An employee of a United Kingdom-based Bangladeshi businessman, whose whereabouts remained unknown for eight months after he was picked up by law enforcement personnel back in January, died under questionable circumstances in custody last month.
Johirul Haque Khandaker, an army captain who had previously worked as a trainer in the Bangladesh army, died in the prison annexe of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital in the capital, Dhaka, on October 11.
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His death certificate stated that he died from a “cardio-pulmonary failure” due to “cirrhosis of the liver”. An inquest report, written by a police officer, stated that there were “various black marks on his stomach”.
As previously reported by Al Jazeera, witnesses saw 20 law enforcement personnel, many armed and wearing the black uniform commonly worn by a paramilitary organisation, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), detain Khandaker on January 13 along with two other colleagues, Korshed Alam Patwari, and Sayed Akidul Ali in Dhaka.
For eight months, the three men were not brought to court as required by law, and their families could not discover where they were being detained.
In the middle of September, police suddenly brought the men in front of a magistrate where they were accused of involvement in a “banned terrorist organisation” and remanded into custody where Khandaker died shortly afterwards.
The three men were employed by Shahid Uddin Khan, a retired Bangladesh colonel-turned businessman who has been based in London for the last nine years. Khan is now calling for a full independent investigation into the eight-month-long secret detention of his employees and the subsequent death of Khandaker.
Khan has accused his former business associate, Major General Tarique Ahmed Siddique, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina‘s security adviser, of ordering the detentions as part of a campaign of intimidation against him.
Khan and Siddique’s families had jointly owned a real estate company in Bangladesh for nine years which was closed down in April 2018.
Khan alleged that, since then, Siddique has abused his control of the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies in an attempt to stop him speaking out about their relationship and business affairs.
In the magistrate court on September 23, the police accused Khan’s three employees of engaging “in anti-state and terrorist activities” under the guidance of the UK-based businessman.
The police told the court that since January, the three men had been “in hiding”, most recently with the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group, but during this period had kept in “constant contact” with Khan. The court remanded them for police interrogation for nine days before sending them to prison which is when Khandaker is said to have become ill.
Khandaker died four days after the other two detained men – Patwari and Ali – agreed to give the police “confessional statements” implicating their UK-based employer.
Khan claims the allegations against him and his staff are “false, absurd and without any foundation”.
“This is about a total abuse of power. For years, I was Siddique’s business associate, and used to speak to him almost daily. Now he is trying to destroy me. My staff had become victims in Siddique’s attempts to intimidate me,” Khan said. “And Khandaker has paid the highest price with his life.”
Khan claims that the circumstances of the death, after eight months of secret state detentions and with his other two colleagues agreeing to give confessional statements, are “suspicious”.
“It is well known that people in Bangladesh only give confessional statements after torture,” Khan stated.
Home raided, accusations levelled
From 2009 until April 2018, Khan and Siddique’s families jointly owned a profitable but little-known real estate company in Bangladesh, named Prochhaya Limited.
Company records show that Siddique’s wife, Shaheen Siddique, held the position of chairperson and their two daughters Noorin Tasmia and Bushra, both of whom live in the UK, were also on the board. Khan’s wife and two children were also directors.
Neither Khan nor Siddique was, himself, director of the company, though Khan was employed as its managing director.
The three imprisoned men, now accused of terrorism under Khan’s leadership, also used to work for Siddique’s family company until April 2018.
During this period, Khan had access to the highest echelons of the Awami League government establishment and in 2017, met the country’s president when he visited London.
However, Khan’s relationship with Siddique soured when he was instructed by the prime minister’s adviser to close down the company. According to Khan, on April 4, 2018, the day after the company was shut, Siddique began to exert pressure on him.
Military officers from the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the army’s intelligence wing, raided Khan’s office and took dozens of boxes of the company’s documents to Siddique’s house.
Four staff members – including the three currently accused of terrorism – were allegedly driven to DGFI headquarters where they were held, blindfolded, and interrogated about Khan’s financial affairs. Two of the men say their lives were threatened. They were all released after 48 hours.
Six weeks later, Khan’s tax lawyer Muhammad Shahbuddin was picked up by government authorities. “Two persons came out from [a] car and forcefully took our father away from us and forced him inside the SUV,” the lawyer’s son wrote in a complaint to the police.
In response, Khan’s lawyers in London sent a number of notices to DGFI and the Siddiquis, threatening legal action.
Their letters triggered an escalation in the attacks on Khan. A month later on January 13, 2019 – weeks after the controversial elections that returned the Awami League back into power – law enforcement authorities again picked up Khandaker, Patwari and Ali who were by then working for a new company that Khan had set up.
In subsequent months, Khan’s home was raided and terrorism cases lodged against him.
Al Jazeera spoke to witnesses who confirmed that in April, two of Khan’s brothers, Gias Uddin and Mohammad Ali, were picked up by the law enforcement authorities. While Uddin was released after 11 days of secret detention, Ali’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Police also obtained a court order, seen by Al Jazeera, confiscating $3.6m from Khan’s family savings and current accounts which the UK businessman says his family had earned legally from Prochhaya Ltd.
Tarique Siddique did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously denied the allegations made by Khan, stating that he had proof that “the office workers … hid themselves to put blame of abduction on DGFI and me.”
The security adviser also claimed that Khan is refusing to return to Bangladesh because he was recently sentenced to a five-year imprisonment in a criminal case lodged nine years earlier.
In the last few months, Interpol has issued a Red Notice alert seeking international cooperation in the arrest of Khan, his wife and two children from the UK.
Siddique also claimed that Khan is under investigation for tax evasion and money laundering and has “more than 50 bank accounts in several banks”.
Khan denies Siddique’s allegations. Asked about the Red Notice, he says that Interpol should recognise the political nature of the allegations “and how the government is in control of the courts and can get them to do whatever it wants.”