Int’l day of the victims of enforced disappearances: Truth dwells in their silence

Shafiqul Islam Kajol was missing for 53 days, discovered by law enforcers roaming the India-Bangladesh border in Benapole in the middle of the night, subsequently thrown in jail and denied bail for 3 months — and yet the only investigation being done by the state is about a Facebook post by Kajol.

Kajol disappeared on March 10 after ruling party lawmaker Saifuzzaman Shikhor sued him under the Digital Security Act for a Facebook post. Pertinent questions about where he was and who took him, his whole two months of enforced disappearance are currently swept under the rug.

The onus of revealing that information has been put on the family — and even as Kajol’s family wages daily protests online and offline to free his father, not a toot is let out about where Kajol was.

Kajol is now accused in three cases filed under the Digital Security Act.

Of the 550 people who fell victim to enforced disappearances over the last 10 years, at least 305 returned alive and either landed in jail or went back to their homes and never talked publicly about where they were taken or what happened to them during the days, weeks, months and even years of their disappearance.

“Why can’t those who come back, ever speak out? The state is not protecting them, which is why they are not talking” Prof Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, told a webinar organised by the Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights yesterday to demand justice for cases of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and custodial torture.

According to Mayer Daak, a platform of families who had lost family members to enforced disappearances, 97 people fell victim to enforced disappearances in 2018, the highest in a year in the last decade. Of them, 23 are still missing, the bodies of 12 were found and the rest either returned after a certain amount of time or were arrested by different law enforcement agencies.

The second highest number was 93 in 2016. Of them, 11 are still missing and 14 were found dead.

But Mayer Daak’s statistics shows that 2013 was the year when the most number of people went missing, and never turned up — 33 people vanished into thin air and their families are still waiting for news, good or bad.

Selim Reza Pintu, who was the president of the capital’s Sutrapur Chhatra Dal, was one of them.

He was abducted on December 12, at 1:30am from his brother’s house in Pallabi in the capital, by men in plainclothes who barged in identifying themselves as “people from the administration”.

“We went to the law enforcement office on Minto Road, but they told us that my brother was not there. We went to Pallabi Police Station to file a general diary on December 13, but they told us that we should only file a missing person’s report, since the police cannot record a general diary against a law enforcer,” Pintu’s elder sister Rehana Banu Munni told The Daily Star yesterday.

In the following years, the grieving family visited one after another offices of law enforcement agencies, submitted applications to several quarters, including the National Human Rights Commission, but to no avail, said Munni.

“We even filed an abduction case in 2016. The final investigation report prepared by the Pallabi police mentioned they could not find any clue and so they closed the case. If they find any evidence in the future, the case will be reopened,” said Munni.

“There were two cases against him with Motijheel Police Station and Sutrapur Police Station, but my question is, why make him disappear instead of bringing him to justice? We are dying everyday worrying about him.”

At yesterday’s webinar, eminent jurist Dr Shahdeen Malik pointed out that the use of unlawful methods to deal with those accused of crimes was unacceptable. “They think the ends justify the means, but that is not true. Breaking the law to bring stability is not a solution.”

Human rights experts point out that Bangladesh is signatory to multiple legally binding international treaties, to prevent enforced disappearances.

But enforced disappearances are not even officially acknowledged as a problem in the county.

Bangladesh presented its initial state party report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) at its the 67th session on July 30-31 last year in Geneva, where the Committee reviewed the government’s progress in implementing the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“The government did not define enforced disappearances in its submission — they only limited the mention of this phenomenon in terms of what legal policy framework is in place to prosecute law enforcers engaging in this act,” Tamanna Hoq Riti, coordinator of Human Rights Forum Bangladesh, told The Daily Star.

When the Bangladesh delegates were asked about enforced disappearances, they “rejected the notion that enforced disappearances happen frequently ” and told the Committee that “allegations that its [Bangladesh] authorities had engaged in enforced disappearance should be presumed to be false in cases where the alleged victim had subsequently reappeared”, said Riti who was present at the UNCAT session.

The committee then said, “The Committee is seriously concerned at numerous, consistent reports that the State party’s officials have arbitrarily deprived persons of their liberty, subsequently killed many of them and failed to disclose their whereabouts or fate. Such conduct is defined in international human rights law as enforced disappearance, whether or not the victim is killed or reappears later.”

It recommended in no uncertain terms that Bangladesh publish a list of all recognised places of detention and ensure that no one is held in secret detention and that all allegations of unacknowledged detention, disappearance are independently investigated.

“‘Abduction’ do[es] not sufficiently communicate the serious nature of unacknowledged detention carried out by or with the complicity of State officials,” noted the Committee, recommended that ‘enforced disappearance’ be recognised as a crime in legislation

At yesterday’s discussion, Sara Hossain said, “It is an unacceptable argument that enforced disappearances do not happen. At UNCAT, the UN Committee asked many questions to our law minister and Bangladesh was supposed to submit the answers to those questions by last year, but we are yet to receive the state’s answers to those questions.”

Meanwhile, the fate of people like United People’s Democratic Front leader Mikel Changma, who disappeared last year, hangs in the balance. On 21 May 2019, the High Court directed the secretary of home ministry to provide information about the whereabouts of Mikel, and submit an investigation report in five weeks.

“The government replied claiming that they did not know which agency had him,” said Sara Hossain.

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