A Grave Trend
People 'mysteriously' disappear in Bangladesh, and this trend has taken a grave turn in recent years. According to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights body in Bangladesh, at least 519 people disappeared between 2010 and 2017. Some of them returned alive, bodies of others were identified, while a few were found arrested under different charges. But the fate of 329 missing persons, including Pintu, is still unknown. Nobody knows the whereabouts of the 27-year old student leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
All these appear to be the clear cases of enforced disappearance as defined by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance — "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."
In February 2017, The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (OHCHR) expressed deep concern over the growing number of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh. But the government never acknowledged, rather suggesting that persons are going on hiding voluntarily.
According to ASK, the numbers of people disappeared in the past five years rose systematically with 53 persons in 2013, 80 in 2014, 55 in 2015, 97 in 2016 and 60 in 2017. Why is involuntary disappearance escalating in Bangladesh? In a bid to stay in power, using state forces, ruling parties resort to this method as a tool of eliminating opponents.
Bangladesh was born as an independent democratic nation in 1971 but it slid into autocracy or pseudo-civilian regimes. Elections held between 1973 and 1991 were generally considered highly flawed and rigged in favour of the ruling parties. The result was the country moved to a prudential system in 1975 from parliamentary system. It was restored in 1991 but the parliament has always been dysfunctional, hampering democratic system and good governance.
Bangladesh political landscape is dominated by the centre-left Awami League (AL) and the centre-right BNP. Since 1991, these two parties ruled the country alternately but democracy did not flourish as they mostly fought on the streets.
Two of the six elections held between 1991 and 2014 were boycotted by all opposition parties. Defeated parties never accepted results in other elections and boycotted the parliaments. "Immoral or not, the Opposition-led alternately by AL and BNP is merrily practicing the boycott culture without any regard or attention to electorate's sentiments, and increasingly resorting to this extra-parliamentary means in order not to make the executive behave, but to fulfill its own agenda," explains South Asian political analyst Professor Dilara Choudhury in an article titled 'Culture of Parliament Boycott in Bangladesh'.
The ruling party always maintained the 'winner takes all policy'. Its rigid, intransigent attitude and unwillingness to recognize opposition's rights ended up with exterminate opponents such as enforced disappearance through special agencies.
The recently released report of Bertelsmann Foundation (Bertelsmann Stiftung) explains how Bangladesh is moving towards autocracy. In its Transformation Index 2018, the German-based think tank said Bangladesh no longer meets minimum standards for democracy and is under autocratic rule for lack of quality of elections and the government's undermining the rule of law and political participation to consolidate power.
Tackling Opposition Strategy
'Enforced disappearance' illustrates the autocratic nature of the government which is generally viewed that this tactic is being applied to intimidate and annihilate the opponents.
This is similar to Chile's case in 70s. After overthrowing the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende through a coup, General Augusto Pinochet formed DINA (the National Intelligence Directorate) in 1973 ostensibly to coordinate the activities of the army, navy, air force and police. In fact, it was a 'clean up' operation derived from the destructive extremes of political and social passions. The elimination process involved in killings and arresting hundreds of people that ended in disappearance. The Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation revealed victims were officials, politicians, journalists and people who they thought sympathized to the former government.
Similarly, RAB was formed by the ruling BNP in 2003 as a special crime combatant unit, comprising police, army, navy, air force and border guards. Since its emergence, the force has been widely criticized for human rights violation, especially for torturing and killing people in custody. Many of the victims were rival political activists. The actions were legitimized by a controversial law "Indemnity Act, 2003". The act was declared illegal by the High Court in 2015 but the force was not dismantled, rather has been reinforced by succeeding regimes.
In April last year, Swedish Radio (Sveriges Radio) broadcast news on RAB's abducting and killing people. It exposed a secretly recorded conversation with a senior RAB official about how this force was using violent methods of eliminating people.
These officials are driven by political ideology as in Bangladesh, politics determines everything. With the change of government, commanding officers of RAB and other forces are also changed. Officials loyal to the ruling party take the key positions. Therefore, they target opposition party activists and people critical of the government. Pintu was the President of Sutrapur unit of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, the student wing of BNP, and got targeted by officials loyal to the ruling AL.
To some extent, these officials are driven by corruption and power misuse. 'Narayanganj seven murder case' is a glaring example of that. A group of RAB members abducted and brutally killed seven people, including a city councilor from Narayagnanj in 2014. A horrifying story came to the light when bodies were found floating in a river. One ruling party man bribed the RAB personnel to murder the councilor, a political rival of him. Others were killed in an attempt to clean up witnesses of the crime committed by the force.
When Silence Is NOT Golden
Witnesses and victims of enforced disappearance prefer to remain silent. Family members who were very vocal in media when their relatives disappeared began to behave differently once the missing relatives returned. They avoided journalists while victims did not want to give any details about their disappearance. Few, in their instant statements before the media, made similar claims. "They were forced into microbuses, blindfolded and taken to unknown places. Hooded they were kept in a small room with their hands tied up. Their hands only untied for taking meals and one day they found themselves freed on a certain street". None of them could recognize the people who picked them up and held hostage. However, nobody asked why every story is similar. On the other hand, police abandoned investigation on the plea of not getting any clue from the victims.
