August 30 reminds the international community that enforced disappearance is a crime and cannot be condoned under any circumstances. It is a day of reckoning not only for the near and dear ones of the victims of enforced disappearance; the day also provides an opportunity for the broader community and those at the helm of the State to engage in some soul searching.
Enforced disappearance is used as a tool to spread fear within society. It occurs when “people are arrested, detained or abducted against their will and when government refuses to disclose the whereabouts of these people” (UN, Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance). Like many other states in the world, enforced disappearance is a reality in Bangladesh.
A typical scenario of enforced disappearance would involve several men forcing their entry into a family home or in a vehicle in any village or city at any time of the day, usually in plainclothes, sometimes in uniform, always carrying weapons and dragging off one or more members of the family without producing any arrest warrant and assigning any reason, frequently without stating who they are and on whose authority they are acting, using violence in the process, if necessary. This practice of enforced or involuntary disappearance has been labelled as “heinous violation of human rights” and “international crime”.
By now a pattern has emerged about the fate of victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh. In most instances they are kept in undisclosed custody for weeks or months before police suddenly claim to have arrested them the previous day. They are taken to the magistrates' court and are remanded into police custody often on the basis of fabricated charges. Others are found dead, being labelled as victims of “cross-fires”, “shoot-outs” and “encounters”. The lucky ones are released with stern instruction not to divulge what they experienced in detention, a directive all unquestioningly comply with. In at least two cases the victims of “disappearance” made their appearance in a neighbouring country.
Another pattern has emerged about the experiences that members of the families of victims endure following the disappearance. Almost in every instance the police refuse the families file a General Diary if the complaint contains an allegation that a law enforcement agency is involved. In rare cases where the families are finally able to lodge complaint, there is no progress in investigation. Prolonged periods of uncertainty regarding the whereabouts of a family member take immense psychological toll on the members of the victim's families, as “they alternate between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come”. Many are threatened of similar consequences if they share their plights with others, particularly with the media. In some instances, instead of helping the families find the disappeared, pressure is exerted on them to produce the latter. The law enforcers justify such action alleging there are pending cases against those activists who have “disappeared”.
The families' suffering may get compounded if the missing person happens to be the family's main breadwinner. The extended uncertainty causes huge disruption in household earnings and adjusting to new situations. The absence of death certificate makes it difficult to draw pension or receive other means of support. Under such circumstances it is the women and children who suffer disproportionately.
Bangladesh's experience with disappearance and extra-judicial killing go back to the setting up of the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini by the first Awami League government. In 2002 the BNP government launched the infamous “Operation Clean-Heart”and in 2004 created the Rapid Action Battalion. The second Awami League government came to office with a promise of “zero tolerance” to such abuses. Citing Odhikar figure, Human Rights Watch alleges that since January 2009, 320 persons including suspected criminals, militants, and more recently, opposition members have “disappeared”.
Successive governments have justified extrajudicial killing by law enforcement agencies on grounds of lawful self-defence. As rights groups have highlighted and alleged that state security forces were engaged in such killings, the incidence of enforced disappearance registered an increase. Odhikar informs that during 2017 until July, 60 people have fallen victim to enforced disappearance. Of them 26 were subsequently produced before courts, bodies of 6 were recovered and 28 still remain traceless.
It is in this context that a group of United Nations human rights experts have called on Bangladesh to act now to halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances says the number of cases has risen from a few isolated ones a few years ago, to more than 40 (by February 2017), and that the number is continuing to grow. The working group observed that “(en)forced disappearance is a heinous crime and an offence to human dignity and no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked to justify it.”
The Working Group's appeal has been collectively endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
Some hold the view that given the weakness in the criminal justice system (where serious offenders often secure bail and subsequent release), disappearance and extrajudicial killing though irregular are justified. This position is further buoyed in tackling religious militancy and terror. Others may feel it is by creating an environment of fear that undesirable political activism can be contained. Both such approaches are flawed. There are no quick fixes to problems of law enforcement. Political challenges should only to be met politically and unlawful denial of freedom to any citizen (including religious bigots, criminals and terrorists) cannot be justified under any circumstances. “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law”, ordains the Bangladesh Constitution (Article 27), the supreme law of the land.
The responses of the senior state functionaries on allegations of enforced disappearances have been diverse. In November 2016 the home minister dismissed the allegations as “baseless” and claimed that those missing were hiding “to embarrass the government internationally”. The minister branded the Human Rights Watch report (July 2017) on Secret Detentions and Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh as a “smear campaign”. The refusal of River Shitalakkhya to be an accomplice to the Naraynganj seven murders has conclusively established the hollowness of the claims of the home minister. In contrast, in March 2017 the law minister acknowledged to the UN Human Rights Committee that disappearances had indeed taken place and that their number has been brought down to “a very low level”. He further reiterated the government's avowed policy of “zero tolerance” of the practice.
On this International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances all freedom loving people of Bangladesh call upon those at the helm of the State to acknowledge the horrid reality of enforced disappearances, take appropriate actions to bring an end to the practice including setting up a credible and independent enquiry commission to look into the allegations, bring perpetrators to justice and provide reparations to the victims' families. The formation of special mechanisms within Bangladesh and the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearance can be the befitting beginning of that process of redemption.
CR Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka.