Without a trace: Enforced disappearances in Bangladesh

Victims’ families allege law enforcement authorities of abducting and detaining hundreds of opposition activists.

Mir Ahmed Bin Quasim and family
Almost two years on, bin Quasim remains disappeared without a trace [Photo credit: Family of bin Quasim/Al Jazeera]

A month before the scheduled execution of Mir Quasim Ali, a member of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, his son and lawyer Mir Ahmad bin Quasim was preparing to appeal the death sentence in the Supreme Court.

On August 9, 2016, his wife and younger sister, who were with him at the time, reported a group of eight to nine plain-clothes men who did not identify themselves as being part of any security services, burst into his home in the capital, Dhaka, at around midnight.

With no warrant for his arrest, they issued an ultimatum, giving him five minutes to prepare and leave with them, bin Quasim’s wife, Farhana Tahmina reported. Where to, she said, they would not disclose.

Bin Quasim’s wife and younger sister frantically contacted friends and family for help. But within a few minutes, the 34-year-old was dragged barefoot from his home into an unmarked minibus with darkened windows. His two infant daughters watched on screaming and his wife and sister made futile attempts to stop the men.

Almost two years on, bin Quasim remains disappeared without a trace and his father, who was convicted for atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan, subsequently executed despite international criticism from human rights groups.

With no news of his whereabouts, his family have desperately demanded answers from the Bangladeshi government, but their demands have met denials, which is typical in cases of what has now notoriously come to be known as enforced “disappearances”.

Speaking from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by phone, bin Quasim’s sister, 28-year-old Sumaiya Rabeya, told Al Jazeera how her family was incriminated in his kidnapping and were subjected to unsolicited raids and visits by state security forces.

“When my father’s case was delayed after the abduction, the [Bangladeshi] government said we were staging the disappearance so that the case would get delayed,” she said. 

“Even two years on, every two to three months we have police raids on our home in Dhaka. They’re [the Bangladeshi government] the ones that abducted my brother and yet they raid our home for no apparent reason.” 

At the time of the execution, Rabeya said her father’s requests to see his son before he died were denied. 

“When they were executing my father, he said, ‘I don’t want anything. I just want to see my son before I die, and I want him to pray at my janazah (funeral)’, but they didn’t allow it,” she said.

Al Jazeera reached out to Asaduzzaman Khan, the minister of home affairs, but he declined to make a comment on the allegations against his government.

Spate of secret detentions

Since 2013, law enforcement authorities in Bangladesh have allegedly abducted and illegally detained hundreds of opposition activists, holding them in undisclosed locations without a warrant or any formal charges.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the “spate of secret detentions and enforced disappearances” have become commonplace in Bangladesh in recent years. 

“While some people were released after weeks, even months, in illegal custody, others were later discovered to have been killed in so-called ‘armed exchanges’,” she said. 

Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar estimates up to 414 individuals have gone missing since 2009 up until 2017, when the Awami League government came to power.

In 2017, Odhikar reported a further 86 disappearances. A report by Human Rights Watch published last year found that at least 90 people were victims of enforced disappearances in 2016 alone, 21 of whom were subsequently found dead. 

Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special paramilitary unit within the police force, is alleged to be behind most of the disappearances. A Human Rights Watch in its report published in 2011 said the RAB has a “long record of killing people in custody”.

Asked about the allegation of their involvement in some of the enforced disappearances, RAB’s Director of Media and Legal Wing Mufti Mahmud Khan told Al Jazeera, “These are false allegations. The RAB is there to curb crimes and it is just doing its job.”

For Rabeya, the psychological effect of her brother’s abduction on the family has been unprecedented. 

“Two years of not knowing where your husband, your father or son is, not knowing what happened to him, is he OK, is he being tortured, are they feeding him? Initially, we wanted him back, but at this point, we just want to know if he’s alive.” 

In September 2016, bin Quasim’s family enlisted the help of British barrister Michael Polak, who has been pushing for his release.

For Polak, one of the frustrations of the case was attempting to enlist the help of the Labour party. Polak said he had written to Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn‘s office and to Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina‘s niece, on several occasions regarding the case, but has yet to receive a response.

These frustrations, he said, extended over to the inaction of the Commonwealth nations as well. 

“The Commonwealth has power to suspend members or even threaten to suspend. Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after they executed several environmental activists. In this case, we’re talking about over 400 people missing. This is a crime against humanity, yet it hasn’t been put on the Commonwealth agenda at all,” he said.

More abductions

At around the same time of bin Quasim’s abduction, the sons of two other prominent opposition party members, convicted for war crimes, were also abducted. 

One was released, but the other individual, Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, a retired brigadier-general and son of late Jamaat-e-Islami party leader, Ghulam Azam, was abducted less than two weeks after bin Quasim on August 22, 2016. He is yet to be found.

Ghulam Azam, who was convicted for crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 independence war, died in jail in 2014 at the age of 91.

Knowing he was in danger, Azmi hid in a flat in Dhaka where he was eventually discovered by 30 men claiming to be part of the Detective Branch of the police. He was subsequently blindfolded and bundled into a minibus, a chilling chain of events that has become a trademark of enforced disappearances.

Immediately after the abduction, Azmi’s 85-year-old mother tried to report it, only to find the police would not register it officially. 

“When my mother went to report it, they said, we can’t record it,” said Dr Salman Al-Azami, the youngest of the six brothers. 

“It took them (the police) more than a year to acknowledge he was missing when we tried to file a missing case in the police station,” Azami, who is a UK citizen, said.

Describing the anguish felt by his mother, Azami said, “My mother has six sons, but she cannot see any one of them because five of them are based in the UK.

“The one son who was with her has now gone missing, and we don’t have any official information about his whereabouts. It is a complete disaster that we have to live every day.”

Ganguly of Human Rights Watch said, “The government keeps denying these abuses, even as recently as during its UN Universal Periodic Review earlier this month”.

“Instead of blithely denying these egregious human rights violations, the government should order an immediate investigation, release those held illegally with proper reparations, and prosecute those responsible”, she said.

Additional reporting by Al Jazeera correspondent in Dhaka

Source: Al Jazeera