Dhaka, Bangladesh – A former Bangladeshi diplomat has been missing since December 4, leaving tell-tale signs of what observers here call an “enforced disappearance”.
That day, Maroof Zaman, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam, drove to Dhaka airport to pick up his daughter, but he never arrived.
The next morning, his car was found abandoned in Khilkhet, about 3.7km away from the airport.
Tha SIM card in Zaman’s mobile phone was last active about 3.8km away from there, according to the police.
Zaman’s apparent “disappearance” comes on the heels of some similar prominent incidents in the last four months, including that of Mubashar Hasan, a North South University (NSU) teacher who has been missing since November 7.
In both cases, no ransom demands have been made to family members.
Academic Hasan sometimes wrote articles on militancy and political Islam in Bangladesh.
Maroof occasionally shared posts critical of the Awami League-led government of Sheikh Hasina on social media.
Zaman was appointed ambassador under the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the other major political party in Bangladesh, and an army-backed caretaker government, and was thought to be “anti-Awami League” minded.
The 61-year old widower, however, was not involved in political activity and spent most of his time at home.
Samiha Zaman, the younger of Maroof Zaman’s two daughters and the person he was supposed to pick up on the night he disappeared, told Al Jazeera that upon reaching home, she found her father’s room in disarray and their two housemaids distressed.
Zaman, who had left home at about 6:20 pm, called his home at about 7:45pm and told her in a subdued voice that “people will come, give them the laptop and the computer”, Laki, one of the housemaids, told Al Jazeera.
The number displayed on the Caller ID was “000123456”. Al Jazeera later confirmed that the number does not belong to any operators – mobile or landline – in Bangladesh.
An official from a telecom operator said this number was probably “masked” after being run through a device that changes the number.
At about 8:05pm, three men arrived at the house, taking possession of Zaman’s laptop, spare smartphone, camera, and the home desktop computer.
They also systematically opened and searched all the drawers in Zaman’s room.
CCTV footage of the apartment showed these men to be dressed in black shirts and jeans, wearing caps which obscured their faces, making identification impossible.
Samiha told Al Jazeera that after waiting the whole night, she went to file a general claim “for a missing person” at Dhaka’s Dhanmondi police station on the following day.
“We tracked [Zaman’s] mobile phone. It was last active in Dakkhinkhan. We are trying to figure out what happened on Monday,” Mohammad Abdul Latif, the officer-in-charge (OC) of the police station, told Al Jazeera.
Asked about the appearances of three men in Zaman’s apartment on the night of the phone call, Abdul Latif said that such an “incident is not mentioned in the general diary [police report], so we are not aware of it”.
Samiha said she had not mentioned it in the police report on the advice of one of her relatives.
Shabnam Zaman, ambassador Zaman’s elder daughter, told Al Jazeera that the circumstances seem to be in line with previous cases of disappeared individuals in Bangladesh, and point to detention by state agencies.
“Other information we have appears to support this view. However, I do not know why he was abducted, given that he retired years ago – unless he was targeted because of any views and opinions he may have held,” she said.
A Dhaka based political analyst who asked to have his name withheld told Al Jazeera that Zaman’s case is the latest entry in a lengthening list of apparent “enforced disappearances” in recent months.
According to Dhaka Tribune, 14 people have disappeared in different parts of the capital in the past four months without a single ransom claim being made.
In some cases, the kidnappers have shown an interest in the belongings of the people who went missing.
The disappearances are different this time around in that the victims are mostly from middle-class, educated families and not members of any political parties.
They also are not victims of “abduction for money”, as no ransom was demanded from the families. “[I]t’s hard to connect the dots, but at this point, it seems they were abducted because of their personal political viewpoints,” the analyst said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report in July alleging that the Bangladesh government had secretly detained hundreds of people, mostly activists and political figures opposed to Sheikh Hasina’s government.
HRW said at least 90 people had been detained in secret jails last year.
Most eventually came before a court, but it documented 21 cases of detainees who were killed and nine others whose whereabouts are still unknown.
According to the Bangladeshi rights body Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), as many as 519 people have allegedly fallen victim to enforced disappearances between 2010 and July 2017 in Bangladesh and an astonishing 329 of them were still missing.
Many family members of such disappearance victims have repeatedly blamed law-enforcement agencies, according to ASK. Many of those who went missing later returned to their families.
In some cases, the bodies of the disappeared have been found.
Others were found arrested under different charges by law-enforcement agencies. ASK estimates the number of people in this category during the last seven and half years to be 190.
As of Thursday, the police were still searching for Zaman, according to Abdul Latif, Dhanmondi police station OC.