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OP-ED: Getting away with enforced disappearances

  • Published at 04:07 pm August 31st, 2020
Enforced disappearances
Families are seeking answers Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

When will this stop in Bangladesh?

On August 30 -- the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances -- hundreds of families in Bangladesh must have been heart-broken for their loved ones. 

A son cries for his father, a mother cries for her son. The wife grieves for her husband and the heart of a sister aches for her abducted brother.

“Enforced disappearances are grave violations of international law and are crimes against humanity,” explains constitutional lawyer Dr Shahdeen Malik. He laments that the state lacks the initiative to rescue abducted persons as police stations refuse to register complaints of their families.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), quoting the rights groups in Bangladesh, said that in the last 18 months from January 1, 2019, to July 31, 2020, at least 572 people have been reported to have been forcibly disappeared by security forces and law enforcement agencies.

While some were eventually released, shown arrested, or discovered killed by law enforcement agencies in so-called “crossfires,” the whereabouts of many of them remain unknown.

We all know that enforced disappearance has frequently been exercised as a tool to spread terror among critics. In a political void, both the state and non-state actors regularly fish in murky waters to settle their scores. Most of the acts of disappearances could be clustered into three groups. First in the line of fire are the political opponents and antagonists of the state. Second, are security threats to the state and non-state actors, and third is obviously for extortion. The latter two are never freed. Mostly they are executed.

The sensational abduction in recent times is the case of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol. The journalist was “found” blindfolded, with his legs and arms bound at the no-man’s-land of the Bangladesh-India international border 53 days after he disappeared.

Also, rights defenders have not forgotten the mysterious abduction of indigenous rights activist Kalpana Chakma 22 years ago from a village in Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. 

She was taken away hours after midnight, on the eve of the 1996 general election. No one has been tried for her disappearance. She is presumed to have been killed after her abduction to cover up the incident.

The day before Kajol’s suspicious disappearance on March 10, the journalist was one of 32 individuals booked for criminal defamation complaints by a member of parliament of the ruling Awami League.

Kajol was accused under the controversial Digital Security Act, 2018 of publishing defamatory posts on the lawmaker on Facebook. His disappearance, and suspected torture, appear to be heavily connected to the trumped-up charges. 

After 203 days since Kajol had disappeared, he had been “found” and then taken into custody. The ailing journalist is now languishing in prison and is refused proper health care despite a court order.

On the other hand, the families in grief squarely blame the authorities for not responding to the repeated appeals from the victims’ families for investigations into the enforced disappearance of their loved ones.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Committee against Torture, and the UN Human Rights Committee have all expressed their concern over the Bangladesh government’s failure to disclose information regarding arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention, and enforced disappearances.

However, the government persistently denies that enforced disappearances occur in Bangladesh and refuse to credibly investigate the fates and whereabouts of disappeared persons, according to HRW.

The government has yet to sign or ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The end of impunity of state actors will not cease unless accountability and transparency of a democratic government are assured. Safety and security are enshrined in the constitution.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter @saleemsamad.

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