Rights groups decry disappearances

David Bergman and Muktadir Rashid

Human rights organisations have condemned the alleged state involvement in the abduction of 19 opposition student activists that took place a year ago, and called for an independent judicial inquiry to be established.
On Friday, New Age published the names of 19 opposition activists abducted in eight separate incidents in Dhaka over a two-week period starting on 28 November 2013, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Sultana Kamal, the executive director of the country’s largest human rights non-governmental organisation said that any enforced disappearance should be condemned but there was ‘all the more reason to be concerned when those disappeared are overwhelmingly members of the opposition.’
‘Why should there be abductions in a democratic society? Why should there be abductions in a society which declares that ‘we believe in democracy’, that ‘we believe in the rule of law’, that ‘we have respect for human rights’? Respect for these kinds of things cannot permit such action by the state. … It is a totally unacceptable state of affairs,’ she said.
She empathised with the families whom she thought must be in a state of ‘shock and trauma’ and said that when the ‘state has done it [the disappearance], it is the obligation of civil society, the citizens’ groups and other people to raise their voice against it.’
‘We continue to call for a judicial inquiry, which must be neutral and without any bias, political or otherwise,’ Sultana Kamal said.
The 19 cases investigated by New Age constitute only a small number of the total disappearances which human rights organisations have identified in the last few year.
In the nine months between January and September 2014, newspaper reports compiled by ASK suggest that there have been 82 enforced disappearances involving law enforcement bodies. In 2013, ASK identified 53.
Mizanur Rahman, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, told New Age that ‘Enforced disappearances are a flagrant violation not only of the constitution and the fundamental rights of the citizens of Bangladesh but also against the established principles of international law and jurisprudence.’
He said that even if the police had suspected that any of these 19 men might have been involved in the incidents of ‘firebombing’ and the ‘removal of railway tracks’ – that took place at the end of 2013 – there was no justification for abducting them outside of the law.
‘Even if someone is accused of committing these kinds of atrocities, they have a right to a fair trial, and that is what we want according to the rule of law,’ he said.
‘We do not want anyone, especially the executive or the law enforcement agencies to step into the shoes of the judiciary and pass a death sentence on someone. This is what we reject. We do not want this in a civilised society,’ Mizanur said.
Adilur Rahman, the secretary of rights watchdog Odhikar, noted that enforced disappearances were not a new phenomenon in the history of Bangladesh, but that this trend had been increasing in recent years.
‘The crime of enforced disappearance has become endemic and needs to be viewed along with the phenomenon of extrajudicial killings. Due to the culture of impunity and absence of rule of law, the scope for misuse of power by law enforcers has been broadened,’ he said.
Adilur called for the government to form ‘a truly independent commission to investigate these 19 disappearances, but added that he did not think this would happen until ‘democracy and rule of law is restored.’

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