Bangladesh disappearances 'a matter of grave concern'

Rights advocates accuse authorities of using 'abductions' to send message to people regarded as a threat to the state.

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    Law enforcement agencies are accused of disappearing government critics [MP Hossain/Reuters]
    Law enforcement agencies are accused of disappearing government critics [MP Hossain/Reuters]

    Dhaka, Bangladesh - An academic who went missing for over a month has returned home, saying "unidentified abductors" scooped him up in the middle of a busy road in Dhaka last month.

    Mubashar Hasan, an assistant professor of political science at North South University in Dhaka, was abducted on November 7.

    "If you look back, we will kill you," Hasan cited his kidnappers as telling him when they released him last Friday, dropping him off from a microbus on a highway near Bangladesh's capital.

    Hasan had been dragged onto the bus, blindfolded, after spending 44 days in a room without sunlight, he said.

    "I am seeing daylight [for the first time] after many days," Hasan told reporters on Friday morning outside his home, less than 12 hours after he was released.

    The details of Hasan's abduction echoed an earlier case: Only two days before Hasan returned home, Dhaka-based reporter Utpal Das was released after spending 71 days in captivity.

    Das, too, said he had been kidnapped by four or five "unidentified abductors" in Dhaka - who whisked both men into vehicles in broad daylight - and he said he was blindfolded and dropped off on a highway from a microbus upon his release.

    Loss of consciousness

    Hasan said one of his abductors rubbed something into his eyes and he eventually lost consciousness, while Das said he was gagged with a black cloth.

    Neither man was able to identify his captors.

    The men's release comes amid a series of disappearances of prominent figures in Bangladesh, including Maroof Zaman, a former ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam, who has been missing since December 4.

    According to a report released by Human Rights Watch earlier this year, Bangladesh's "law enforcement authorities have illegally detained hundreds of people since 2013", and 90 people were victims of "enforced disappearances" last year alone.

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    "The disappearances are well-documented and reported, yet the government persists in this abhorrent practice with no regard for the rule of law," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director, in a statement at the time.

    "Bangladesh security forces appear to have a free hand in detaining people, deciding on their guilt or innocence, and determining their punishment, including whether they have the right to be alive."

    In the last four months, 14 people have gone missing from Dhaka, according to a Dhaka Tribune report.

    Five of them, including Hasan and Das, have since returned home.

    Three men who had disappeared have since been arrested by local police, while the fate of the others, including Zaman, remains unknown.

    Amid criticism from the media and human-rights groups, Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh's home [interior] minister, recently said all the missing people would be found.

    Cause uncertain

    Both Hasan and Zaman come from modest, middle-class backgrounds.

    They are not believed to be wealthy by Bangladeshi standards, and their family members told Al Jazeera they did not receive any ransom requests.

    Chitta Ranjan Das, father of Das, received a ransom call after his son went missing.

    A school teacher who earns about $195 a month and lives in a rented tin-shed outside of Dhaka, Chitta Ranjan Das said the unidentified caller demanded about $1,250 to secure his son's release.

    Chitta Ranjan Das said when he asked to speak to his son, the caller hung up and never called back.

    Shahdeen Malik, a Dhaka-based human-rights lawyer, said he did not believe the ongoing abductions are motivated by money.

    Instead, he said they are intended to send a chilling effect on anyone deemed to be a threat to the state.

    "I believe [law-enforcement agencies] somehow consider a critic of the government as an enemy of the state," Malik told Al Jazeera.

    Hasan has penned several scholarly articles on political Islam and militancy, while Das writes news stories about Bangladesh's armed forces.

    Zaman, the former diplomat, was a critic of the incumbent Awami League government and shared anti-government posts written by others on his Facebook page.

    Malik said law-enforcement agencies may have suspected people like Hasan or Zaman were involved in activities that go against state interests, thus leading them to be detained and held for interrogation.

    "This is wrong and a gross violation of human rights," said Malik, who defends cases before the country's supreme court.

    According to HRW, law enforcement authorities often deny the arrests, and some government officials have even suggested that the disappeared individuals "are voluntarily in hiding".

    "The police do not allow families to file complaints alleging that their relatives have been picked up by law enforcement authorities," HRW said.

    State responds

    Mohammad Mahmud Khan, director of the media and legal wing of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh's elite, non-military force, told Al Jazeera that if a person goes missing, the case falls under the jurisdiction of police in the neighbourhood where the person lives.

    Jahangir Kabir Khan, an investigative officer at Khilgaon police station, where Hasan's family filed a missing person's report with the police [known as a general diary], said he has not yet been able to identify Khan's abductors.

    He said Hasan's family "could still file a new case" under the country's penal code, formally alleging that a kidnapping took place.

    However, Tamanna Tasnim, Hasan's sister, told Al Jazeera that the family is happy to have him back and has no plan "to file any abduction case".

    When contacted about Zaman's case, Abdul Latif, the officer in charge of the Dhanmondi police station where Zaman's family filed the missing person's report, told Al Jazeera that "police are still searching for clues about his disappearance".

    Shabnam Zaman, Zaman's eldest daughter, said the family has not received any updates about Zaman's whereabouts since his car was recovered on December 5 near the airport.

    She said the family contacted Abdullahil Kaafi, the assistant police commissioner of the Dhanmondi zone, and he told them "the police were still investigating".

    "At this stage, we remain hopeful that he will be released," she said. 

    Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told Al Jazeera that the people who have been released, including Khan and Das, will be questioned later.

    "We will try to get more information about their abductions," he said.

    'Grave concern'

    Human rights advocates have questioned whether the authorities are really taking these cases seriously.

    Afsan Chowdhury, a political analyst and commentator, told Al Jazeera that disappearances have "become an accepted thing in the country.

    "And that's where the problem lies now," he said.

    Nur Khan Liton, a Bangladeshi activist and director of one of the country's top human rights groups, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), wants to know why law enforcement agencies "are not trying to find those 'unidentified people' who seem to have enormous powers.

    "Here, Mobashar [Hasan] or Utpal clearly said they were being abducted by unidentified people who have the capacity to abduct someone in broad daylight, keep them in hidden places for long periods [of time] and also return them," Liton said.

    He urges the authorities to do everything they can to find the kidnappers.

    "It's a matter of grave concern," he says.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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