Khaleda Islam, an eyewitness of enforced disappearances, mentioned people who picked up her brother Mizanur Rahman were all in plainclothes, carrying walky-talky in hands and firearms in the holsters. Their appearance, hair style and attitudes were similar to the members of law-enforcement agencies. Like Pintu's case, they too wanted to interrogate Rahman. But Rahman, who returned 16 days after the incident in March 2017, didn't share a single word with anyone about it, not even with his family members.
Human rights defender Nur Khan interviewed a number of victims whom he found traumatized. "Their terrifying experiences haunt them even after their release," said the former executive director of ASK.
They fear legal action could jeopardize their lives. Perhaps, they get their freedom at the expense of their silence. It can only happen if 'abductors' are powerful and are above the laws. Thus, it makes sense why they don't want to pursue their cases after their release. It also explains why police don't show interest to investigate into the disappearance cases and the cases are fizzled out.
Weak Role of Media
The mainstream media in Bangladesh failed to play its 'Watchdog' role in this matter. Their coverage has been more like event reporting with little or no follow-ups, a clear indication of the existence of limited press freedom and fear to write about it.
Committee to Protect Journalists in a report in February said: "By appearance, Bangladesh has a vibrant and boisterous media industry. But journalists are facing a diverse range of threats, from out-of-control police and forced disappearance, to tough criminal laws under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Act". The controversial Section 57 allows police to arrest without warrant and stipulates maximum 14 years in prison for offenses under the law. In 2017, two dozen cases were filed against journalists for their reports.
Journalist Utpal Das disappeared in October last year and remained missing for 62 days. He was freed on December 20. His status on Facebook was 'Talked about new issue: arrest' which he posted few hours before his disappearance. It was assumed he was going to expose something that might put law enforcement agencies in question and that could be the reason behind his missing.
Culture of Impunity
Human Rights Watch, an international human rights body investigating disappearances, found that the accusations made against the security agencies regarding disappearance were true in many cases. It also reported most of these abuses were carried out by RAB while rest were picked up by the Detective Branch (DB) of the police or unknown forces.
Saheli Ferdaous, an Assistant Inspector General (Media and Publication) at the Police Headquarters, said only the DB can arrest people in plainclothes, but in that case the local police station is informed about it. "Police will not take any responsibility if any member of police or other agencies do anything with a criminal motive."
In almost all cases of enforced disappearances that HRW documented, police did not allow the families to file a General Diary (GD) if the complaint contained allegations involving the law enforcement authorities, instead, insisted on filing a complaint form saying that their family member was "missing".
The day after Pintu was picked up his family went to Pallabi Police Station, but they had no information about it. Police told them to wait 24 hours. "We waited but there was no clue about my brother's whereabouts. So, police insisted us to file a GD," said Rehana Banu Munni, the only sister of the missing person. She went to RAB, DB and other agencies but with no avail. Later, the family filed a case in the court, alleging that 'people introducing themselves as law enforcers' took him way.
To utter frustration, law enforcement agencies couldn't settle a single disappearance case. And even in some cases, police investigations were mere eyewash. After investigating Pintu's case, police said he was picked up by armed personnel but couldn't identify them and their motive. They concluded further action would be taken on the basis of getting clues but, in fact, it was the end of the investigation.
Finding no way, some families jointly filed a writ petition with the High Court over the enforced disappearance and it is pending with the court. Many submitted complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) while some sought intervention of the UN.
The NHRC wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs to intervene in 35 cases. The ministry replied to 13 letters but with no reference on what actions had been taken against the accused while ignored rest cases.
Meanwhile, the OHCHR called on the government to immediately reveal the whereabouts of 40 people. The group also expressed its willingness to provide assistance in investigation. But the government didn't respond yet. Bangladesh is one of the countries who didn't sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
"It is the responsibility of the state to find out a person who has been abducted or gone missing. If law enforcement agencies are not involved, the state should find out who are behind," said Nur Khan. Human rights organisations have long been demanding formation of a judicial investigation commission to probe disappearance cases but it hasn't yet happened. Consequently, with denial, the state actually approves the enforced disappearance and culture of impunity.
Hoping Against Hope
Pintu's disappearance left a deep sense of fear in his family. "Whenever my father's phone rings he gets scared, assuming the caller would bring bad news about Pintu. My father has become ill. We don't allow him using phone anymore," said Rehana, who at least wants to know the fate of her brother.
"We visited all the possible places to look for Pintu. We went to every city morgue, assuming if his body is left unidentified. We did it for months," she said. "Even after so many days, I don't know whether my brother is alive or dead. How can we live like this?" asked Rehana fighting back her tears.
The answer is not likely to come until the political culture of Bangladesh is changed and the rule of law is ensured.