Never let go

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“I want him back. I want to go to school with him,” begged a seven-year old girl, Adiba Islam Hridi. When Hridi was only two years of age and her mother, Farzana, was expecting her second child, Hridi’s father Parvez Hossain, a Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) leader from Bangshal in the capital, went missing on December 2, 2013. Several men identifying themselves as detectives picked him up at Shahbagh, according to family friends who were present at the scene. Over four and half years after his enforced disappearance, Parvez is nowhere to be found out yet.

Like Hridi, many other children, wives and mothers of disappearance victims held rally holding photographs of the missing ones in front of the National Press Club marking the United Nations declared International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30. Joining the same rally Saleha Begum, mother of missing Chhatra League leader SM Moazzem Hossain Topu, said, “My son is innocent. If he did anything wrong, he should be punished under the law. My question is what kind of a country is this where people are killed and their whereabouts remain unknown?”

Samiha Zaman is daughter of one of the few most recent victims of enforced disappearance. She joined the rally seeking justice as her father a former Bangladesh ambassador to Vietnam M Maroof Zaman remained traceless for past nine months. Samiha Zaman alleged that instead of helping them, law enforcers sometimes misbehaved with them when they sought information on her father’s whereabouts.

In the latest reckoning that the right body, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), did by compiling media reports, as many as 310 people have fallen victims to enforced disappearances from 2014 to 2018 (till August 26). Of them, 45 were shown arrest by the police, 33 returned home whereas 44 dead bodies have been recovered. In most of the cases, families, relatives and witnesses claim that the victims were allegedly picked up by law enforcers – RAB, DB police and people, who introduced themselves as officials from intelligence department. But from media reports and also from ASK’s own queries it is found that those “Special Forces,” very often shrug off their responsibilities by denying those allegations of arrest and detention. ASK claimed in a statement that “In most of the cases, the police even deny accepting the complaint and filing a case and even if they accept to register a general diary (GD), relatives are not allowed to mention the name of any law enforcing agency. Some initiatives for recovery are noticed only if the victims are important or influential persons of the society.”

In some of the cases, ASK has observed that the missing person is shown arrest after some days or found dead in crossfire. Although, some of them are fortunate enough to return home, they remain quiet about what actually had happened to them. “So far, no proper and impartial investigation has been carried out of the allegations of disappearances raised by the families and relatives. Also, we do not have any information regarding any departmental inquiry. As a result of High Court’s directives and repeated demands of media and human rights activists, only one case – the sensational 7-murder case of Narayanganj is being prosecuted in the judiciary,”  stated ASK.

The United Nations adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) in 2006 to provide protection from such incidences and the Convention entered into force in 2010. In this Convention, widespread enforced disappearance committed in an organized way has been declared as a ‘crime against humanity’. Moreover, to create awareness and sensitivity, the Convention declared 30 August as the International Day of Enforced Disappearance to draw attention to the victims of such occurrences. ‘Enforced disappearance’ is defined in Article 2 of the Convention as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

In the last three Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of United Nations under the mechanism of reviewing human rights situation of member states, recommendations were made to Bangladesh to become signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In 2017, United Nations Human Rights Committee, after assessing Bangladesh’s political and citizens’ rights situation, also made recommendations for undertaking effective measures and become a signatory to the relevant convention. According to ASK, “It is a matter of frustration that Bangladesh although, being a signatory to eight out of nine main United Nations conventions, refrains from signing or approving the International Convention for providing protections to the people against enforced disappearances.”

Now as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) goes to its 39th session from September 10 to 28 in Geneva, Switzerland, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) made a written submission titled “BANGLADESH: Inaccessible domestic remedies for enforced disappearances requires intervention.” In its submission the Hong Kong-based ALRC said it would like to raise the issue of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh before the Human Rights Council. “The situation has only deteriorated, without any possibility of improvement under the incumbent government. The ALRC, in its previous written statements and oral interventions to the Council, has reiterated the problems central to the crime of enforced disappearances.” ALRC claimed that 432 people have been disappeared in Bangladesh in between January 2009 and July 2018 and involvements of different law enforcing agencies are alleged.

“The law-enforcement agencies continuously deny their involvement in abducting and disappearing citizens. However, weeks or months after the disappearances, nearly one-fourth of the disappeared persons are found detained in prison, embroiled in various fabricated criminal cases. There are many individuals who have never dared to speak of their experiences after returning home,” said ALRC that holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations. It accused Bangladesh’s police of systematically refusing to register complaints regarding enforced disappearances. “They insist that the name of the law-enforcement agency be withheld in the complaints. The police also compel the complainant to replace the term “disappearance” with “kidnapped by unidentified miscreants” or “found missing”. As a result, the denial of access to the complaint mechanism by the police is the primary hurdle faced by complainants. Seeking justice without having proper access to the complaint mechanism is clearly impossible.”

ALRC observed that complainants and families of the disappeared continuously face intimidation through physical and digital surveillance by different state agencies. Complainants face similar challenges at the Magistrate’s Court, where registration of a complaint requires the mandatory assistance of lawyers and lawyers do not want to step forward to challenge law enforcement agencies, due to various reprisals. “The Police, as the statutory crime-investigating agency, do not conduct investigations of the complaints filed with the police stations or with the Magistrate’s Courts, except one case of disappearance of seven people in 2015. As a result, there has been only one prosecution of perpetrators in the last ten years, for committing enforced disappearances and subsequent disposal of bodies,” stated ALRC.

While seeking justice for the missing ones by taking part in the August 30 rally, a sister of an enforced disappearance victim said, “This is the 25th time I came to such a programme and have sought the government help in finding my brother.” Prof CR Abrar, who teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka, was also present there in solidary with the families of disappearance victims. He asked, “Children want their fathers back, wives want their husbands and parents want their children Are these illogical demands?”

In a statement on the eve of this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, the Ain o Shalish Kendra called for proper investigation of all incidences of enforced disappearances to ensure justice and rule of law. For the last few years, the incidences of enforced disappearances have created grave concern, fear and serious insecurity among the people of the country, ASK observed.

Reaz Ahmad, Executive Editor, United News of Bangladesh

  • Reflections
  • Never let go
  • Issue 9
  • Reaz Ahmad
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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