HRW, Families of Missing Demand UN Action on Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh

Ahammad Foyez
Dhaka
2021-08-16
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HRW, Families of Missing Demand UN Action on Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh Afroza Islam Akhi holds a photo of her son, enforced disappearance victim Sajedul Islam Sumon, during a rally in front of Bangladesh’s National Press Club in Dhaka, May 28, 2021.
Courtesy Mayer Daak

Updated at 5:41 a.m. ET on 2021-08-17

Seven years on, Marufa Islam is still waiting for Bangladesh’s government to respond to her family’s anguished pleas and be held accountable for her brother’s disappearance, who, she alleges, was seized by state security personnel.

Her sibling, Sajedul Islam Sumon, was working as a ward general-secretary for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the capital Dhaka, when members of the police’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) allegedly picked him up outside a local construction site on the night of Dec. 4, 2013. He has not been seen or heard from since.

“My mother is spending her nights without sleeping because she is waiting for my brother, who along with seven others, were taken by law enforcers more than seven years ago,” she told BenarNews. “We want our brother back. His disappearance was caused by law enforcement agency members. The government should be responsible.”

“I am requesting the international community including the United Nations take a strong step to stop enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.”

Sumon’s photo and profile now appear in an online gallery of photos of 86 alleged victims of enforced disappearances carried out by Bangladesh’s state security services that was created as part of a report published by Human Rights Watch on Monday.

More than 600 people have been forcibly disappeared in the South Asian country since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office in 2009, according to the 57-page report. It is based on 115 interviews of victims, family members and witnesses conducted between July 2020 and March 2021.

Marufa Islam welcomed word of the report’s publication. The government has ignored requests from the families of her brother and other missing people about the status of their loved ones, she said.

In releasing its report, the New York-based human rights watchdog said “United Nations human rights experts should lead an independent international investigation into enforced disappearances by security forces in Bangladesh.”

“Senior U.N. officials, donors, and trade partners should step up measures to hold senior members of Bangladesh security forces accountable, stop enforced disappearances, and prevent future abuses,” HRW said.

According to the report, the ruling Awami League has ignored calls by international organizations including the United Nations to address the concerns raised by the families of the missing people.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister, a member of the ruling party, rejected HRW’s and Islam’s claims, saying there are no such disappearances in the country.

Reports about people being victims of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh are fabricated, Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said.

“Some people dissociate themselves from their families and then they come back home after some days,” he told BenarNews.

He said incidents of killings and disappearances happen everywhere. Momen called on HRW to investigate cases elsewhere, specifically the United States and the United Kingdom.

“I am very sick and tired of this. They are talking about Bangladesh much more than other countries because Bangladesh accommodates their statements or recommendations,” he said.

“When people were killed in America by law enforcement agencies they called it in the line of duty, but when it happens in our country you people [journalists] call it extrajudicial killing,” he said. “This mentality has to be changed.”

A feared police unit

Human Rights Watch published the report two weeks ahead of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on Aug. 30.

It called on the U.N. and concerned governments to stand with “victims of enforced disappearances by increasing scrutiny of their relationships with Bangladesh security forces.”

HRW specifically targeted RAB, Bangladesh’s elite police unit.

“The notoriously abusive Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is responsible for more enforced disappearances in Bangladesh than any other unit, according to Bangladeshi human rights organizations,” the report said.

The United Nations office for human rights (OHCHR) cited the unit on March 1, when U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Bangladesh to carry out a prompt, transparent and independent probe into the in-custody death in February of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who had been arrested and charged under the Digital Security Act.

"Allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rapid Action Battalion have been a long-standing concern," OHCHR said in a statement then.

"The U.N. Committee Against Torture in 2019 recommended the Government commission an independent inquiry into allegations that members of the unit have carried out torture, arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention, disappearances and extrajudicial killings as a matter of routine policy, and to ensure that the personnel conducting the inquiry receive effective protection from harassment or intimidation."

In a statement accompanying the report's release, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams questioned the government’s support for victims’ families.

“Awami League leadership and Bangladesh authorities mock victims and routinely obstruct investigations, making clear that the government has no intention of meaningfully addressing enforced disappearances by its security forces,” Adams said.

'I am broken'

HRW’s report includes quotes from families of victims.

Ayesha Ali, the mother of BNP activist Abdul Quader Bhuiyan who has been missing for seven years, said he was picked up by RAB forces.

“I am broken. There is nobody here to call me mother. The only thing I want is for my son to return,” she told HRW. “We won’t even talk about it. We’ll forget what happened, please just bring him back. Everything is lost from my end.”

HRW said witnesses reported that police arrested Mohammad Rezoun Hossain, an activist with the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami a little more than five years ago – adding he has not been seen or heard from since he went missing.

“If my son is guilty, then the police can produce him in court,” his mother, Selina Begum, told HRW. “Why did the police pick him up and disappear him?”

The family said the officer-in-charge at the Benapole station told them to stop looking when they tried to file a complaint.

“Do not search for Rezoun or we will slaughter you all,” Begum said, according to HRW.

Activist Nur Khan Liton, former executive director of leading Bangladesh rights organization Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, said local groups had been speaking out about enforced-disappearance cases.

“But, unfortunately, the government did not take any noticeable action which would make the victims’ families or rights groups’ hopeful,” he told BenarNews.

“The government should give priority to consider the international reports or findings,” he said, calling for an independent commission to investigate.

He said the commission, if established, could identify those responsible for the disappearances and ensure justice for the victims.

This report has been updated to include information from the United Nations. 

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