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Enforced disappearances on the rise in Bangladesh

April 20, 2012 11:59 IST

Human rights organisations believe that enforced disappearances are replacing extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh. In most cases the victims were 'arrested' by men claiming to be law enforcement officials, reports Syed Tashfin Chowdhury from Dhaka.

M Ilias Ali, organising secretary and chief of Sylhet district unit of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and former lawmaker of Sylhet-2 constituency, left his Banani house in Dhaka with two others in a private car around 9.30 pm on Tuesday. His wife Tahsina Rushdi later informed the police that he could not be reached on his mobile phone soon after.

Later, the Banani police found Ali's private car abandoned in Mohakhali in Dhaka around 1.30 am on Wednesday. Sub-inspector Fayezur Rahman of Banani police station informed the media that the doors of the car were open and a mobile phone was found inside the car.

After calling various numbers on the call list of the phone, the police were certain that the phone belonged to Ilias Ali. "The car belongs to his wife," Rahman said, who assured that the police are using all efforts to trace Ali.

The incident has shocked the people of Bangladesh, as Ali is an influential politician in the Sylhet division, who was also gradually climbing up the ladder of the BNP. The BNP currently leads an 18-party opposition alliance in the national parliament of Bangladesh.

As soon as news of the incident spread, BNP activists and Ali's supporters in Sylhet blockaded a 30-km road on the Dhaka-Sylhet highway on Wednesday morning. The local chapter of the BNP called a day-long shutdown in Sylhet metropolitan city and Sunamganj district on Thursday.

While announcing the new '18-party alliance', during a press conference at Diploma Engineers' Institution at 4 pm in Dhaka on Wednesday, opposition leader, former prime minister of Bangladesh and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia blamed the present government for Ilias's disappearance.

"Ilias Ali was picked up around midnight yesterday. If he is not returned in full health, we will have to resort to drastic political movements that can topple the government," said Khaleda.

Her earlier six-party alliance has become 12 parties strong from April 18, as the Liberal Democratic Party, Kalyan Party, Jatiya Ganatantrik Party, National People's Party, Bangladesh Labour Party, National Democratic Party, Bangladesh NAP, Muslim League, Islamic Party, National Awami Party (NAP-Bhasani) and People's League joined ranks in the alliance.

Earlier, the alliance comprised of the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Oikya Jote, Bangladesh Jatiya Party, Jamiyate Ulamaye Islam and Khilafat Majlish.

She went on, "The law enforcement agency personnel, who have picked up Ilias, do they think that this government is the last government of Bangladesh? Those lawmen, involved with the disappearances of BNP leaders and activists, will surely be tried. If this alarming trend of enforced disappearances continues, we will go to the international court against this government."

On Wednesday evening, the BNP also called a nationwide strike on April 22.

Incidents of enforced disappearances are increasing in Bangladesh, as human rights organisations believe that such forms of disappearances are replacing extra-judicial killings which had increased and have been protested by human rights activists over the past eight years.

The cases of disappearances are more or less similar.

Chowdhury Alam, a commissioner of ward 56 of the Dhaka city corporation and a member of the BNP's national executive committee, was allegedly abducted by a group of men from Dhaka's Indira road on June 25, 2010. Alam's family still maintains that he was picked up by lawmen in plain clothes.

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.

All these victims are still missing.

According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights promoting non-government organisation, six persons have reportedly "disappeared" during the first three months of 2012 in Bangladesh. Odhikar's latest quarterly report reads that the six had disappeared "after being arrested by men claiming to be members of law enforcing agencies".

In their latest report, Odhikar even described the last case of enforced disappearance that occurred on February 25. The report reads, that on the day, 'around 7 pm, Shah Alif Prince was picked up in Shyamoli, Dhaka by some men who identified themselves as members of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh's elite paramilitary force).'

Family members of Prince, who was a sales officer of Airtel Bangladesh, alleged that "some people in plain clothes claiming to be RAB, picked him up near Shyamoli".

Shahi Mosque. Alif's father Shahjahan Ali told Odhikar that on February 26 around 4.30 pm Alif called his mother on her cell phone from an unknown number and told her that he had been detained by the RAB. The latter denied such claims when the family contacted RAB-2 about this matter.

In reply to a question posed by MP Tarana Halim in the Bangladesh parliament on March 14, minister of home affairs, Shahara Khatun, commented that most of the victims of enforced disappearances were affiliated with criminal groups and abducted by their rivals.

In their first quarterly report of 2012, Odhikar termed the statement of the home minister as "unacceptable". Odhikar cited claims of family members of victims that "persons claiming to be law enforcement agencies and/or wearing the uniform of law enforcement agencies picked up the victims and they have 'disappeared' since their arrests".

Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of Odhikar, said to this correspondent on November 27, 2011, "From the 22 persons who disappeared from January till November 27, 2011, 11 were allegedly arrested by RAB, eight by the various departments of Bangladesh police and three by persons unknown."

He pointed out that following international and national criticisms of extra-judicial killings and a pledge to bring an end to such killings in their election manifesto in 2008, the present government of Bangladesh seemed to be able to bring down the number of reported extra-judicial killings, which was at 184 in 2007, 149 in 2008, 154 in 2009 and 127 in 2010. 

"But now, we can see, that enforced disappearance is the new form of extra-judicial killings," said Khan. According to Odhikar, 84 reported extra-judicial killings occurred in 2011.

Comparatively, according to Odhikar, the total number of enforced disappearances was reportedly 30 in 2011, 18 in 2010 and only two in 2009.

While some of the 43 people who disappeared from January 2010 till November 2011 had prior criminal records, others were mostly clean, working as small traders, students or political activists.

When asked by this correspondent about the arrests of 11 people by the RAB last year, director general of RAB Mokhlesur Rahman denied that his officials had anything to do with these arrests. "We have recently arrested numerous people who identified themselves as RAB or policemen," he said. "Maybe it's them."

While echoing the RAB's comments, the police claimed to be "investigating the matters" although no headway in any of these cases has been made except for the recovery of few dead bodies of victims last year. These victims were all "arrested" by men claiming to be law enforcement officials.

According to the 2010 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, although the crisis is a major concern in 94 countries, most of these cases occur in 27 countries of Asia. The UNWGEID has received the most cases from this region in recent years, due to the lack of a domestic laws penalising enforced disappearance as a separate and autonomous criminal.

The International Federation for Human Rights, Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance and its local member Odhikar has already urged the Bangladesh government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury in Dhaka