Families of Bangladeshi Café Workers Mistakenly Branded as Terrorists Seek Compensation

Ahammad Foyez
Siddhirganj, Bangladesh
2021-06-30
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Families of Bangladeshi Café Workers Mistakenly Branded as Terrorists Seek Compensation Maksuda Begum holds a picture of her son, Zakir Hossain Shaon, who was killed in the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery café attack in Dhaka, June 29, 2021.
Ahammad Foyez/BenarNews

Five years after Bangladesh’s deadliest terror attack, the families of two restaurant workers killed at a Dhaka café say they have received no justice, condolences or compensation from the government.

Pizza baker Saiful Islam Chowkidar, 41, and his assistant, Zakir Hossain Shaon, 22, were among 29 people who died after five members of a Bangladeshi militant group aligned with the so-called Islamic State (IS) took over the Holey Artisan Bakery café on the night of July 1, 2016.

Police originally considered them suspects, not victims.

Overnight, the assailants butchered 20 diners before police commandos raided the venue and killed the attackers the following morning.

Police also shot and killed Saiful, mistaking him for one of the militants, officials said at the time. Shaon died in police custody days later. 

“I lost my son because of their suspicion,” Shaon’s mother, Maksuda Begum, told BenarNews. “Have we no right to justice?”

Maksuda lives in a slum area of the city of Siddhirganj, about 22 km (13 miles) outside of Dhaka, where she sells cakes along the side of the road. No government official ever came to offer condolence to the family, she said.

“If a rich family experienced such a situation, many ministers would visit to express their condolences. Do we have no right to minimum condolences?”

Shaon died on July 8, 2016, at a local hospital, from injuries suffered during the siege, police sources said then.

But Shaon’s father alleged his son had been beaten in police custody and had not received immediate medical attention following his arrest.

“My son was very sick. Blood was coming out of his nose and mouth in the morning while he was shivering,” Abdus Sattar told BenarNews at the time, describing how he found his son at a hospital on July 3.

Saiful’s body was found inside the café following the siege. It was never returned to his family, rights activists said.

His widow, Sonia Begum, told BenarNews that no government officials had communicated with her to express condolences or to discuss possible compensation.

“Saiful was the lone earner of my family. I am now facing a huge problem trying to survive with my three children,” said Sonia, who was pregnant at the time of the attack.

She praised the café owners for continuing to support her family, adding that she also earns money through sewing and receives support from relatives.

Maksuda said she is a diabetic and needs the money to buy medication.

Sadat Mehdi, one of owners of the Holey Artisan Bakery, told BenarNews that the café continues to help the survivors of both workers on humanitarian grounds.

“We are providing the support to the families because they did not get any assistance or compensation from the government,” he said.

Sadat said there were no plans for an organized event at the former café site because of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners have moved the café from the diplomatic quarter, a posh neighborhood known for its tight security, to another Dhaka location.

Diners compensated

In addition to the two café workers and five terrorists, two police officers and 20 diners, including nine Italians and seven Japanese, died as result of the attack.

In a ceremony on March 25, 2018, the government provided compensation to 19 of the 20 diners. Relatives of one of the Japanese victims declined the offer.

Authorities had announced that Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal was to present 15,000 euros (1.5 million taka or U.S. $18,400) in honor of each victim.

“You cannot compensate a death, so we call it a financial honorarium. The purpose of the ceremony is to give the message to the world that Bangladesh has not forgotten the Holey Artisan attack,” Shamsur Rahman, an additional secretary of the home ministry at the time, told BenarNews.

On Wednesday, a former police inspector general who serves in parliament said the concerns of Saiful’s and Shaon’s families should be considered.

“The families of the innocent victims deserve the right of getting necessary compensation,” said Nur Mohammad, who serves on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs.

Maksuda, meanwhile, called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to support her family’s call for justice.

“All my hopes were destroyed by the police,” she said. “We are still crying, five years have gone by, and we did not get any justice or any compensation. We are requesting the prime minister to give us justice, otherwise my soul will not be happy,” Maksuda said.

Human rights concerns

Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun, director general of the national police elite Rapid Action Battalion, had little to say about the survivors’ concerns.

“I need to check information of the matter before making any comment,” he said.   

Saiful and Shaon were not named in charge sheets that police filed in July 2018 against more than 20 suspects linked to the attack.

In November 2019, the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in Dhaka convicted and sentenced to death seven suspects while acquitting an eighth. More than a dozen other suspects were killed in police operations.

Human rights activist Nur Khan Liton said authorities have treated the families of the slain café workers harshly, considering that the two have been cleared of wrongdoing.

“A mistake may occur during a major operation, but the government should have supported the families after it was proven that the pair were misidentified,” Nur told BenarNews.  

The secretary general of rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra, Nur noted that authorities did not turn Saiful’s corpse over to his family despite their request.

“Until today, no authority officially announced that Saiful and Shaon were not criminals. As per the judicial system, it is proven that they are innocent, so authorities should make an official announcement in this regard,” he said.

He also questioned the lack of compensation.

“It is not acceptable from the ground of human rights. It was the responsibility of the state to give compensation to the families,” he said.

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