A denial and the reality
Less than a week ago, on September 20, 2018 the Consideration of the Universal Periodic Review Outcome of Bangladesh was held at the 39th regular session of Human Rights Council. Earlier on May 14, during a session of the working group the leader of the Bangladesh delegation and the Minister for Law, Anisul Huq, had dismissed the claims of involuntary disappearance in the country. He asserted that often cases of possible abduction of individuals were reported as enforced disappearances. He said, it was done with the "obvious intention of maligning the government and its achievements". In many cases, the perceived victims had reappeared, proving the allegations of the "so-called enforced disappearance" false.
The leader of Bangladesh delegation reminded the assembly that the legal system of Bangladesh does not recognise the term "involuntary disappearance" though crimes of "abductions" and "kidnappings" are well defined in the criminal justice system of the country. He assured that any violation of law by anyone including law enforcement officials is dealt with under our existing legal provisions. The minister noted that the enactment of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013 had been a testimony that Bangladesh accepted the recommendations of the second review cycle.
The denial of incidence of involuntary disappearance at the UPR is in sync with similar claims of law enforcement agencies and the recent statement of the home minister. That the latter maintained these alleged disappearances are essentially cases of people who go into hiding after failing in business and romantic relationships.
One would wish, before coming to such definitive conclusions and making assertions, the senior functionaries of the state had a session with the families of the victims of involuntary disappearance. Such a gathering was organised by Mayer Dak (the call of mothers) on August 30, in observance of the International Day of the Victims of Involuntary Disappearances. While sharing their experiences, often breaking into tears, parents, children and friends of victims of involuntary disappearance gave horrendous details of the ordeals that their loved ones and they had endured. For some, it has been a wait of more than five years.
The persistence of involuntary disappearance has resulted in the growing membership of the platform. Five years ago, Mayer Dak was an initiative only of families of eight opposition activists. Now the platform comprises of forty families, including those of ruling party supporters, left leaning organisations and retired officials of army and foreign service. At that event the members of the platform had said that they were getting impatient at the inaction of the government. Some felt the approach of prodding, urging and pleading through holding of seminars, press conferences, conventions, human chains and submission of memorandums have thus far yielded little result. Others were angry at the silence and indifference of the authorities and the misinformation that is rolled out by the state agencies.
The narratives of the families of victims are remarkably similar. Their loved ones were picked up from roads, workplaces or their homes in the wee hours of the day by people claiming to be members of law enforcement agencies. In some cases they were uniformed and used clearly marked vehicles. In others, well-built men in plain clothes with close cropped hair and sporting walkie-talkies whisked the victims away in white vans. Not a single case was reported where a warrant of arrest was presented. In several instances concerned families were assured that the victims were being taken for routine interrogation and would soon be returned. Later their local police stations denied any knowledge of such detention. When families went to file cases the police refused to entertain them and advised at the most to register a general diary. No follow up or investigation was initiated. When families wanted to learn if any progress was made, in most cases they experienced non-cooperation and at best were told "dekhchhi" (we are looking into it).
While some mothers still cherish the hope that their disappeared son would one day knock on the door, others have reconciled that this will not happen. Lowering their expectations from the administration they just demand an inquiry into what had happened, an explanation as to why their innocent loved ones were picked up, and punishment for the perpetrators.
Jharna Khatun, wife of a former leader of the Students' Union said, "Give us proper information." And asked the authorities to at least inform family members if they are still alive. Adding, "We will be able to endure it". Shahnaz Begum, wife of BNP leader Humayun Kabir raised the question, "If indeed, involuntary disappearance is not taking place why then is the government barring visits of international organisations that are interested to investigate into the matter?" Marufa Islam, sister of BNP activist Shumon stated the family is at a loss when Shumon's son now enquires about the whereabouts of his father. "For how long should we have to wait to get an answer", she asked. Rehana Khanam, sister of the disappeared student activist Pintu asked, "Does not the government have any responsibility if a person goes missing? To whom do we go for justice?" The members of the audience could not hold back tears when 4-5 children stood on the podium with the photos of their disappeared fathers making a poignant plea that like their other friends they wanted their fathers to accompany them to school and to the playgrounds.
It is unfortunate that instead of acknowledging the problem of involuntary disappearance the government has chosen to bury its head in the sand like an ostrich. The failure to recognise the reality of involuntary disappearance only encourages perpetrators to continue with the act. The seven-murder case of Narayanganj is an irrefutable evidence of that reality.
The ministerial observation that reappearance of some victims nullifies the claim of disappearance does not hold water. Within few weeks or months of their disappearance almost one-fourth of the 442 persons who disappeared from January 1, 2009 to August 30, 2018 surfaced in the custody of law enforcement agencies, against whom criminal charges were subsequently labelled (Asian Legal Resources Centre, 2018). A tiny number who were fortunate to return home have refused to speak about their ordeal. Some were found dead in ponds and roadsides, while about a third remains disappeared.
The argument that Bangladesh's legal lexicon has no place for terms like "enforced disappearance" also stands on shallow grounds. Laws are framed and updated to meet the needs of changing realities. If laws can be framed to combat terrorism, money laundering and digital security, surely there is sufficient ground to criminalise the act of involuntary disappearance and be party to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Involuntary Disappearance, that came into force in 2010 (as of January 2018, signed by 97 and ratified by 57 states).
The loaded narratives of victim's families also dispel the thesis that they are pushing a hidden agenda of any nefarious quarter "to malign the government". On the contrary, the ministerial denials coupled with actions and inactions of the state agencies only reinforce the perception of the existence of the scourge of involuntary disappearance in the country which the United Nations considers "a strategy to spread terror in the society".
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.