Bangladeshi police said Friday they had uncovered no evidence to confirm that a Christian Rohingya family had been abducted from a refugee camp, while a rights group demanded that the government find the missing people and bring those responsible to justice.
Authorities opened an investigation last month after two groups of refugees filed police complaints accusing each other of launching attacks that wounded at least 12 people.
During one of the attacks, masked men seized a Christian named Taher and three members of his family, according to witnesses and a Dhaka-based association that protects the rights of minorities.
“We haven’t found any evidence of any missing Christian Rohingya,” Inspector Samir Chandra Sarker, the case investigator, told BenarNews. “But we are trying our best to find the missing family.”
But authorities have arrested and detained 14 Muslim Rohingya on suspicion of involvement in the alleged attack on Christians, as investigators sought to untangle claims from two groups of refugees, Sarker said.
Witnesses told BenarNews that machete-wielding Muslim Rohingya men attacked 22 Christian families at the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district on Jan. 27.
The attackers beat up residents, vandalized homes and looted personal property, witnesses said. Authorities responded by relocating at least 17 Christian Rohingya families to a U.N. shelter.
Police said the Christians had filed a case against 59 Muslim refugees, accusing them of involvement in the attack.
Zohar, a 28-year-old Christian refugee who uses only one name, told BenarNews at a UNHCR transit center on Thursday that Taher and his family, including his 14-year-old daughter, were still missing.
“We haven’t yet found any trace of Taher [and his family],” Zohar said. “We reported [their abduction] to police and also informed the camp in charge, but no effective measures were taken.”
Taher’s wife, Roshida, expressed fears that her husband could have been killed and her daughter abducted.
“No one can give me any clear information, but my relatives told me that my daughter has been forced to convert to Islam and marry,” Roshida told New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
A refugee also told the rights advocacy group that camp officials “try to avoid our queries” about the alleged abduction.
“The Bangladesh authorities should urgently locate Taher and his daughter and bring those responsible to justice,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.
“The government should also act immediately to protect all vulnerable groups in the country’s refugee camps, including religious minorities like Rohingya Christians,” he said.
Bangladeshi authorities had described the attack on the Christians as an “ordinary law and order incident.”
‘ARSA attacked us’
But one of the alleged victims, Saiful Islam Peter, a Christian Rohingya, told BenarNews that members of the rebel group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were behind the attack.
“The ARSA attacked us, the Christians. They looted our houses and beat up many Christian members,” Saiful told BenarNews.
Two days after the alleged attack, an India-based group called Rohingya Christian Assembly, in an email sent to Radio Free Asia, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews, identified the missing family members and alleged that the abductors wore face masks.
But ARSA, in an audio message released Feb. 10 on its Twitter account, said it was fighting for Rohingya of all faiths.
“Among Rohingya population we have people of different faiths, such as Muslims, Hindus and Christians,” ARSA said. “You will be mistaken if you think our fights and struggles are only bounded to Muslim Rohingya.”
It was not immediately clear if the message was related to the reported allegations that the group was involved in the attack against Christians.
ARSA, an armed insurgent group, carried out attacks on police and army posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017.
In response to those attacks, Myanmar’s security forces launched a brutal crackdown that forced 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes and cross into neighboring Bangladesh.
Bangladesh officially denies the presence of Rohingya rebels in the refugee camps, but government and police sources have privately acknowledged arresting “several” of the insurgents in recent months.
There are an estimated 1,500 Rohingya Christians among more than 700,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya forced to flee to Bangladesh as the result of a brutal Myanmar military offensive in Rakhine State in 2017, said HRW, which described the campaign as ethnic cleansing.
The alleged attack on Christians took place a month after Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said in a statement that she had visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar numerous times in recent years and met a group of Rohingya Christians.
“They told me they were persecuted due to their religion by the Myanmar Government while they lived in Rakhine, and now they face hostility and violence from a small number of other camp residents,” she said. “This worries me.”
Rebuilding homes for Christians
Bangladeshi authorities collaborated with the UNHCR to rebuild the makeshift homes destroyed during the attack, but refugees expressed fears on Friday that they could be subjected to future attacks in the camp.
“Christians are not safe in Kutupalong camp. We may face scores of ARSA attacks there,” Anower Hossain, a 20-year-old Rohingya Christian, told BenarNews.
But Khalilur Rahman Khan, a senior official at the refugee relief and repatriation offices in Cox’s Bazar, allayed those fears.
“The building of new houses to take Christians back to the original location is ongoing with the help of UNHCR,” Khan told BenarNews on Friday. “They will be provided with high security.”
Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, UNHCR’s local spokesman, told BenarNews on Thursday that 87 Christian refugees who took shelter in the U.N. transit center following the attack will go back to their own homes “soon.”
“We have already started rebuilding their houses,” he said.
Charges filed against 19 suspected traffickers
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi authorities on Friday said 19 people had been charged on suspicion of involvement in human trafficking following the sinking of an overloaded boat carrying Rohingya refugees toward Malaysia.
Survivors and officials believe that 138 people, including many Rohingya women and children, were packed into the wooden boat when it struck a slab of coral in shallow water and capsized in the Bay of Bengal on Tuesday, officials said.
Rescuers saved 73 people, but police said another body was recovered on Friday, bringing the death toll to 16.
Coast guard officials filed charges on Wednesday at the Teknaf police station against the suspected human traffickers, most of whom remain at large, police outpost inspector Mohammad Liaqat Ali told BenarNews.
“So far we have arrested nine of the 19 accused people,” he said.
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.