The flag of Bangladesh. The red disc symbolizes the sun rising over Bengal, while the red represents the blood of victims in the country's struggle for independence. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The flag of Bangladesh. The red disc symbolizes the sun rising over Bengal, while the red represents the blood of victims in the country's struggle for independence. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The disappearance of an academic, a journalist and a former diplomat over the past six months has once again highlighted the dangers faced by dissenters against the Hasina regime in Bangladesh. The state is the prime suspect in these “enforced disappearances”, which have created a culture of fear in an election year.

While enforced or involuntary disappearance is considered a “heinous violation of human rights and an international crime” by the United Nations, it is not an unusual occurrence in Bangladesh. Or that’s what it seems given the under-reporting on disappearances by the Bangladeshi media. According to historian Dr Anwar Hussain, most of the enforced disappearances are suspected to be state-sponsored and the government naturally “doesn’t want these to be reported”.

Hussain, a former editor-in-chief of a national Bangladeshi daily, told Asia Times he believed there were both government restrictions on local media in regard to covering enforced disappearances as well as self-censorship by media outlets. “Media here is anything but independent. That’s why I resigned,” he added.

Fifteen other alleged abductions were reported over the last six months, although most of these people later turned up. But the cases of the academic, the journalist and former diplomat caught popular attention as the victims were all from well-off families and not members of any political party.

The academic — Mubashar Hasan – penned several scholarly articles on political Islam and militancy. The journalist — Utpal Das – wrote news stories about Bangladesh’s armed forces. And the former diplomat Maroof Zaman, a former diplomat, was a critic of the incumbent Awami League (AL) government and shared anti-government posts written by others on his Facebook page.

Hasan and Das were missing for 44 and 71 days respectively before they reappeared in the last week of December and told strikingly similar stories. Both said they were kidnapped by four or five “unidentified abductors” in Dhaka – whisked into vehicles in broad daylight and kept in solitary confinement. Later, they were blindfolded and dropped off on a highway.

However, Maroof Zaman is still missing. His daughter Shabnam Zaman told Asia Times that media had initially reported on Zaman’s disappearance but “nothing new has been published for the past several weeks.”

“Enforced disappearances instill a great fear and a chilling effect” – political columnist Afsan Chowdhury

Most Bangladeshi media outlets report a ‘disappearance’ when it occurs. But they have consistently failed to ask tough questions.

Indian news website The Wire ran a report on academic Hasan’s disappearance; it said a state agency had abducted Hasan. Within a day, the Bangladesh government blocked access to the website in the country.

Elite police unit linked to killings

This was not the first time the incumbent AL government has blocked a foreign news website for publishing stories that reveal wrongdoing by Bangladesh’s state agencies. In May 2017, access to Swedish Radio’s website was also blocked after it published an article about a senior officer from Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion. In the article, the officer claimed that his organization was involved in extrajudicial killings across the country.

Not surprisingly, the country’s government denies any role in media censorship. Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu said the country’s media enjoys press freedom and the government does not interfere. However, Bangladesh was ranked 146 in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017.

David Bergman, a British journalist had spent years investigating enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. He researched and wrote an 82-page report titled “We don’t have him”. The report, created for the US-based organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that law enforcement authorities illegally detained hundreds of people since 2013, and that as many as 90 were victims of “enforced disappearances” in 2016 alone.

British journalist Bergman denied visa extension

The Bangladeshi government retaliated recently by refusing to renew Bergman’s visa. Speaking to Asia Times from the UK, Bergman said that media groups in Bangladesh often have to pay a price when they confront the government and law enforcement authorities.

He gave an example, saying that when two leading papers — the Daily Star and Prothom Alo — published reports about alleged extrajudicial killings in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the government allegedly pressured the country’s largest companies from advertising in these papers.

Bergman also believes that the hands of local journalists are tied if they cover such stories. “The recent disappearance of journalist Utpal Das, carried out by law enforcement agencies, certainly created a sense that anyone is at risk of being subjected to an enforced disappearance,” he said.

Political columnist Afsan Chowdhury told Asia Times the reappearance of individuals who could have been the most valuable sources to reveal the underlying truth about abductions, but those involved remained “abnormally tight-lipped” about what they endured. “Enforced disappearances instill a great fear and a chilling effect,” he said.

No law against enforced disappearance

Bangladesh lacks a specific criminal law that recognizes enforced disappearance as an offense. The International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the United Nations in 2006, ensures that the “perpetrators of enforced disappearance — no matter whether it is a state authority or not — can be tried.” Bangladesh, however, is yet to be a signatory to that convention.

Meenakhsi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW, told Asia Times that the Bangladeshi government appears unwilling to address the problem of enforced disappearances, often engaging in outright denial.

Just hours after the HRW report was released last July, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan claimed it was a “smear campaign,” callously ignoring victims’ families who were desperately waiting for answers.

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