153 still missing, families waiting for their return

Adiba Islam Hridi breaks into tears while asking for her father Parvez Hossain, to be returned. Mayer Daak, a platform of the families of the people who fell victim to enforced disappearance, organised an event where relatives of disappeared people joined at Shahbagh intersection, Dhaka on 29 August 2020
File Photo

When Md Sohel from Bangshal in Old Dhaka went missing, his daughter Safa was just two months old. Now 10-year-old Safa is a third grader. Many of her classmates go to school holding hands of their fathers, and tell stories of their father to other classroomates. But Safa has no such stories. Instead, she asks her Mother Nilufar Yesmin, where her father is. She wants to go to school with her father. Nilufar Yesmin has no answer.

Md Sohel was president of Bangshal thana unit of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, student wing of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, when he went missing along with three others from Shahbagh area in the capital on 2 December, 2013.

A law enforcement agency members picked them up just two weeks prior to the parliament election in 2014, as alleged by Nilufar Yesmin. Since then no one knows their whereabouts.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on Tuesday, Nilufar said, “I’m still waiting for Sohel to return.”

Relatives of many such missing persons have been waiting like Nilufar for the return of their loved ones. The number of such persons who went missing at different times in the last 13 years is 153, according to Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an international rights organisation.

The Hong Kong-based rights organisation also said as many as 623 people were victims of enforced disappearance in the country between 2009 and 2022. Eighty four of them were found dead while 383 either returned alive or shown arrested later. Nothing could be learned about three persons, it added.

From the very beginning, the government and law enforcement agencies have consistently denied any involvement in enforced disappearances. Responsible figures within the government have repeatedly provided explanations that either the individuals in question went into hiding voluntarily or tragically drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

The country is observing the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on Wednesday, 30 August, in such a context.

The allegation of enforced disappearance is not completely new as there were some such allegations raised during the tenures of different governments in the past. But the matter came into public discussion widely in the country since BNP leader Ilias Ali went missing in 2012.

The de facto opposition party, however, also claimed that another party leader, Chowdhury Alam, was also a victim of enforced disappearance in Dhaka before the incident of Ilias Ali.

The allegations of enforced disappearance started soaring in 2013 and 2014, immediately before and after the 10th parliament election.

BNP alleged that fear was spread among the partymen by picking up key leaders and activists before the polls and afterwards to stop nationwide movement.

The allegations of enforced disappearance peaked in three consecutive years in the run-up to 11th parliament election in December, 2018.

The victims included not only the BNP leaders and activists, but also the leaders of ruling Awami League’s student organisation and the labour rights activists.

In January, 2016, plainclothesmen picked up Rampura thana unit leader of Bangladesh Chhatra League, Moazzem Hossain alias Apu, from a house in Bhatara area in Dhaka. Moazzem’s family still hopes he will return someday.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on Tuesday, his elder brother Mainul Hasan, also a physician, said, “We meet people from higher echelon of the government to high officials in the law enforcement agency for my brother. We requested them to find my younger brother. They said we are looking into it. But we know nothing about Moazzem as of now. We are still hoping he might return someday.”

He also said his father has already passed away and his mother has also taken to bed thinking about her younger son.

“My brother was picked up due to enmity over politics. We shall not lodge any complaint regarding this if we get back my brother,” he said.

Year-wise incidents of enforced disappearance

Rights organisation AHRC in September last year published a report on the victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh between 2009 and 2022.

In the report, it said three people fell victims of enforced disappearance in 2009. Since then the number has risen almost every year. In 2010, the number of victims was 19, in 2011 it was 32, in 2012  it was 27 and in 2013 the number was 54. The number of victims was 39 in 2014, it was 68 in 2015, in 2016 the number was 97, in 2017 it was 90, and in 2018 the number of victims was 98.

Demanding a neutral investigation into the allegations of enforced disappearance, Md Nur Khan, executive director to rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), told Prothom Alo, “It is the government’s responsibility to find out the victims of enforced disappearance. But instead of doing their jobs, the persons at offices are trying to distract from the actual incidents saying they drowned while crossing the Mediterranean.”

What happened with the list the UN provided

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the United Nations Human Rights Council provided a list of 76 victims of enforced disappearance to the Bangladesh government last year. The then UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, talked to the government during her visit to Bangladesh on 14 August that year.

The government informed Michelle Bachelet that 10 of the people from the list of UN Working Group were found. Besides, relatives of 10 people did not respond to police’s call to cooperate with them to find the missing people while the remaining 56 were just dubbed as “missing”.

Michelle Bachelet at that time said in a media conference that free, unbiased and transparent investigation is necessary to resolve the allegations of human rights violations.

In January last year police started a search operation following the list of the victims of enforced disappearance the UN provided. There were allegations that police coerced the families and relatives of the victims visiting their homes, calling them at police stations and forcing them to sign on blank paper then. The police then said the law enforcement members went to the homes of the alleged victims not to harass the families, but to investigate the incidents.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on Tuesday, law justice and parliamentary affairs minister Anisul Huq said, “The UN gave us a list. We decided to verify the names mentioned in the list by the officers-in-charge of local police stations to know what actually happened before taking any action. The families then alleged that police are harassing them. That is why we stopped that.”

The law minister further said, “Later, we took a decision and sent letters to the families of the people, being referred to as victims of enforced disappearance, seeking some information to investigate where they are. Some people were seen to be in hiding because of sentences from court, while some died.”

Prothom Alo on Tuesday contacted additional superintendent of police Enamul Haque, who is currently acting as spokesperson of police headquarters, to know about the advances made in the investigation that began following the list the UN provided.

He said he had no information on the matter.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s spokesperson deputy commissioner Faruque Hossain, however, told Prothom Alo that the investigation has been going on. Police investigations have found that many of those who are said to be victims of enforced disappearance are staying abroad. Some are doing business and some are seeking political asylum there.

Sanjida Islam, coordinator of Mayer Daak, a forum of the families of the victims of enforced disappearances, protested at such statements of law enforcement agencies.

She told Prothom Alo the government does not provide any clear answer to where are the people who are victims of enforced disappearances. Statements are issued mocking them.

Sanjida Islam further said, “Our singular demand is, give back the people who have been made victims of enforced disappearances. We want investigation into every incident of enforced disappearance and let the law enforcement members who are allegedly involved with enforced disappearances be brought to book.”

* The report was originally published in the print and online edition Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza