Family members and relatives of disappeared people demand government action to get back their loved ones during a human chain in Dhaka on May 25. About 500 people have disappeared in Bangladesh over the past six years. (ucanews.com photo)
Sanjida Islam Tuli gets heartbroken and fails to answer when her two young nephews ask, “Aunty, where is our father?”
In fact, she does not have an answer as she is still in the dark over the whereabouts of her brother, Sajedul Islam Sumon, who disappeared more than five years ago.
“Disappearance is worse than killing. If a person is killed, at least you know what has happened. It is unbearably painful when you don’t know what happened to your loved one or whether the person is dead or alive,” Tuli told ucanews.com.
Sumon and five friends disappeared from the Bashundhara residential area north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Dec. 4, 2013. He was the secretary of a local unit of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s second largest political party, in Dhaka.
Tuli alleges that members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite police unit, abducted her brother and his friends ahead of the general election on Jan. 5, 2014.
“Some construction workers told us they saw armed RAB members come with three double-cabin vans and a white microbus, and they sped away after detaining them at around 8.30 p.m.,” Tuli said.
The BNP and its allies boycotted the 2014 election after the ruling Awami League refused to reintroduce a neutral caretaker government system to oversee polls.
The boycott saw the Awami League win by a landslide, with more than half of 300 parliamentary seats won uncontested, amid massive political violence by supporters of the BNP and its Islamist ally Jamaat-e-Islami.
The case of Sumon and his friends is not an isolated incident. About 500 people, mostly leaders and activists of opposition political parties, have been victims of enforced disappearance over the past six years, according to rights activists and families of victims.
On May 25, family members and relatives of 19 disappeared persons held a protest with a human chain under the banner “Mothers Calling: No More Killing and Disappearance” and urged the government to release their loved ones from “secret detentions” ahead of the Islamic feast of Eid-ul-Fitr.
Protesters want to know what happened to the victims. “We have waited for years and tried our best to get back my brother. Police denied that he was picked up but refused to register a case to get him back. We are slowly losing hope of his return,” Tuli said.
Formed in 2004 mostly with ex-soldiers, the RAB has earned a reputation as a ruthless anti-terror, anti-drug and anti-trafficking law enforcement agency. However, the RAB has been among those law agencies accused of widespread human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, in most cases politically motivated.
State turns a blind eye
In 2017, a Bangladeshi court sentenced to death 24 RAB members including a commander in a seven-murder case. Global rights watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on Bangladesh to disband the RAB.
Rights activists say victims of disappearances rarely return in a country where extrajudicial killings are common, particularly in the war on drugs.
“Although most victims [of disappearances] are political activists, there are also people from other professions. Sometimes victims are found shot dead, but most people go completely missing. The few who return are traumatized, so they simply don’t speak up,” Nur Khan, former executive director of the Dhaka-based rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), told ucanews.com.
“People involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings are extremely powerful and it seems almost impossible to force them to face justice through the existing legal system. When a state turns a blind eye to such cases of gross human rights violations, it is simply headed for fascism.”
During his tenure at ASK, Khan has narrowly escaped being kidnapped by unknown people, presumably for his strong opposition to disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
“On May 15, 2014, I was returning home from the office by rickshaw and I realized a white microbus was following me before blocking me. I jumped off the rickshaw and ran away to the office,” he recalled.
Bangladesh’s constitution guarantees protection of the basic human rights of citizens, but it proves fruitless when state authorities are negligent, he said.
“You cannot drive the darkness away if you nurture darkness, so law enforcers cannot serve people if they are exploited and unable to act independently. The rights of citizens prevail only as a bunch of nice words in the constitution,” Khan added.
The motives and main perpetrators of disappearances are “unknown and unclear” but the government cannot escape its responsibility toward citizens, said Bishop Gervas Rozario, chairman of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“We don’t know who are behind disappearances and why they do it, but surely they have a big agenda to achieve. The government has to act and prove its hands are clean,” he told ucanews.com.
Bishop Rozario agreed that sometimes “vested, powerful quarters” block law enforcers from investigating disappearances properly.
“I am not 100 percent sure but I know there are cases where law enforcers have committed such crimes for money or have been used as a hired force. It is the government’s responsibility to find out and punish syndicates that use law enforcers in such a way,” he added.
Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner (media) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said the government is serious about cases of disappearances.
“In case of missing or disappeared persons, we conduct case-to-case investigations, and we have succeeded in arresting perpetrators and rescuing victims in a number of cases,” he told ucanews.com.
The official said not all cases should be called disappearances. “We have found people disappear for various reasons — love affairs, business causes and unstable family lives, etc. It can be a case of self-hiding or kidnapping. Sometimes people come back after a few days,” Rahman said.