Investigating Bangladesh’s disappearances

We cannot expect Bangladeshi politicians to conduct proper investigations into crimes they ordered, facilitated or to which they earlier turned a blind eye.

Investigating Bangladesh’s disappearances
Children hold the pictures of their missing fathers at an event marking the International Day of the Disappeared, at National Press Club, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on August 30th 2021. Photo: Suvra Kanti Das/Sipa/Alamy

​​Anisul Huq, Bangladesh’s law minister, says that the government is now investigating the cases of “76” disappeared men who were allegedly picked up by law enforcement agencies in the last eleven years and whose whereabouts continue to remain unknown. “Now it is not only the foreign ministry but also the law ministry looking at those 76 cases. We will come up with the facts,” he told a press conference at the end of last month.

It appears Huq actually meant “86” — the number which the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance stated in its letter sent to the Bangladesh government in late 2021 — which comprised “documented cases in which the victims’ fate and whereabouts remain unknown.” Huq’s announcement came after Netra News published news of the letter.

His verbal slip suggests a certain lack of interest in the details of disappearances, but it is perhaps more significant that Anisul Huq did not announce any investigation into the “dozens” of people who the UN Working Group also stated in the same letter were picked up by law enforcement officers and then “found dead”. Nor, that it would  investigate the remaining hundreds of cases of people which the UN Working Group stated were allegedly secretly detained for various periods of time before being formally arrested or released.

But do not expect much to come of this “investigation.” The government has long known the details of the allegations of disappearances — through countless journalistic and human rights reports —  and it has shown no interest at all in investigating them or bringing the practice to an end. Indeed the law minister’s words — “we will come up with the facts” — feels like an echo of what the law minister said seven years back. 

At the end of 2014, while working at Bangladesh’s New Age newspaper, I along with the journalist Muktadir Rashid, investigated the disappearances of 19 opposition BNP activists who were all allegedly detained by law enforcement authorities over a two-week period in and around Dhaka, a month before the controversial 2014 elections — and whose whereabouts, a year later at that time, remained unknown.

These men were picked up in seven separate incidents — and for each incident we found corroborative eye-witnesses who confirmed that law enforcement officers (mostly Rapid Action Battalion and the Detective Branch of the Police) had indeed picked the men up.

Before New Age published its series of ten articles, I went to meet the law minister, Anisul Huq, and provided him details of what we had found had happened to these men. He said he would investigate them. “Whatever the truth is, I will find it,” he said.

This commitment was set out in the final article of the New Age series. Here is what he said in December 2014.

“If you give me time, I will go back … I will look it up, …. If there has been any such disappearance where any of the law enforcing agencies have been involved, I can assure you I will try and identify the person who is involved and he will be brought to justice. That much I can do.”

“Let me go back, let me check it out and let me come back to you. I will do that.”

“Be assured of one thing … if there is any wrongdoing, whoever it is, if it is someone from opposition who has done it to put responsibility on law enforcing agencies or [if it is] someone inside the law enforcing agencies who has done it, we will make an all-out effort to bring them to justice, as we will not allow these kinds of things to happen in this country. We will not.”

“It is this government which has … to a great extent established rule of law so this kind of incident [that] you are now bringing to my notice, this kind of incident will not be allowed in this country. No we will not do that. So that is why I am very serious about it.”

“I will go back, though it is not my ministry which should be concerned, it should be the home ministry. But even then, because this government believes in accountability and transparency, because this government wants to take the responsibility of the wellbeing of every citizen, I am going to go back, I am going to do my homework and whatever is the truth I will find it.”

When I asked him what would happen if it was found that responsibility went beyond law enforcing agencies, he said, “I don’t want to assume anything right now, let me do my homework.” He said that he would get back to me once he had undertaken his inquiries. He seemed sincere at the time —  indeed just as sincere as when he spoke at last week’s press conference making similar commitments. Seeming sincere is certainly one thing that the law minister is good at!

After the meeting, I sent him copies of each of the published articles. After some months I contacted him and his private secretary to find out what were the developments. We met up again once more and he apologised for not having pursued it. After that, neither he, nor his office, responded to requests for information on these cases —  requests to meet him went unanswered too.

There was no investigation. Seven years on, these 19 men remain disappeared — and are included in the 86 cases which Anisul Huq says the government will supposedly now investigate. 

Of course, one should have known nothing would come of Huq’s commitment seven years earlier. These cases can never be properly investigated in Bangladesh as there is no independent government body able to do so. Investigating these disappearances properly would result in finding that in at least some of these cases the most senior law enforcement officers and the most senior politicians were guilty of abductions and murder. How can the government allow that to happen?

And the law minister knows this.

It is of course why the Bangladesh government has repeatedly all these years claimed that these disappearances never happened — that the men are in hiding or have simply left home. There is nothing else that these politicians can say.

This also helps explain the government’s reaction to the US government sanctions in relation to the Rapid Action Battalion’s (RAB) extrajudicial executions . One reaction is of supposed wonderment —  “if only the US government told us about these allegations earlier” —  as though it was all a big US diplomatic mistake which could have been sorted out earlier if only the US government had spoken to Bangladesh officials (even though these allegations were widely reported including in annual US State Department human rights reports which it had chosen to ignore.) Another reaction is of denial  —  “we don’t do anything of the sort” —  even though the evidence so strongly refutes this.

The truth is that the Bangladesh government will never be able to admit to disappearances and extrajudicial executions since many of these were politically mandated — and law enforcement and security officers who carry them out on behalf of the politicians  are needed by the government to make sure they stay in power.

So what of this new investigation referred to by the law minister? One presumes as part of this investigation, police officers are now visiting the houses of the families of the disappeared —  but according to at least one family I spoke to, the officers are not even writing down information that relatives are providing them about how their disappeared family member was picked up. For obvious reasons the families have no trust or confidence in the police — and they are right not to have.

The only possible mechanism that could get some way towards uncovering what happened to these disappeared men is a high level judicial inquiry – including civil society representation. Of course, whether Bangladesh’s judges have the capability to act independently of the government is highly questionable —  but it is the least worst of all the inquiry options, and occasionally, the judiciary has surprised.

As to Anisul Huq, the law minister — who calls the allegations against RAB “fictitious”, and says there are “no extrajudicial killings” in Bangladesh — he was once one of the country’s best criminal lawyers. But he is now a political stooge, who it seems will say anything to exculpate some of the country’s most dangerous criminals — that is to say his political masters who have overseen the regime of extrajudicial killings and disappearances and whom he continues to seek, by all means possible, to keep in power.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.