Letter sent to Bangladesh government contains damning allegations of human rights violations.

UN working group: Bangladesh government uses “enforced disappearance to target political opponents or other dissidents” Netra News December 23, 2021

A relative holds a portrait of a disappeared family member at an event to mark the International Day of the Disappeared, at the National Press Club, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 30 August 2021, organised by Mayer Dak, a platform of families with relatives who have disappeared, having been picked up by law enforcement officers. (Photo by Suvra Kanti Das/Sipa USA)

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) says that it has received information that nearly 600 people have been forcibly disappeared in Bangladesh by security forces since 2009 — and that while the majority were either released or eventually formally produced in court as arrests, “dozens were found dead” with “86 documented cases in which the victims’ fate and whereabouts remain unknown.”

In a letter sent to the Bangladesh government following its meeting in September 2021, WGEID notes that the “frequent and ongoing use of enforced disappearance” is allegedly used “as a tool by law enforcement agencies, security and intelligence forces, especially to target political opponents or other dissidents.”

Citing its sources, the UN working Group also claims that the Bangladesh government uses enforced disappearances “as a tool to curb any criticism against the government or form of political opposition. Accordingly, gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, dramatically increased ahead of the 2014 election and in the lead-up of the 2018 election. In this context, tactics of mass arrest of opposition leaders and activists, accused in fabricated cases, have allegedly been deployed.”

The letter to the Bangladesh government – the full text of which is set out at the end of this report – was published within a UN Working Group report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on December 6th 2021.

The WGEID correspondence will be seen as damning criticism of the Bangladesh government which consistently denies that it is involved in enforced disappearances. 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. The letter also supports concerns about the credibility of the 2014 and 2018 elections.

The letter notes that, apart from the police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was involved in the majority of cases, “by routinely picking up people, extra-judicially killing them and disposing the bodies.” On December 10th, 2021, the United States government imposed sanctions on RAB and its current and former leaders.

The letter criticised the lack of investigation by law enforcement authorities into the disappearances, “Police officers would allegedly refuse to register complaints concerning enforced disappearances or only accept them upon removal of any allegations of law enforced involvement. When complaints are registered, there seemingly is no investigation and closure reports are filed, including in cases where courts ordered an investigation.”

It goes onto say that other avenues to seek recourse against the failure to search for the disappeared, investigate and hold those responsible accountable — the Police Internal Oversight Unit, the National Human Rights Commissions or the courts — are  “essentially set up to fail” and that “victims and their relatives are thus allegedly left without an effective remedy and redress.”

The working group also says that it has been informed that “relatives of forcibly disappeared persons are threatened not to pursue investigations.”

The letter also points out to the Bangladesh government that it had learned “about the alleged existence of legal mechanisms that would facilitate the impunity of perpetrators” and that “Section 13 of the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance makes it virtually impossible to prosecute any member of the RAB.”

The working group also raises concern that officers from RAB were “eligible to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, without any previous investigation into their alleged involvement in the commission of human rights abuses or a thorough vetting process” and that “that officers involved in the commission of human rights violations or willing to oversee such abuses appear to be promoted and rewarded within the Bangladesh security and law enforcement forces.” The office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has recently told Netra News that the human rights record of RAB will be a relevant consideration in deciding whether individual army and police officers, previously seconded to RAB, will be allowed to take part in UN peacekeeping missions.

The letter — which also criticises the Bangladesh government for its failure to respond to four previous communications going back to 2011 as well as a request to carry out a visit to the country — asks the government to respond to 11 questions about enforced disappearances.

Netra News has contacted Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh government’s home minister, for his response to the WGEID letter, but has not received a response.●

FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER

This is the full text of the letter sent by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances following its September 2021 meeting. It can be found at annex 2, page 30 of this document.

1. The Working Group received information from sources concerning alleged violations and obstacles encountered in the implementation of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in Bangladesh.

2. This general allegation must be read in addition to those already transmitted to the Government of Bangladesh respectively on 4 May 2011, 9 March 2016, 22 February 2017 and 22 May 2019, to which no reply has been provided. The lack of responses from the government — including on the request to carry out a visit to the country, which remains unanswered since 12 March 2013 — is all the more troubling, bearing in mind that the all allegations received refer to the frequent and ongoing use of enforced disappearance as a tool by law enforcement agencies, security and intelligence forces, especially to target political opponents or other dissidents.

3. On this occasion, the sources recall that nearly 600 people have been forcibly disappeared by security forces since 2009. The majority were either released or eventually formally produced in court as arrests, but dozens were found dead. The sources refer to 86 documented cases in which the victims’ fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

4. The sources confirm that, besides the Bangladesh police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — a counterterror paramilitary unit, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, also actively involved in the “war on drugs”, launched in May 2018 — would be admittedly involved in the majority of cases, by routinely picking up people, extra-judicially killing them and disposing the bodies. The Working Group was also informed that members of the RAB would be eligible to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, without any previous investigation into their alleged involvement in the commission of human rights abuses or a thorough vetting process. Similarly, there are allegations that officers involved in the commission of human rights violations or willing to oversee such abuses appear to be promoted and rewarded within the Bangladesh security and law enforcement forces.

