Accused of abductions and extrajudicial killings, the South Asian nation’s law enforcement agencies are intimidating families into retracting statements.
On January 10, Zahid Khan Shakil, a small-time businessman in the Basabo area of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, had an unexpected guest. A sub-inspector from the local police station came to his house and asked him to visit the station late in the afternoon. They wanted to question Shakil about his missing brother.
The irony was not lost on Shakil. Eight years ago, his brother, Mahbub Hasan Sujon, a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was abducted by the same police force on December 8, 2013—as chronicled in a detailed report by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). Sujon has since remained untraced.
Sujon is one of around 600 people—including opposition leaders, activists, journalists and businessmen—who have been subjected to “enforced disappearance” since incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office in 2009. Local and international rights organisations, as well as the media, pointed out—with detailed evidence—the involvement of Bangladeshi law enforcers and security agencies in these abductions and secret detentions.
“In all these years, the police showed zero interest in finding my brother. We knocked on the door of every law enforcement agency and asked them repeatedly to find my brother. Now all of a sudden, they wanted to talk about him,” Shakil tells TRT World.
Shakil went to the police station as requested and, after answering what seemed to him like hours of “mundane queries”, he was asked to accompany a police officer back home to get a statement signed by his father, Abdul Jalil Khan.
“I took the police officer to my home that night and woke up my father,” Shakil says. “After reading (the document), my father politely refused to sign the statement as it gave some distorted information about my missing brother— ‘I made a general diary entry on December 11, 2013 after concealing information in it. I also provided misleading information about my son going missing’ …”
Shakil says that the statement drafted by the police was a blatant lie: “Since my father neither concealed any information nor provided any misleading information in the general diary with the police. The truth is, eight years ago, the local police station didn’t even allow my father to mention in the diary entry that armed men had whisked my brother away in a car.”
After Khan refused to sign the statement, the police officer started to show threatening behaviour. “The officer made a phone call and within half an hour, seven to eight more policemen came to our house. We have children in the house and they got very scared as the police officers tried to intimidate us. My father, however, didn’t sign and they went away after a senior politician from BNP intervened,” Shakil adds.
This effort to coerce a family into signing a statement, which seemingly deflects blame from the law enforcers for an enforced disappearance, is not an isolated instance. In the last two weeks or so, at least 10 families whose members were reportedly abducted by law enforcers, received sudden visits by officers from local police stations.
The officers are putting pressure on the families of disappeared men, whose cases have been taken up by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), to sign statements denying that they were picked up by law enforcement authorities.
An action triggered by global pressure
Prominent Bangladeshi human rights activist A.S.M. Nasiruddin Elan says that the police pressure on victims’ families didn’t happen overnight. “It is linked to the recent global pressures faced by the Bangladeshi law enforcers and security agencies,” Elan tells TRT World.
On December 10 last year, the US imposed human rights-related sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite police force—the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)—and seven of its current and former officials, accusing them of being involved in hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings since 2009.
At the same time, a WGEID letter sent to the Bangladeshi government severely criticised its apathy in investigating cases of enforced disappearances, and said that Dhaka uses enforced disappearances "as a tool to curb any criticism against the government" and prevent political opposition from mobilising. The letter, sent by the UN working group, also constitutes corroboration for claims made by local and international human rights organisations over the years about the systematic use of the practice of enforced disappearances.
“So, it seems that the government is now trying to cover up the crimes that it conducted through its security agencies; but they are taking the wrong approach. Coercing the victims’ families to sign false statements will only aggravate their crimes,” Elan says.
Mayer Daak (Call of Mother), a platform of the families of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, condemned the recent police action and expressed anger over it. A statement signed by Mayer Daak organiser Afroza Islam, said that on the instructions of the government, “police are forcing the victims’ relatives to sign papers stating that the person has gone missing and that the family hid the information”.
At a press conference in Dhaka last Saturday, Mayer Daak showcased several people who had recently been visited by the police, had to go to the police station, or had been pressured to sign a statement written by the police.
An editorial published in Bangladesh’s highest-circulated English newspaper, The Daily Star, the next day also indicated that this sudden police pressure “may have something to do with recent international pressures” now that some of the country's law enforcement institutions “have been identified and sanctioned for human rights violations”.
“Clearly, our law enforcement agencies are trying to clear their names in the wrong way: instead of finding the ‘disappeared’, they are further victimising them and their families”, the editorial said.
The media sector of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) headquarters, however, issued a statement terming the news reports on police pressure on the families of missing people as “exaggerated and distorted”. The statement, accessed by TRT World, accuses these reports as “apparently trying to defame the police force”.
“In order to present updated information related to allegations made by different national and international organisations about ‘disappearances’ and in order to advance investigations into these allegations, it is conventionally the duty of the police or law enforcement organisations to collect information from and keep in contact with the victims and complainants,” the statement reads.
The statement went on to say that the police take allegations of any kind “seriously” and take “legal steps to conduct investigations”. It claimed that to “characterise and declare police work as harassment and release one-sided statements about that are tantamount to non-cooperation with police investigation”.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW, tells TRT World that the Bangladeshi authorities should really stop denying serious human rights violations or forcing victims and their families to withdraw allegations. “Instead, the government should do what should have been done a long time ago, which is to launch a credible and time-bound investigation into these abuses, and prosecute perpetrators,” she said.
“More human rights abuses to cover up previous abuses are hardly an indication that the government is one that complies with its international human rights obligations. As a first step, the government should immediately order the release of all those who are being held illegally or who are victims of enforced disappearances,” she adds.
Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific researcher at the global rights organisation CIVICUS says: “It is appalling that instead of taking serious steps to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearances in the country, the Bangladesh authorities are intimidating the families of the disappeared to deny such violations ever took place.”
“This is increasing the climate of fear in Bangladesh and highlights the repressive environment in the country that has been documented by the CIVICUS monitor,” adds Benedict, urging the Bangladeshi law enforcers to immediately end the ongoing harassment and threats against families of the disappeared.