances (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[6] OHCHR, “International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance” (ICCPED), June 26, 2006, available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/pdf/disappearance-convention.pdf (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[7] Arif Ahmed, Enforced disappearances in Bangladesh: A Curse of Brutality, Daily Observer, August 25, 2016, available at http://www.observerbd.com/details.php?id=30513 (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[8] ibid.

[9] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “2010 Human Rights Report: Bangladesh”, US State Department, April 8, 2011, available at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/sca/154478.htm, (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[10] Daily Star, “Picked Up they never Return”, August 30, 2014, available at http://www.thedailystar.net/picked-up-they-never-return-39283 (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[11] Odhikar, “Disappearance of Mohammad Chowdhury Alam, Ward Councilor Number-56 of Dhaka City Corporation”, available at http://odhikar.org/disappearance-of-mohammad-chowdhury-alam-ward-councilor-number-56-of-dhaka-city-corporation/ (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[12] Odhikar, “Human rights report 2011”, January 07 2012, available at http://odhikar.org/human-rights-report-2011-odhikar-report-on-bangladesh/ (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[13] United States Department of State, “2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Bangladesh, 24 May 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fc75abb32.html [accessed January 25, 2017]

[14] Ain O Salish Kendro, “Human rights situation of Bangladesh in 2011”, available at http://www.askbd.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/HR_Situation_Bangladesh_2011.pdf (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[15] Syed Tashfin Chowdhury, “Enforced Disappearances on the rise in Bangladesh”, April 20, 2012, Rediff News, available at http://www.rediff.com/news/special/enforced-disappearances-on-the-rise-in-bangladesh/20120420.htm (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[16] Odhikar, “Human rights report 2011”. pp. 75-78

[17] Odhikar, “Human rights report 2012”, January 12 2013, available at http://odhikar.org/human-rights-report-2012-odhikar-report-on-bangladesh/ (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[18] Daily Star, “Rights situation was alarming”, January 01, 2013, available at http://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-263349 (accessed on 10 October, 2016)

[19] Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Alarming Rise in ‘Disappearances’”, April 26, 2012, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/26/bangladesh-alarming-rise-disappearances (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[20] Amnesty International, “Amnesty International Demands Bangladesh Authorities Account for Deaths of Protesters Amid Spate of “Disappearances””, April 24, 2012, Press Release, available at http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/amnesty-international-demands-bangladesh-authorities-account-for-deaths-of-protesters-amid-spate-of (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[21] Odhikar, “Human rights report 2012”, pp. 57-58

[22] See Jim Yardley, “Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave”, September 9, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/world/asia/killing-of-bangladesh-labor-leader-spotlights-grievances-of-workers.html (accessed on January 25, 2017)

[23] OMCT, “Bangladesh: Enforced disappearance of Messrs. Al Mukaddas and Mohammad Waliullah”, May 23, 2012, available at http://www.omct.org/urgent-campaigns/urgent-interventions/bangladesh/2012/05/d21920/ (accessed on January 25, 2017)

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