Enforced Disappearances to the Fore: Bangladesh

Written by Faisal Mahmud | Published on: December 26, 2017
The issue of enforced disappearances, after having vanished from the discourse of the Bangladesh has recently been thrust into the center-stage by an extra-ordinary set of circumstances.

Enforced Disappearances

Incidents of alleged abductions by law enforcers are not new and reportage of these crimes have become mundane or routine. Interestingly, however, two particular incidents—both of which cannot be attributed as a direct case of enforced disappearance— have rekindled the public’s as well as media’s interest on the issue.

It started off with a plain case of kidnapping. The identities of both the kidnappers and their captors however had made the case in point rather a special one.

On October 25, a team of the Bangladesh Army, led by one Major Nazim Ahmed had detained seven members of Detective Branch (DB) of Bangladesh police, accused them of collecting ransom after kidnapping a businessman in Teknaf Upazila of the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar.

The detectives were caught with Tk 1.7 million cash. As per the statement of the army, the seven DB men kidnapped a blanket trader Abdul Gafur, younger brother of Teknaf municipality mayor Moniruzzaman, from the district town and thereafter demanded Tk 5 million as ransom.

While negotiating the ransom with the abductors, the family members informed the army who were coordinating relief operation for Rohingyas in Teknaf, of the abduction and sought their help.

Based on this information, Major Nazim and his group stopped the microbus carrying the DB team at a check post in Lambori area of Technaf around 4:30am, about half-an-hour after Gafur was freed on the Marine Drive road.

The DB men then were taken to the temporary camp at Sabrang and later handed over to police after the Superintendent of Police (SP) and the additional SP of Cox's Bazar went there. The police high-ups assured that proper administrative measures would be taken against the accused policemen.

The whole incident of the detention of the DB men in the hand of army officials was captured on a phone camera. It was later circulated on the social media, igniting a widespread criticism and anger among ordinary citizens about the unlawful practices of law enforcers.

While that incident wasn’t quite a case of ‘enforced disappearance’, the involvement of law enforcement personnel in the crimes, made it look otherwise. There was much speculation among common people who felt that had the family of the abducted businessmen failed to come up with the ransom money, it would have become just another case of enforced disappearances at the hand of the law enforcement authorities of Bangladesh.

Such assumptions are not mere hearsay considering the long trend of state-sponsored abductions that Bangladesh’s law enforcers have been allegedly responsibly for over the past decade.

According to rights body Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), as many as 519 people have allegedly fallen victim to enforced disappearances between 2010 and July 2017 in Bangladesh and an astonishing 329 of them are still missing.

Many family members of such disappearance victims have repeatedly pointed fingers at law enforcement agencies. Many of them had gone missing and had returned to their families while bodies of some have been found. Others were found shown arrested in different cases by the law enforcers. ASK reckons the number of such people is 190 in the last seven and half years.

ASK statistics also show that, 47 people were made to disappear in 2010, 59 in 2011, 56 in 2012, 72 in 2013, 88 in 2014, 55 in 2015, and 97 in 2016 while 45 people were abducted allegedly by law enforcers in the first seven months of this year. Human right activists of the country believe these figures are likely to be a significant underestimate of the real number as many cases go unreported.

Abduction of a blanket trader with no political identity was of course a misuse of power--bestowed onto the law enforcers—for financial gain. The impunity enjoyed by law enforcers under varied political leaderships has extended to using these crimes over political opponents, periodically.

An example of such abductions are the 19 BNP opposition activists picked up in and around Dhaka over a two week period just before the controversial January 2014 election. The abductions of the sons of the three convicted war criminals is another example. In all the cases, the persons who were picked up never returned except in the case of Hummam Quader Chowdhury, who returned but has remained mum about his whereabouts for seven months.

Incidentally, the Bangladeshi media, despite considering enforced disappearance as a ‘hot news topic’, have refrained from digging deeper into the linkages among the parties involved behind those disappearances. Many media analysts and relevant experts believe the political polarisation and the political decapitation of an effective opposition in Bangladesh has forced the local media to practice this self-censorship or state imposed censorship.

However, the case of a‘sudden disappearance’ of Dr Mubashar Hasan—an Assistant Professor of North South University (NSU)of Bangladesh who occasionally wrote innocuous articles on militancy and political Islam— since November 7 has put the issue of enforced disappearance into the limelight again.

The NSU teacher reportedly left home in South Banasree for office in Bashundhara-some 13 kilometers away- around 7am on Tuesday. He called his father around 4 pm informing him that he would come home after attending a meeting in Agargaon-another place locating about 15 kilometer far from Bashundhara. But when he did not come home by 9pm the family became concerned and started searching for him. Later at night they filed a GD with the police.

Dr Hasan, an accomplished academic, didn’t have any political affiliation rather he was known among the close circle as a self-proclaimed liberal who doesn’t have any problem accommodating opinions of all shades and colors regardless of the political implications.

According to his sister TamannaTasnim, who has been posting several facebook posts depicting the sorry state of their family since her brother gone missing, Hasan was a family man and never stayed late out of the house without informing the family members. His peers and colleagues too said that there is absolutely no reason for Dr Hasan to stay disappeared by himself.

Finding no possible reasons behind such disappearance, speculations and opinions have started forming again towards a state-sponsored crime. There are justifiable reasons behind such assumptions.

Much of Dr Hasan’s scholarly works focus on the topic of the political Islamization of Bangladesh and how, most of the political parties including the incumbent Awami League have used the religions and religious parties of the country to win the game of thrones.

He was working on a book-a collection of essays titled “Bangladesh: A Critical Reader”-and some of his colleagues who preferred to be unnamed said the essays were written on issues which are considered as ‘very sensitive’ in Bangladesh.

The index of book includes thirty four chapters, titles of which include ‘All Hail the Leaders—Presidentialization of Bangladesh Politics’, ‘Tarique Rahman and Liberal Politics in Bangladesh’, ‘Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal: a critique of the critics’, ‘Religious freedom with an Islamic twist: How the Medina Charter is used to frame secularism in Bangladesh’, ‘Deconstructing discourse of Bangladeshi blogging’, and ‘Minority assault: It is politics not religion’.

He had published a number of Facebook posts regarding the upcoming collection, but all such posts were found to have been removed when viewing his profile in late November. Incidentally, Hasan’s family member disclosed that he reportedly became paranoid over his personal security after a man, identifying himself as a student, went to his house on October 25 and searched for him.

Hasan’s father Motahar Hossain has issued a statement in the media, stating “Law enforcement agencies have been extremely cooperative with us and we’re hopeful that my son will be back amongst us within no time. We plead to the government to give this case the utmost priority.”

When asked, all law enforcement officials— from the local police stations up to the high-ups in headquarters— said that they were still looking for Dr Hasan’s whereabouts. Their investigations however had failed to find the trace of a person in two weeks who went missing while commuting within a stretch of 15 kilometers in a jam-packed capital.

(The author is a Journalist from Bangladesh )