5. Pursuant to the information received by the Working Group, enforced disappearance is used as a tool to curb any criticism against the government or form of political opposition. Accordingly, gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, dramatically increased ahead of the 2014 election and in the lead-up of the 2018 election. In this context, tactics of mass arrest of opposition leaders and activists, accused in fabricated cases, have allegedly been deployed.

6. The sources reported how surveillance (in the form of physical surveillance, as well as interception of telecommunications and tracking social media, through international mobile subscriber identity-catchers, location-based social network monitoring system software, and Wi-Fi interceptors) is used in the commission of enforced disappearances, as part of the mentioned crackdown on opposition. These surveillance tactics have allegedly been expanded in the context of the pandemic, targeting those who appear to be critical of the State’s response to COVID-19.

7. The Working Group was also informed that relatives of forcibly disappeared persons are threatened not to pursue investigations. Instances of extortion against families, with false promises of releasing their loved ones or providing medical care, have also been reported.

8. The sources referred that police officers would allegedly refuse to register complaints concerning enforced disappearances or only accept them upon removal of any allegations of law enforced involvement. When complaints are registered, there seemingly is no investigation and closure reports are filed, including in cases where courts ordered an investigation. Reportedly, the three existing avenues to seek recourse against the failure to search for the disappeared, investigate and hold those responsible accountable (i.e. the Police Internal Oversight Unit, the National Human Rights Commissions or the courts) would be essentially set up to fail. Victims and their relatives are thus allegedly left without an effective remedy and redress.

9. The Working Group also learned about the alleged existence of legal mechanisms that would facilitate the impunity of perpetrators, including the constitutionally guaranteed right of the parliament to provide indemnity through law to any State officer for any act done to maintain or restore order, and to lift any sanctions inflicted on this person; the need to obtain prior government approval to bring criminal charges against public officials for offences committed while acting in official capacity; and military laws shielding members of the armed forces (including the RAB) from being prosecuted by the civilian justice system. Moreover, the sources reported that Section 13 of the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance makes it virtually impossible to prosecute any member of the RAB.

10. The Working Group would be grateful for your Excellency’s Government cooperation and observations on the following questions:

(a) Please provide any additional information and any comment you may have on the above-mentioned allegations.

(b) How does your Government ensure the right to a prompt and effective judicial remedy as a means of determining the whereabouts of persons deprived of their liberty?

(c) How does your Government ensure that persons suspected of having committed an offence of enforced disappearance are not in a position to influence the progress of an investigation by means of pressure or acts of intimidation or reprisal aimed at the complainant, witnesses, relatives of the disappeared person or their counsel, or at persons participating in the investigation? In particular, how does your Government secure that persons alleged to have committed an enforced disappearance are suspended from any official duties during the investigation of the corresponding complaint is carried out?

(d) How does your Government ensure that individuals responsible for gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, undergo a thorough vetting process and are removed from security institutions, and are not allowed to participate in missions abroad, including UN peacekeeping operations?

(e) How does your Government ensure that any person, having knowledge or legitimate interest, who alleges that a person has been subjected to enforce disappearance is able to lodge a complaint to a competent and independent State authority? How does your Government ensure that enforced disappearances are promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigated by the authority even if there has been no formal complaint and, especially, if it has been impossible to register such a complaint?

(f) What steps does your Government take to protect complainants, witnesses, relatives of disappeared persons and their counsels, human rights defenders and members of associations concerned with attempting to establish the circumstances of enforced disappearances and assist victims of enforced disappearance from ill-treatment, intimidation (including through unwarranted surveillance) or reprisals?

(g) What steps does your Government take to ensure that any ill-treatment, intimidation or reprisal or any other form of interference against the persons mentioned in the previous point is subjected to a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation and those responsible are prosecuted and appropriately punished?

(h) Which special measures has your Government undertaken to protect from harassment and reprisals the persons mentioned in the previous point and to investigate any corresponding instance of ill-treatment, intimidation or reprisal in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

(i)  How does your Government ensure the right of victims and their relatives to an effective remedy, which should at minimum guarantee cessation of violations, restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition?

(j)  Please provide information on how does your Government ensure that persons alleged to have committed an enforced disappearance are tried only by the competent ordinary courts, to the exclusion, in particular, of military courts.

(k) How does your Government ensure that persons who have or are alleged to have committed enforced disappearance do not benefit from any measures that might have the effect of exempting them from any criminal proceedings or sanction?