Bangladeshi schoolteacher Syed Iftekhar Alam Sourav was relatively unknown until he disappeared for 11 days, but he was luckier than many other people believed by human rights groups to have vanished in Bangladesh through enforced disappearances in recent years.
This member of a politically influential family and a descendant of Bangladesh’s first prime minister was found alive on Thursday but blindfolded and shirtless with his hands tied, according to police. That occurred a few days after his uncle, a former minister in the ruling Awami League, publicly accused state security services of taking him.
“I would like to thank all who prayed for me and accepted suffering for me. Thank you all –my uncle, my family members and law enforcement agencies who put in efforts [to find] me. Thank you, all,” Sourav told reporters after he was found more than 200 miles from where he last was seen on June 9.
But he declined to say anything about the circumstances under which he vanished.
The case of Sourav’s vanishing and reappearance joins a long list of disappearances in Bangladesh, in which victims have gone missing before suddenly turning up in a public place – without clearly explaining what happened to them. Still, in many other cases the alleged victims have never reappeared, according to rights groups.
In Sourav’s case, police told BenarNews that they found him on Thursday outside a rice mill in Tarakanda, north of the capital Dhaka and about 372 km (232 miles) from the southeastern coastal city of Chittagong, where he was seen on closed-circuit TV (CCTV) on June 9, the day he was reported missing.
Yet authorities could not explain who was behind his disappearance.
“The abductors fled after dropping him off a microbus,” Mizanur Rahman, the police station chief in Tarakanda, told BenarNews.
Sourav, who teaches at a school in Chittagong, is the son of Syeda Yasmin Arjuman, a niece of Tajuddin Ahmed, who served as the nation’s leader from April 1971 until January 1972.
Sourav’s father, Idris Alam, early this week told reporters that up to six men were behind the abduction that took place in front of a market, citing footage from closed-circuit TV, which is now in police custody.
He alleged that Sourav was “picked up” by members of the elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and claimed that his son had previously been picked up and questioned by men who had firearms and wireless receivers.
But Mohammad Javed Patwary, the inspector-general of police, shrugged off allegations that law-enforcement officials were involved.
“The affected family members can level allegations. But unless we get concrete evidence about the involvement of someone, we cannot call them the culprits,” Patwary told BenarNews.
Investigators have not received information that government forces were involved, he said.
“The police tried their best to find out who were the abductors, he said.
Sourav’s uncle, former state minister Sohel Taj, earlier this week threatened to launch an investigation after accusing law-enforcement agencies of involvement in his nephew’s disappearances. Taj’s sister is a member of parliament.
“I will investigate it myself to help the law enforcement agencies and police administration. The information we collect, we will provide to them,” Taj said on Facebook on Tuesday.
A day earlier, he appealed for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to act over his nephew’s case.
“We are citizens of Bangladesh. We expect that such incidents would not happen to any other citizen. Today, it is my nephew. Tomorrow, it may be your brother and the day after it may happen to your son. Such an incident is not expected at all,” Taj said Monday, according to the Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper.
He added: “My identity also does not matter. The state should be governed by the rule of law. It’s not expected that someone will face such a consequence in a state where justice prevails.”
Sourav’s mother told a news conference Monday that law-enforcement agencies had interrogated him on several occasions about his relationship with a woman.
When Sourav was recovered on Thursday, he was mentally and physically stressed by his abduction, said his father, Idris.
“He is shivering in panic whenever anyone touches him,” Idris told the Daily Star. “Can you imagine the environment he was kept in?”
From all walks of life
Enforced disappearances of critics and activists have become “disturbingly common” in Bangladesh, where journalists have reported receiving threats or being intimidated to prevent any criticism of the government, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Enforced disappearance – the deprivation of liberty by agents of the state and concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the person in custody – is strictly prohibited under international law,” HRW said in a recent statement.
According to Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, a prominent Bangladeshi human rights organization, 212 Bangladeshis were victims of enforced disappearances between 2015 and 2017. At least 56 of those victims resurfaced, while 135 others remain missing and are presumed to be dead, it said.
Nur Khan, who heads the NGO’s investigation unit, told BenarNews that 114 people had disappeared last year alone. Between January and May 2019, he said, 16 people became victims of enforced disappearances.
“From ordinary people to ambassadors, [people] have become the victims of enforced disappearances,” he said. “This is horrible.”
With so many cases of loved ones missing, Bangladeshi families of victims and activists have organized a group called “Mayer Daak,” which means “mothers’ call” in Bengali. Members have formed human chains and protests to pressure Hasina’s government to help them find their relatives.
There were other prominent individuals who disappeared for days before reappearing without answering questions from reporters.
Maroof Zaman, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Vietnam, was reported missing for 15 months until he returned home on March 15, 2019.
But Member of Parliament Ilias Ali and his driver disappeared in April 2013 and remain missing.
“We have not heard anything whether he is dead or alive,” Tahsina Rushdir Luna, Ali’s wife, told BenarNews. “The international human rights bodies wrote many times about him. But nothing happened.”
Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have been “a grave concern for the people,” Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), told BenarNews.
“The situation is very dangerous now. No one is safe,” he said, referring to Sourav’s disappearance.
“The only good news is that he returned home alive. He could have been found dead somewhere.”