Understanding Salah Uddin’s disappearance

by David Bergman

Here are two stories that can help us understand what has happened to Salah Uddin Ahmed, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader who eye-witnesses claim was picked up by law enforcement authorities on March 10 (an allegation denied by the government) and what might be his fate.
The first story involves Sajedul Islam Sumon, 36, a BNP ward general secretary in Dhaka, his cousin and four activists of the BNP’s student wing.
At about 6:00pm, on November 4, 2013 they were standing outside an under-construction house on Road 4 of Block I of the Bashundara Residential Area, when, according to construction workers present at the site, all six of them were whisked away by officers from the Rapid Action Battalion.
‘One of the cars was a black pickup, the ones usually used by RAB,’ one worker said describing the vehicles in which the men were picked up.  ‘Around four of [the men] were in plain clothes and the remaining seven or eight were dressed in the black uniform of RAB with black bandanas around their heads.’
These six men were amongst 22 BNP activists who, according to independent eye witnesses and families, were picked up by law enforcement officers in eight separate incidents over a period of a fortnight, just weeks before the January 5, 2014 elections (See New Age: ‘Picked up a year ago, they are yet to return’, November 28, 2014).
In all eight incidents, detailed corroborative eye-witness testimony, from both family and independent witnesses, confirmed that it was law enforcement personnel — identifiable as Rapid Action Battalion and the Detective Branch of the police in a number of cases — who took the men.
Apart from the six picked up on December 4, five BNP activists were taken in the afternoon of November 28 from outside the Dhaka central jail whilst waiting to visit the jail; another four were taken on December 2 outside a tea house at Shahbagh; and in the early hours of December 5, two men were taken from Shahinbagh, just behind the Prime Minister’s Office.
On the following evening, two men were taken from the main road at Mollartek near the airport; two days later two more men were taken at night time from a farm house in Sonargaon and finally on December 11, one man was taken from his family home at Mirpur at 2:00am.
That made 22. Twenty months later, 19 of them continue to be disappeared.
Three of the 22 were released, and pushed out of a vehicle in the early hours of the morning onto a Dhaka highway after 11 days in illegal detention, never having been brought to the court but, nonetheless, still alive.
In relation to all eight incidents, the state minister for home affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said that in ‘most cases the people have gone into hiding to avoid legal action for their alleged involvement in violence, arson attacks and torching vehicles.’ The police and RAB deny any involvement in each of the cases.
The second story involves Sukhranjan Bali, the brother of Bisha Bali killed during the country’s independence war in the district of Pirojpur, who was on his way to the International Crimes Tribunal on the morning of November 5, 2012
Delwar Hossain Sayedee’s defence lawyers were driving him to the tribunal in the hope that the court would hear him as a witness in their client’s defence. Sukhranjan had previously been listed as a prosecution witness but had subsequently agreed to testify that Sayedee did not kill his brother.
The car stopped at the front gate of the tribunal and as Sukhranjan got out of the vehicle, some civilian dressed men who identified themselves as Detective Branch officers took hold of him and forcibly walked the witness round the perimeter of the court building and put him in a police vehicle.
The attorney general denied that any such incident had taken place. ‘It is a mala fide application,’ Mahbubey Alam told the High Court in the course of habeas corpus proceedings. ‘It is an attempt to stop the trial, to make the trial questionable.’
And the ICT prosecutors made a similar claim when they alleged that the Jamaat-e-Islami, the party which Sayedee belonged, had ‘made up a so-called drama of kidnapping’ to ‘create a confused situation in the tribunal.’
Sukhranjan’s whereabouts was unknown until May 2013 when this newspaper reported that he was detained in a Kolkata jail and provided extracts from a statement he had given. (New Age, May 15, 2013, Witness alleges state abduction)
The ICT witness confirmed that he was, as claimed, ‘abducted from the court premises in a police van and was taken to an office in Dhaka’ which he later thought belonged to the Detective Branch. ‘People in the office were in police uniforms and the ones who abducted me were in civil clothes,’ he added.
He said that he had been kept in the Detective Branch office for six weeks in Bangladesh and then driven by police to the border and handed over to India’s Border Security Force where he was prosecuted for illegal entry.
Sukhranjan is now detained in Dum Dum Correctional Home in Kolkata where an asylum application is pending. The Bangladesh government continues to deny any involvement in the incident.
So what can these two stories — and of course many other similar cases recorded by the human rights organisation Odhikar and Ain o Salish Kendra — tell us about Salah Uddin’s pickup.
First of all, no one should be in any doubt that law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh do, on occasion, pick people up, fail to bring them to court within 24 hours or at all, and then deny any involvement in the pick up.
