Even after a Tangail court sentenced a man to death in absentia over the murder of labour rights activist Aminul Islam, the mystery surrounding his death remains unresolved.
Aminul’s friend Mostafijur Rahman was the sole convict.
The mutilated body of the 39-year-old Ashulia-based rights activist was found in Tangail’s Ghatail two days after he had gone missing in April 2012. His friend Mostafijur, an informant of garment factory owners, police, and security forces, was on the top of the list of suspects from the beginning.
Aminul was last seen going out of his office with Mostafijur and a person covered in a veil. Mostafijur has since remained traceless.
The investigators failed to identify where the killing took place and who else was involved in the murder.
Prosecutor Multan Uddin said the investigation was incomplete. “There was a person wearing a veil. There is also no elaboration about Aminul’s abduction, torture, and murder in the charge sheet,” he said.
Aminul’s wife Hosne Ara Begum said she believed that other people had helped Mostafijur kill her husband and carry his body some 90 kilometres away to Tangail.
Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation President Babul Akter was among the nine prosecution witnesses. He told Dhaka Tribune that the court had rejected their appeal for a fresh investigation by the Police Bureau of Investigation.
Court depended on ‘circumstantial evidence’
In the 17-page verdict, the court mentioned that there was no eyewitness in the case.
According to law, an accused can be punished if he is found guilty even in cases of circumstantial evidence, provided the prosecution is able to prove beyond reasonable doubt the complete chain of events and circumstances which corroborate the involvement and guilt of the accused, the court said.
After going through the evidence and witness testimonies, the court arrived at the decision that accused Mostafijur had caused Aminul’s death and should be held accountable for the incident.
It said that the charges against the accused had been established beyond all reasonable doubt.
Mostafijur’s family members claimed that they did not know his whereabouts while his father declined to speak to the Dhaka Tribune.
His two brothers said Mostafijur and some ‘influential’ persons had visited their village home at Magura in 2012 twice. The convict has since been traceless.
An inconclusive investigation
According to case documents, the investigators mostly described the chronology of Aminul’s murder with the narratives of prosecution witnesses.
Mostafijur had visited Aminul’s office on the evening of the latter’s disappearance with a person wearing a veil whose identity could not be ascertained yet. He had requested Aminul to help him marry the person accompanying him. The three later went out together.
Investigators could not find out where Aminul was taken, whether Mostafijur and the other individual were with the labour rights activist when he was murdered, and how Mostafijur was involved in the killing.
The court, in its verdict, pointed that Mostafijur had some accomplices but the investigators had failed to identify them. The investigators could not ascertain how many people were involved in the murder and what weapons were used.
Most importantly, the investigators could not find out the motive behind the murder. The court, however, mentioned that Aminul did not have a good relationship with the local RMG owners.
The investigators found that Mostafijur had spoken with some intelligence officials including DEPZ’s General Manager (Security and Intelligence) Lt Col Md Mustafizur Rahman and BEPZA’s Deputy Manager (Security) Major Shajhan Kabir over mobile phone on April 4, 2012.
When the investigator asked the intelligence officials about the telephone conversations, they told the IO that they had spoken with Mostafijur to collect information about the agitation of RMG workers in the area in order to take precautions to protect the factories.
The IO did not investigate the conversations further.
When the court asked the IO why Mostafijur would kill Aminul with whom he had good relations, the investigator could not provide an answer.
CID’s assistant superintendent of police Md Fazlul Kabir, the then IO, has since retired. He could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.
“An analysis of the incident shows clearly that a number of other people, apart from Mostafijur, were involved with Aminul’s murder,” prosecution lawyer Multan said. “But police failed to find out the other perpetrators.”
The search for a motive
The court observed that Aminul was very popular amongst garment workers for which the garments owners association was envious and on bad terms with him. The victim did not bow his head even after he received threats several times and was taken into custody.
According to the court, a vested quarter had Aminul killed through an agent and other accomplices. However, the court did not clarify who the “vested quarter” was.
Claiming Aminul had been targeted by Bangladeshi security forces since 2010, International Labor Rights Forum, in its August 6, 2012 report, said: “He was detained and beaten by National Security Intelligence (NSI) on June 16, 2010. NSI officers demanded he provides a written statement, falsely implicating his colleagues at BCWS (Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity) in criminal activities associated with garment worker unrest.”
“Along with many other labourers, Mr Islam [Aminul] was charged in several spurious and unsubstantiated cases regarding RMG workers’ demonstrations for a decent wage in 2010 despite his verifiable alibis. Just before he died, Mr Islam had been helping workers of Shanta Group’s factory in Dhaka Export Processing Zone to resolve ongoing disputes and strikes.”
In 2010, Aminul, as well as other labour leaders, had been arrested in connection with the protests to push for a hike of minimum wage for RMG workers.
The Odhikar’s fact-finding team said Aminul’s colleagues had alleged that the law enforcement agency was involved in his abduction and killing but the NSI rejected the claim.
New York Times, in an article titled ‘Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave’, said that the government had raised the minimum monthly wage to about $37 after RMG workers’ protest in 2010 and created the Industrial Police to collect intelligence and pre-empt labour unrest in industrial areas and formed a Crisis Management Cell.
“BCWS Executive Director Kalpona Akter said that the then NSI agents were calling so regularly that she moved Mr Islam to a quieter industrial area to put some distance between him and the then angry protesting RMG workers in Ashulia.”
At one point, Kalpona asked Aminul if he wanted to quit but he said that he wanted to work. Finally, in late 2010, an intermediary arranged a secret meeting between Aminul and the NSI director, the report said.
The meeting — confirmed by three people with knowledge of the matter — was an attempt to clear the air so that Aminul could continue to work in safety. The director gave Aminul his cellphone number and told him to call if he had a problem, the report added.
But in March 2012, more than a dozen officers took Aminul away, his family and co-workers told the NYT, adding that officers with the Industrial Police questioned him for several hours about unfounded rumours that he was planning to organize 10,000 workers to participate in an opposition party’s political rally on that year’s March 12.
When Aminul denied the allegation, the officers allowed him to leave but to return to the station on the day of the rally.
At roughly the same time, a protest in Ashulia paralyzed the Shanta Denim factory, which made clothes for Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and a range of other American brands.
An angry confrontation had broken out after the managers had refused to allow the workers an afternoon off to watch the Bangladesh national cricket team play in the Asia Cup championship. But soon it swelled into a standoff over wages, sexual harassment of women workers, and other concerns.
Workers sought out Aminul, who began exchanging regular phone calls with a high-ranking government security official to try to broker a deal.
By the early evening of April 4, 2012, Aminul had negotiated a breakthrough. The next morning, workers returned to the factory but by then, Aminul had disappeared, the NYT report said.
Murder caught global attention
The news of Aminul’s death was covered widely by both the local and the international media. Due to the media coverage, the global right organizations conducted separate investigations and demanded Dhaka take strong steps to solve the murder mystery.
Sheikh Hasina, appearing on the BBC, questioned whether Aminul was ever a labour activist and claimed that no one had heard of him before his murder, reported New Zealand-based independent news website Scoop, quoting a press release from the International Trade Union
On April 9, 2013, the International Trade Union Confederation’s Secretary General Sharan Burrow wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asking about the development of Aminul’s murder case investigation.
The letter also said that the organization was disappointed in the sluggish progress of the investigation.
When the NYT asked Kalpona, the boss and friend of Aminul, about the murder, she asked: “Who is so powerful that they killed Aminul — yet are still untouchable?”
The Dhaka Tribune’s Magura Correspondent Khan Mazharul Haque contributed to this report