‘Goom’ or enforced disappearance: Even one is one too many

Reaz Ahmad
Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Aurora Islam breaks down while holding a picture of her father, Sajedul Islam Sumon, at the Jatiya Press Club on December 10. Relatives of 25 such missing individuals gathered at the venue to call upon the government to set up an independent commission to look into cases of enforced disappearance and bring those responsible to justice. (Photo Courtesy The Daily Star)


Even one missing person is too many. Isn’t it so – unless, of course, one prefers remain content with what the state’s top policeman has recently said. Media quoted the Inspector General of Police as saying, “Enforced disappearance, abduction and killing are nothing new. It has been going on since the British period.” It’s also another way of reminding us of our colonial past. In fact the top cop stopped just by speaking of what he perceived –‘what used to happen’ during the British days in our part of the world. But the prime minister has recently given us an elaborate description of what happening in modern day ‘mainland’ Britain.


Prime minister has claimed that forced disappearances also occur in Britain and the United States. She told the parliament in its last session in November that it was ultimately the government’s responsibility to protect people, but that Bangladesh was not the only country whose citizens sometimes vanished.


“As per statistics of 2009, 275,000 British citizens disappeared,” she said. “Of them, the whereabouts of 20,000 is not known. If you consider America, the situation is even worse.” Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh was a developing country with 160 million people, compared with 65 million in Britain, and that in comparison with the UK and US “our situation is better”.


“We are taking steps when there is any incident of disappearance,” said the prime minister.


Let’s now have a reality check on how our state is responding to the increasing number of cases relating to enforced disappearance. Over the past five years families of many enforced disappearance victims failed to get their near and dear ones back again. They sought justice, desperately sought to know the missing ones’ whereabouts and demanded for lawful redress. In vain, many lost hope while a set of other people resorted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as a hope against hope. But those relations, friends and admirers of all those gone missing are getting no words of solace from the rights body, not to speak of justice.


The NHRC, reconstituted in 2009, as a statutory independent body, has a huge mandate and authority for the good cause protecting citizens’ rights in the country. But a right body of NHRC’s stature is only that much effective as much a ‘democratically’ elected government responds to its calls. Over the past five years the NHRC put forward to the Home Ministry more than 150 cases of enforced disappearance, custodial torture and death, extrajudicial killing and other rights violation asking for investigation reports. But the state’s law enforcing agencies, ministry concerned chose to remain largely non-responsive to such requests made by the NHRC.


When many victim families raise accusing fingers at some law enforcing agencies’ members for their alleged role behind people getting missing or for becoming victims of enforced disappearance, the onus lies with the concerned government ministry and subordinate offices to make sure independent probes are carried out and people in public service are cleared of such accusations if they have had no hands behind such incidents. It’s not fathomable why the Home Ministry should not comply with the NHRC requests and furnish it with the investigation reports in each case that it has asked for. By not obliging, Home Ministry is neither serving the victim parties nor the forces’ officials under its disposal. In fact if the government carries out proper probes in each case and make those public, people would have a better understanding that how their country is faring well comparing to the UK and USA as far as people getting vanished is concerned.


This year alone more than 60 people got disappeared, many of them believed to be under coercive manner. Only a handful of them returned after passing agonizing days, weeks and months in unknown places and most of them since remained mum as per the wish of their powerful captors. They, somehow, managed to escape from their captors but couldn’t get away with the shrill of it. At times it so appeared in public view that captors let free a few of them once their purposes are served. The long list of those who fell prey to such abduction or enforced disappearance included people from various sections including businessmen, diplomats, university teachers and journalists. The NHRC writes to the home ministry and the police headquarters seeking explanations when allegations of any rights violation by the law enforcers is reported or raised. NHRC document shows, the right body is waiting for the probe reports on 154 incidents, which include 32 custodial tortures or deaths, 25 enforced disappearances and 12 extrajudicial killings and some harassments of civilians allegedly by law enforcers. NHRC Chairman is on record regretting with a great deal of displeasures that – “Whenever we ask for any probe report, police say it’s still under investigation. Six months to one year go by, but the report never comes.”


According to rights body Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), as many as 519 people have reportedly became victims of enforced disappearance between 2010 and July 2017 in the country and 329 of them were still missing. According to media reports, hands of RAB, police and an intelligence agency behind such incidents were invariably alleged by families of victims but, such allegations either drew denial or were lost in silence. In 13 years since 2004, more than 1,900 people have become victims of extrajudicial killings involving police, RAB and joint forces. Nearly 800 have died in the custody of law enforcement agencies, which are bound by the law to protect the detainees.


As we claim ourselves of members of a civilized society where rule of law and basic human rights are supposed to prevail over anything else, even one missing person is too many. If individual is not safe, society is not safe either.

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