And in Salah Uddin’s case, there is substantial independent evidence, including from the caretaker of the building who was present on March 10, and from local security guards and residents, who confirm that Salah Uddin was picked up by law enforcement officials that evening.
The government’s claim that BNP leader’s pick up is simply a drama orchestrated by the opposition party to blame the government is just an echo of what the attorney general and ICT prosecutors said about Jamaat’s role in the pick up of Sukhranjan Bali.
Secondly, whilst many of those picked up are secretly detained for significant periods of time, some are released alive.
Sukhranjan Bali was, according to his own statement, detained for six weeks in a Detective Branch office in Bangladesh before being handed over to Indian border officials. In addition, three of the 22 BNP activists detained at the end of 2013 were released after 11 days in detention. (In 2011, Abul Hasnat, the son of a Fazlul Haque Amini, the chairman of faction of Islami Oikya Jote chairman was ‘released’ 12 days after his alleged abduction by plainclothes police)
So, it appears that after the pick up, there is a period of time when those responsible consider what to do next with the men — whether they should continue to detain them, release them, or (as in the case of the Narayanganj seven murder in 2014) kill them.
So nearly three weeks on from Salah Uddin’s pick up, one should still have hope that he is alive.
Thirdly, whilst there is strong evidence that law enforcement personnel were responsible for the illegal detentions government officials always have some kind of plausible deniability.
For Sukhranjan Bali, it was by claiming that the whole thing was done by Jamaat to undermine the International Crimes Tribunal; for the 19 BNP activists, it was by arguing that they simply went into hiding to avoid criminal cases; and in Salah Uddin’s case it is to claim that the BNP wants to gain political advantage.
In the conspiracy laden politics of the country, for those who want to believe that state agencies were not involved, there is just about enough plausibility in these stories to believe them.
Fourthly, there is usually a decipherable reason why law enforcement personnel have detained the men without bringing them to court
In Sukhranjan Bali’s case, the detention was in all likelihood to prevent him giving evidence that would substantially weaken the case against Sayedee and raised questions about the investigation process.
In the case of the 19 disappeared, it was most probably as part of revenge for arson violence in Dhaka and to weaken the opposition party in the capital.
As far as Salah Uddin goes, it is less clear why he was detained and then not brought before the court — particularly when the previous BNP spokesperson Ruhul Kabir Rizvi was detained in late January 2015 but taken before a magistrate within 24 hours.
However, one reason could be that Salah Uddin’s press statements from hiding were particularly harsh and at least in one of them he had made what could be considered a threatening comment reminding the prime minister about what happened to her father.
Another possible reason could be that the BNP vice-president was very close to Tarique Rahman, and his continued detention could provide leverage. Or it could be that his continued detention destabilises the BNP and acted as a warning to what might happen to even senior leaders in the party.
Alternatively it could just be, having initially denied the pick-up, state bodies now find it difficult to work out how to release him, or what to do with him, without their involvement being obvious.
Fifthly, it is unknown the extent to which these operations have high-level political support or not — whether they are simply the actions of over-zealous law enforcement officials or are undertaken on the instructions of those higher up in the political chain.
In Bangladesh, there are no police or other state official whistleblowers that come forward on matters like this. Although not an inconsiderable number of people must know about these disappearances — including that of Salah Uddin — it is clear from other cases that no state employee or party hack ever breaks rank, whether it be out of party or institutional loyalty or just plain fear of the repercussions of doing so.
And finally, what the two stories tells us is the immense power of the Bangladesh state which in incidents like this can rarely be countered by any institution within the country.
There are, of course, many differences between the violence perpetrated by the opposition pickets and that of the state over the last months. For one, the violence of the pickets is unprovoked and terroristic in nature.
But one should note that whilst the state has arrested over 15,000 opposition activists for alleged involvement in the arson bombings that have killed over 60 member of the public and injured as many as 500 people, not a single law enforcement official has been subject to any level of inquiry or arrest for the excessive state response, which have resulted in the deaths of over 40 people, and the alleged unlawful shootings of dozens. Nor will they be.
This means that even if Salah Uddin does return safely, the very most those responsible will suffer is an occasional prick to their conscience. Nothing more.
And if he is not returned. Ditto.
For this government, as indeed for others in the past, the rhetoric of removing impunity only applies to the crimes of others, never to their own.
David Bergman is a contributing special correspondent at New Age.

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