The year 1979 was probably the first time when the word “disappear” was used as an intransitive word. The New York Times Magazine wrote, “While Miss Iglesias 'was disappeared,' her family's writ of habeas corpus, filed on her behalf, was rejected by the courts.”
The story was about people who had vanished after the Argentine military had detained them.
Our authorities have long insisted that “missing” should be used to describe someone who has been disappeared. When proven, the term can change to “abducted” but not “victims of enforced disappearance.” However, there are some clearly defined distinctions between the two terms. While abduction can be used to describe an action to take someone away without their consent, “enforced disappearance” occurs when the abductors are state agents or a third party working on behalf of them.
The intent of the abductors is crucial in determining whether a case of abduction is also a case of disappearance. An abduction becomes an “enforced disappearance” when any such party secretly abducts, detains or imprisons a person with an intent of stripping the victim of legal protections, and subsequently denies having any knowledge of his/her whereabouts and fate. That is why enforced disappearance is the more appropriate word to describe some incidents of abduction.
In a typical case of abduction, the abductors would want a ransom in exchange for the victim's release. In the previously known cases of enforced disappearance, the abductors did not make any contact with the victim's family members. However, both journalist Utpal Das and researcher Mubashar Hasan, two recent abductees who have been fortunate enough to return alive, claimed that they had heard their captors discuss extorting money from their families. The actual motive behind their abduction remains a mystery, especially since these unknown abductors did not make any substantial effort to demand or collect money.
Furthermore, the fact that three or four recent victims of alleged enforced disappearance have returned home within a fairly short span of time, and in quite a similar fashion, raises eyebrows. Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the home minister, has credited the law enforcement agencies for the resurfacing of these missing individuals. We struggle to understand why though, especially since the law enforcement agencies did not make any visible attempts to rescue them. The home minister's comments also do not address why the police have not shown much interest in finding out who the abductors really are.
Although Bangladesh's law does not distinguish between enforced disappearance and abduction, international law clearly defines it as a “crime against humanity.” Using the term “missing” is very convenient for the state to refer to enforced disappearances. It is also easy for one of the highest-ranking officials to claim that such incidents of people going missing often took place in the UK and the US, despite the fact that no family members of those individuals in those countries have pointed the finger at law enforcement agencies.
The home minister has repeatedly claimed that many persons deliberately or voluntarily go missing to embarrass the government, to hide from their creditors, or to join a militant group. What he conveniently forgets is the fact that when RAB released the list of youths who had gone missing to join militant groups, almost no one disputed it. The families of the missing youths also seemed to have agreed with the statement, not simply because RAB claimed so, but because they probably suspected that this was the case. On the other hand, in many cases of alleged enforced disappearance, families of the victims have said that people claiming to be from law enforcement agencies had taken them away in the dead of night in front of their eyes, only to deny it later.
According to a media report, a deputy commissioner of police recently appeared to have admitted what we have long suspected. In a conference on militancy at Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College & Hospital, the deputy commissioner in question cited a previous incident of arresting a medical intern from the very hospital, because the police suspected that he had sheltered two suspects of the Chittagong naval base bomb attacks. The victim was found unconscious 30 hours later.
“A year ago, you [fellow doctors] organised a human chain and blocked roads, in protest. We took him, but we cannot always admit it because we had to extract information from him. Not always can we divulge everything,” the police officer explained. The recording of these statements is publicly available.
The police “cannot admit” being involved in such actions because they are illegal under Section 61 of the criminal procedure code that restricts the police to keep any person detained without a warrant for more than 24 hours. This restriction may also explain why some victims, like AMM Amanur Rahman, the secretary general of Kalyan Party, reappear after weeks or months and then almost instantly are shown arrested.
A sane mind would wonder why he was not arrested formally, and was instead detained secretly. Such practices also raise concerns about the actual purpose of the law enforcement agencies. The opposition parties have constantly alleged that the government used law enforcement to “disappear” their leaders and activists.
If in many cases the law enforcement agencies have resorted to such illegal means to detain real criminals, it also means that they can do so for illegitimate and illegal purposes. If the government really wants to make it convenient for the law enforcement to secure a court warrant quickly to arrest suspects, it can do so by setting up new exclusive courts and expanding the legal capabilities of law enforcement agencies. Evading a legal mechanism cannot be an excuse to detain real culprits, let alone innocent people.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.