FAMILIES of some 100 victims of enforced disappearances gathered at the Jatiya Press Club premises on Saturday to observe UN's International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. They told heart-rending stories of how they lost their loved ones after they were 'picked up' by members of the law-enforcement agencies. They are still in the dark about the fate of their family member(s) after those tragic encounters. Their repeated appeals to the authorities to return or even provide information about their lost family embers have fallen on deaf ears.
Those people who gathered at the Press Club are real, and the 'disappeared' family members they were lamenting over are also real. But the state minister for home Asaduzzaman Khan would not, perhaps, believe that that they are so.
We say this because the other day he dismissed a report on the last five years' account of the victims of 'enforced disappearances' published by a local human rights watchdog , Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). He not only questioned the number of such disappearances as reported, but also denied the occurrence of any incident under the rubric, 'enforced disappearance'. In his view, barring some exceptional cases, these disappearances involve persons going into hiding of their own free will for various reasons. To prove his point he cited an incident or two in which the alleged 'enforced disappearances', were purely cases of self-exile from public view by the persons concerned.
One does not deny that the kind of disappearances that the minister was talking about cannot happen in society. They happen. But what ASK was dealing with in its report was a far more serious matter than those happening on the fringe of society. And being in charge of home ministry he could not have been unaware of those incidents of grave public concern. For example, how can one explain away in a lighthearted tone a case of disappearance in which the body of the victim was recovered later? Can one just look the other way, or even imagine that those were not there, when a leading newspaper on August 30 reported that 35 corpses were recovered from Keraniganj area at the last one month and a half and, of those, identities of 17, found floating in the river, remaining unknown? Who knows how many of the dead are victims of enforced disappearance? Facts are too stubbnorn to be wished away.
According to ASK report, of the 229 persons who thus disappeared between 2010 and 2013, bodies of 31 could be recovered, while the whereabouts of 37 are still unknown. These people did not go into hiding just out of fun and then get killed! In many cases relatives of such disappeared persons said that the victims were 'picked up' by members of law-enforcement agencies. Were all of them mistaken, or talking through their hat? The same ASK report further goes to show that during the first six months of this year, 74 people were 'picked up' under similar circumstances. Among them, bodies of 23 have been found. This, if compared to the disappearances over a similar span of time in the past years, is an alarmingly high number! These are hard facts and there is hardly any scope to get around them. Rather than being in a denial mode, the home ministry, or the government for that matter, should face facts.
It is worthwhile to note that the rights bodies, in addition to their own findings, usually collect the raw material of their research from reports published in the media on such disappearances. And it goes without saying that those reports often contain versions of the incidents provided by victims' relatives as well as eyewitnesses. And those were no different from the stories of disappearance provided by the 100 families who gathered at the Jatiya Press Club on Saturday. Will the minister dismiss all these reports in a similar vein out of hand?
If he has any doubt about the veracity of the reports provided by the HR watchdog or the media, as a public representative, he owes it to the public to give his own explanation of what happened to those people claimed to have disappeared. Who abducted those people? These unexplained disappearances have stricken fear in public mind about their own safety and security. Who knows who the next target is? Who will give assurance and provide security to the citizens, if it is not the state? Can the government sweep all these cases of enforced disappearance under the rug by just denying their existence?
People getting killed under doubtful circumstances in extra-legal manner has been going on for long. Earlier, detainees dying in police custody, or suspected criminals being shot dead in 'shootouts', or 'cross-fires' by elite crime-busting units usually constituted the stuff of crime eports. It appears, enforced disappearances have, of late, given way to those kinds of extra-judicial murders.
We hope that the government would come out of its denial mode and acknowledge the gravity of the issue at hand. The public wants to see that it is the rule of law and not of jungle that runs the country.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.