Last week marked a new low in the law and order situation of the country. The panel mayor of the port city of Narayanganj was abducted along with a few of his associates. The abduction was conducted with clinical precision, in broad daylight. There is a general consensus that such a task could only be accomplished by a group of professionals.
That was not the first time that a group of people was abducted by a specialist unit. On December 4, 2013 eight persons with affiliation of the opposition party, BNP, were abducted from various parts of Dhaka city, again in broad daylight. Their families believe that members of law enforcement agencies were involved in that act.
There is a crucial difference between the two sets of abductions. While the corpses of the victims of the Narayanganj case were found floating in the river of Shittalakhya within day of their disapperances, in the Dhaka case of December 2013 the victims are still traceless. In common parlance, they remain involuntarily disappeared.
These days the people of Bangladesh are getting weary of the news that their fellow citizens are being abducted or involuntarily disappeared from different parts of the country. In many instances their bodies are subsequently dumped and found on roads, pavements, drains, rivers, swamps and lakes. In other cases, they remain disappeared while their mothers, wives, sisters and children wait for their return.
Abduction and disappearance have become integral part of the daily life of Bangladeshis. One did not take much notice when persons tagged as petty criminals were being extra judicially killed. Those at the helm of the State and a section of the media were successful in shaping the public discourse that loopholes in the criminal justice system allowed those undesirable elements to escape justice and hence there was little option but to deal with them summarily. The offenders did not deserve the protection of the law they argued. The urban middle class on the whole subscribed to this position and was happy with what appeared to be improved law and order situation. But such satisfaction came at a cost.
Over time, there was a discernable rise in the number of extra judicial killings (EJK). The national rights bodies such as Odhikar expressed concern over the killings. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International joined them and raised red flag as the figures of those killed extra judicially registered a steep rise. During the Universal Period Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Foreign Minister of the newly elected government had to make a public pledge of zero tolerance of such killings. Such a declaration was conformity with the election pledge of her party.
Despite such a public pledge EJKs continued unabated. But as public mood swung against the practice, those involved in the exercise changed their tactic. No longer were they prepared to dispose off the bodies of their victims, often with bullet wounds and gory torture, those were made to disappear. Thus a relatively new term got introduced in the corpus of language of human rights violation in the country - involuntary disappearance. The new tactics came in handy for the perpetrators.
When initial experiments of liquidation of petty criminals and political elements of the fringes met with little resistance, the perpetrators became more confident and began targeting those who are considered politically undesirable by the ruling quarters. Thus one finds the disappearance of commissioner Chowdhury Alam on 25 May 2010 from Dhanmandi, of ex BNP MP Ilias Ali on 17 April12 from Banani and another ex BNP MP Saiful Islam of Laksham and his associate Humayun Kabir. Logic leads us to conclude that political considerations played a role in eliminating them.
While the government of the day refused to take cognizance of the disappearances of their high profile opponents, the political background of the victims failed to generate national condemnation of the dastardly acts. Instead of viewing this as an affront to citizens' rights the so-called champions of national conscience preferred to look the other way.
Enjoying absolute impunity the elements involved in such acts became even more daring and reckless. The attempted abduction of the rights activist Adilur Rahman Khan and abduction of the husband of environmental activist Rizwana Hasan marked a new height in their sinister move. The prompt, bold and unequivocal response of the media and masses exerted enormous pressure on the power that be and secured their release. These instances of safe return of the abducted are more of an exception rather than rule.
If one looks at the statistics produced by the rights organization Odhikar and Ain O Shalish Kendra then one finds that of those abducted only a handful returned, bodies of some were subsequently found and most remained traceless.
The feeling is rife among informed citizens that state agencies had a hand in committing at least some of these crimes. Immaculate planning and precision in execution leave beyond doubt that well-trained personnel can only conduct such acts. Circumstantial evidence in many cases validate such claims. Besides, in a number of instances the families of victims have pointed fingers at the members of law enforcement agencies (LEA), including the Rapid Action Battalion. In a few cases, the aggrieved families even named senior officials of the agency. Despite such serious accusation and finger pointing the government persistently rejected such charges labeled against the LEAs and their personnel. This has, on one hand bred a culture of impunity for delinquent members of LEAs, and, on the other, led to serious erosion of trust on LEAs and the state machinery in general in the public eye. A particular institution has become synonymous to death squad.
There may not be enough evidence to back claims that abductions and disappearances are taking place at the behest of the state. However, the failure of the State to acknowledge this to be a major problem, the denial of the people in authority to take into cognizance of the reality, the rejection of the demands for independent enquiry into cases of enforced disappearance and the propensity of the government leaders to blame the opposition for such acts without furnishing any proof – all contribute to the public perception that the perpetrators enjoy unflinching support of the administration. It is pertinent to take into account a recent observation of the chair of the National Human Rights Commission that criminal syndicates are using errant members of the law enforcing agencies for abduction and disappearances against payment of money.
Thus far, like EJK, abduction and disappearance did not appear to be an issue of concern for cushioned middle class of Bangladesh. The events of the last few weeks have stirred up collective conscience that such acts must not be allowed to continue. Although those in command of the State remain nonchalant, citizens have begun to claim a stake in their own security and are getting united. The public rallies of the last few days in different parts of the country, including those organised by the newly formed Committee for Protection of Fundamental Rights (CPFR), reveal the fact that no longer will the citizens allow the State to pound their fundamental rights. They also make it amply clear that people can no longer be bullied and intimidated by the gun wielding bullet proof jacketed law enforcers and the intimidating noise and sharp turns of the armoured carrier vehicles that paraded the South Plaza of the Sangsad Bhaban when one such rally of CPFR was thwarted on 3rd May. Sooner the ruling quarter realizes this, better it would be for everyone in the country.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is President of Odhikar.