Dozens of family members of alleged victims of enforced disappearances urged Bangladesh’s government Tuesday to create an impartial commission to probe hundreds of abductions that, according to human rights groups, involved suspected law-enforcement officers.
At least 388 people were abducted in Bangladesh during the past eight years, according to a joint statement released simultaneously by international human rights groups in Dhaka, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Manila.
Fifty-one of those abductees were found dead while 193 others were found alive after being abandoned at different locations, the rights groups said. Some of the victims were even produced by state agents and presented to the courts after being abducted, they said.
The fate of 144 other victims is still unknown, the groups said in the statement, which they issued in marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
In observance of the annual event, family members of 19 missing victims organized a meeting at the National Press Club in Dhaka and imposed a December deadline for the government to create a neutral investigating panel.
Failure to meet the deadline, they warned, would lead to anti-government rallies.
“We demand justice, we want our family members back,” Sanjida Islam, the sister of victim Sajidul Islam Sumon, told the meeting.
“If the commission is not formed by December, we will be forced to take to the streets,” she said.
The Bangladesh government “should not be afraid of probing disappearances if its hands are clean,” according to the statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and Odhikar, a Bangladeshi rights advocacy group.
Odhikar provided the information about the bodies of 51 people being recovered after their reported disappearances between January 2009 and July 2017. The NGO based these facts through documents it had gathered, including complaints filed in court by the victims’ families.
“Reports show that enforced disappearances, a ‘crime against humanity’ under international
law, is being committed systematically since the incumbent government assumed office in 2009,” the statement said.
According to a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), 48 disappearances were reported in Bangladesh in the first five months of 2017. There were allegations of severe torture and ill-treatment of people being held in secret custody, the global rights watchdog said.
“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.
‘Let us prepare a list'
The Bangladesh government denies the alleged incidents of enforced disappearances, although, according to rights groups, eyewitnesses and families have asserted that state agents were involved as key perpetrators in the abductions.
Police officials have rejected such allegations.
“Sometimes criminals use our name for kidnapping people. If someone identifies himself as law enforcement agency personnel, it should be challenged and the victim should contact us immediately,” Mufti Mahmud Khan, the director of the legal and media wing at the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – an elite government security unit – told BenarNews recently.
But in January this year, a Bangladesh court sentenced 26 people to death, including 16 members of RAB for their roles in the killings of seven people in Narayanganj city in April 2014.
Nur Hossain, a local leader of the ruling Awami League party, was condemned to the gallows for hiring RAB officers to abduct and kill a political rival, Narayanganj City Corporation councilor Nazrul Islam, and six others. Lt. Col. Tareq Mohammad Sayeed, the RAB commander in Narayanganj at the time, also received a death sentence, as did 15 of his officers.
The sentences were highly unusual. RAB is notorious for carrying out alleged extrajudicial killings and disappearances, but convictions of law enforcement officers are very rare.
On Dec. 4, 2013, Sajedul Islam Sumon, general secretary of a unit of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was whisked away by plainclothesmen who identified themselves as RAB members, according to his mother, Hajera Khatun, who presided over Tuesday’s meeting.
“I want the return of all victims of forced disappearances and abduction,” she said.
Mahmudur Rahman Manna, one of the leaders of the opposition group Nagorik Oikya, spoke during the meeting and questioned how the families could expect justice from the government.
“You have demanded the formation of a neutral commission. My opinion is: Will the government that is behind the forceful disappearances investigate? Instead, let us form a neutral judicial inquiry committee,” Manna said.
"Let us prepare a list of the victims of the forced disappearances and abduction, and send the message to the people," he said.