International Day of the Disappeared: In tears, families wait for return
Over 500 people, largely opposition activists, were disappeared in Bangladesh since 2009, according to rights groups
It has been nine years since Jharna Banu went from door to door inquiring into the whereabouts of her husband who disappeared in 2011.
Except for some empty promises, she got no answers – be it government higher-ups or law enforcement agencies.
“The pain we are bearing can never be realized by anyone. Our son cries every day for his father. There is no place, including police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) or the home ministry which I have not visited to find out my husband, but in vain,” said Jharna.
Without any knowledge about her husband, Jharna, while speaking at a human chain in front of the National Museum in Dhaka on Saturday, said the family had been living in extreme despair.
The human chain was organized by Mayer Dak, a platform representing the families of the victims of enforced disappearances.
The event was organized to commemorate August 30, International Day of the Disappeared, which focuses on people who have gone missing with their whereabouts completely unknown to their families.
Over 500 people, largely opposition activists, have been subjected to enforced disappearances in Bangladesh since 2009, according to rights groups.
Although the numbers were higher in the early years, they have been coming down gradually.
While speaking at the human chain, some families broke into tears, while others said their tears had run dry after years of waiting for their loved ones to return.
The sister of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal leader Munna, who disappeared from Sutrapur, said that if there was any fault on her brother’s part, it was that he was a BNP supporter.
“That is why the law enforcement agencies took him. We have been waiting for the last seven years but do not even know if he is alive or not. We cannot wait anymore,” she said.
Number coming down in recent years
Data compiled by the human rights campaigner Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) show that 97 people allegedly disappeared in 2016, and 11 dead bodies were recovered. Three were released while the law enforcement agencies told families about the detention of 26 of the disappeared.
In 2017, 60 people allegedly disappeared and two of their bodies were recovered later. Seven were released while the law enforcement agencies told families about the detention of eight of the disappeared.
In 2018, 34 families allegedly disappeared but only two of them were released. While 17 families were informed about detentions by the law enforcement agencies, 15 of them are still missing.
In 2019, 13 people disappeared. Of them, four were released later. While eight of them are still missing, one family was informed about detention by the law enforcement agencies.
Till June 2020, only two people disappeared and both families were informed by the law enforcement agencies about their detention, ASK data show.
Arowa was two years old when her father went missing and her memories of him have perhaps faded. She only has her father’s photographs on the wall to remember him.
Her father, Sajedul Islam Sumon, general secretary of the BNP’s Ward No 25 unit, was reportedly picked up along with five others from Bashundhara Residential Area in Dhaka on December 4, 2013.
Sumon’s wife Nasima Akter, bitter after years of waiting, does not even demand her husband’s return. All she needs to know now is whether her husband is alive or not.
In a statement released on Friday, 12 human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) claimed Bangladesh’s security forces and law enforcement agencies continuously committed enforced disappearances with impunity, targeting journalists, activists and government critics.
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They demanded that all the disappeared people held in state custody should be safely returned to their families and those responsible for their disappearance should be held accountable.
According to Article 24(4) of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, each state party should ensure in its legal system that the victims of enforced disappearance have the right to obtain reparations and prompt, fair and adequate compensation.
Bangladesh is yet to ratify the convention.
Collective efforts needed to stop the never-ending cycle
Moulik Odhikar Shurokkha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights) organized an online discussion to mark the day.
Bangladesh Adivasi Forum General Secretary Sanjeeb Drong questioned the media’s role, saying the local media publish any narrative without verifying facts.
Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi American political scientist and writer, said: “It appears that the state is involved in the disappearance cases. If it is not involved then why are the people who have returned not speaking up.”
He asked if they were not involved, then why did the law enforcement agencies fail to find out the reason behind the disappearances.
Barrister Sara Hossain, advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and honorary executive director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) said the role of the system should be scrutinized.
Moderator of the program, human rights activists Zakir Hossain said disappearance incidents went for a sharp rise since the government enacted the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013.
Human rights activist Nur Khan Liton said till now some 700 opposite political party activists had disappeared.
Prof Ali Riaz identified the changing political situation in the country, which was creating a culture of fear. He said civil society was getting weaker and failed to create pressure on the government as before.
It was a matter of great regret that in the last 10 years, the organizations working on the issue failed to build a platform, he said, adding that without collective pressure such heinous work would never stop.
Secretary of Moulik Odhikar Shurokkha Committee, Adilur Rahman said: “We have to take a collective approach and before that we need to determine what we want to achieve and how the people involved in the incidents could be brought to trial.”
Shahdheen Malik said it was a matter of concern that the lower courts were giving priority to the law enforcers in such cases.
“We need to stop enforced disappearances and have to ensure trial for the disappearances that have already occurred.”
Nitya Ramakrishnan, senior lawyer of the Indian Supreme Court; AKM Wahidduzzaman, assistant professor of National University, along with some victims and rights activists participated in the program.