On August 16, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the United Nations to investigate the “enforced disappearances” of activists, opposition political activists and businessmen in Bangladesh.
The report profiled 86 alleged victims, several of whom were affiliated with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Most were last seen in custody of Bangladesh security forces. HRW also called for sanctions on members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary squad, for their involvement.
In response, A.K. Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, called the allegations “fabricated.”
“Some people dissociate themselves from their families, and then they come back home after some days,” Momen said.
But based on the extensive evidence that HRW collected, that statement is misleading. Furthermore, Bangladesh has a long history of such disappearances, notwithstanding complaints from relatives, homegrown rights groups and U.S. politicians.
In one example, Tariqul Islam Jhontu, the joint secretary of Chhatra Dal, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s student wing, was abducted near Dhaka International Airport in 2013, HRW said.
Jhontu had been the target of three criminal investigations for alleged involvement in organizing hartals, or national strikes. His brother told HRW that “since Jhontu was picked up, law enforcement continued to harass his family, and new cases alleging hartal-related violence were filed against Jhontu in 2017.”
Another example: In April 2019, Abul Haider, secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was “picked up by a group of men who identified themselves as Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers,” in his hotel room in Dhaka, HRW said.
Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies have told Haider’s family they have no information concerning his abduction.
Haider and Jhontu still are missing.
According to HRW, when Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party became Bangladesh’s prime minister for a second time in 2009, there were just three reported cases of enforced disappearance. By June 2021, however, more than 600 people in Bangladesh had disappeared, according to Odhikar, a Bangladesh rights group.
In 2014, several opposition parties boycotted the general election after alleging enforced disappearances of their members. The Awami League won 232 out of 300 seats in the country’s parliament, giving Hasina a third term as prime minister. That outcome led to violence and mass arrests of protestors, including children.
According to the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture, ahead of the 2018 Bangladesh general election, “there were at least 98 reported cases of enforced disappearances by security forces. International observers raised serious questions about whether the 2018 election – which brought the Awami League to power for a third consecutive term – was free and fair, given reports of attacks on the opposition, including through enforced disappearances.”
Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion has come under intense scrutiny for alleged rights violations and abusive tactics. The RAB consists of police and military officers and was created in 2004 to fight major crimes and terrorism.
In 2017, Sweden’s Sveriges Radio revealed secretly recorded tapes of a high-ranking RAB officer providing grotesque details of their “violent methods.” Claiming involvement in dozens of killings, the officer said victims suspected of serious crimes but, “too difficult to convict in a trial, or impossible to rehabilitate.”
The officer alleged corruption within the RAB.
More allegations of corruption came in February, when an investigative documentary by Al Jazeera, “All The Prime Minister’s Men,” alleged that a “criminal gang is colluding with Bangladesh’s security forces to extract bribes for state contracts and job positions.”
Al Jazeera identified as key figures Gen. Aziz Ahmed, head of the Bangladesh military and two of his brothers, who in 2004 were found guilty in the killing of a man believed to be political opponent of Hasina’s. The two are fugitives living in Budapest and Kuala Lumpur, Al Jazeera said. A third brother also was convicted in the killing.
The latest Human Rights Watch report was denounced by Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, who called it a “smear campaign” against Bangladesh and its government. The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry used similar language to reject the Al Jazeera investigative report.
The United Nations and the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission have documented cases of state-sponsored disappearances in Bangladesh and urged the government to investigate the issue.
In October 2020, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators called for sanctions against RAB officers accused of human rights violations.
The senators cited reports of extrajudicial killings that spiked in 2018 amid the country’s purported anti-drug war. Their letter to the administration of then-President Donald Trump stated:
“In nearly all cases, the RAB claims that such extrajudicial killings result from 'gunfights' or 'crossfire,' but documentation from reputable human rights organizations demonstrates that victims were often in RAB custody when they were killed, and many of their bodies show signs of death by execution, rather than a 'gunfight.'
“Amnesty International has also documented alleged witnesses to RAB 'gunfights' saying they did not witness any such thing and that they were coerced into providing fabricated statements. In one well-known case, an audio recording of the killing of municipal councilor Ekramul Haque reveals RAB officers giving directions to stage a 'gunfight' after they executed him.
“Directions from RAB officers included planting drugs and bullets in Mr. Haque’s pockets, untying his hands, scattering empty bullet shells around the scene, and shooting at a nearby vehicle.”