This report by Human Rights Watch, published August 16, 2021, discusses the policy of enforced disappearances under current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed's 12-year rule. According to the report, Bangladeshi security forces have forcibly disappeared almost 600 people in this time. While most were returned home or formally arrested, dozens were found murdered and 86 people remain missing.
Political rivals, alleged violent Islamists and those caught up in drugs are at the most risk for these extrajudicial freedom violations. Recently, the report notes, people have become targets because of interpersonal or business disputes with powerful individuals.
The Bangladeshi political scene is dominated by two political parties: the current Prime Minister's Awami League party and the previous Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party. These two parties, as well as a third one currently banned from participating in elections, have a history of violence and extrajudicial killings. The report notes that recent disappearances have tended to occur during election seasons when the Prime Minister's position is up for vote. Hasina took office in 2009 and has since maintained a majority for her party during the 2014 and 2018 elections.
Year of the election
Enforced disappearances tied to the election
Following the particularly violent 2014 election season, international NGOs and states demanded investigations into election-related violations by police. None were established. Instead, the government denied reports of disappearances, dismissing them as arrests, missing persons and individuals who were eventually returned. They continued their crackdown on dissidents and political opposition after the election.
One security force in particular, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) counter-terror paramilitary unit, is known for carrying out half of all enforced disappearances that end with detainments or murders, and the police commit the other half. In 2017, a senior officer in the RAB confirmed their role in enforced disappearances. As international scrutiny of RAB has increased recently, enforced disappearances have increasingly been transferred to the discretion of the police.
Enforced disappearances are not the only tactic used by the state
Enforced disappearances are tied to other freedom violations in Bangladesh including extrajudicial killings, unsubstantiated arrests, falsified charges and torture in interrogations.
Hundreds of detentions are tied to the Digital Security Act of 2018, which criminalized posting content online that could “destroy any communal harmony or create unrest or disorder or deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate the law and order” or “hurts religious sentiments or values.”
The Digital Security Act of 2018 criminalizes posting content online that could “destroy any communal harmony or create unrest or disorder or deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate the law and order” or “hurts religious sentiments or values.”
Another method of stifling dissent in the country is in extrajudicial killings explained away as "crossfire" incidents – deaths caused in gunfights between a suspect and police. Hundreds of deaths, including of activists and opposition leaders, have been written up as cross-fire deaths in official reports.
Ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections, Hasina declared a "war on drugs" led by RAB. The police
Arrested 10,000 people within 1 month of the policy being enacted; and
Carried out 466 extrajudicial executions within the year, of which every one began with an enforced disappearance.
Another tactic used to impact the 2018 elections was the opening of over 300,000 cases against members of the Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition to the Awami League, the current Prime Minister's party. The report notes that this sweep was so broad that it included many opposition leaders deceased, abroad or in the hospital. It led to thousands of arrests, and the Awami League coalition won 96% of the vote in the parliamentary election, 86% was Awami League alone.
Often, victims of enforced disappearances bear marks of torture on their bodies. The ones that are found alive are often too traumatized or afraid to confirm what happened to them while they were missing.
The report notes that, while surveillance has always been a common tool the government used in the days leading up to enforced disappearance, the Bangladeshi government ramped up its surveillance apparatus in 2020. It created two surveillance units to identify and crack down on COVID-19 misinformation and "rumors." These units have been tied to multiple enforced disappearances over content critical of the government's response to the pandemic. Government records indicate that the state had been looking for more advanced technologies abroad to strengthen its surveillance apparatus during the pandemic and even before 2020.
Surveillance, enforced disappearances, torture in interrogation, extrajudicial killings and mass arrests have led to self-censorship and deep fear in the Bangladeshi people. They know that these are real consequences for speaking out.
No support for families of disappeared individuals
The RAB and police often harass the families of victims of enforced disappearances. They threaten to disappear additional family members if they speak up about the disappearance and demand bribes in return for promises for reduced torture or access to medical care. The police sometimes harass the family for "sheltering" the person they themselves had disappeared, especially if there is a warrant out for the individual's arrest.
When the family approaches the police to open an investigation, officers often refuse to file a case at all, sometimes citing "direction from a higher authority." Sometimes, the police only allow the family to file a missing person's report, not a police complaint. The police then close these cases without investigation.
The police then close these cases without investigation.
There are agencies who respond to police misconduct without much success. The Police Internal Oversight Unit, for example, works without transparency and has rarely imposed severe punishments on its officers. The country's National Human Rights Commission, while outside of the police orbit, lacks enforcement power, leading police units to ignore its requests for investigation. Finally, while the state courts allow complainants to file a petition against fraudulent police investigations, police departments can pass the investigation between units interminably, effectively pigeon-holing any real result.
Denial of international allegations of misconduct
The Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court in Den Haag, The Netherlands in 1998. This United Nations document defined four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.
Bangladesh signed the Rome Statute in 1999 and ratified the document in 2010.
Listed under "crimes against humanity" is the enforced disappearances of persons. The Rome Statute gives the following definition:
"Enforced disappearance of persons" means the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.
As mentioned previously, the government refused to take responsibility for the disappearances, dismissing situations in which people returned home. This refusal fits the second part of the ICC's definition. The HRW report notes that a 2016 statement by the ICC stipulated that "a prolonged period of time" involves any time at all – "Every minute counts when a person is put outside the protection of the law."
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has repeatedly requested to visit Bangladesh to look into the situation but has received radio silence from the country. The UN Committee against Torture requested in 2019 that the government investigates the claims made public of a senior RAB officer confirming the use of torture in his unit's operations. Bangladesh has not responded.
"Every minute counts when a person is put outside the protection of the law."
In 2019, the Home Minister responded to international and domestic accusations of torture and enforced disappearances, stating, "We can tell you with emphasis that there is no single incident of disappearance or extrajudicial killing with the knowledge of this government." Previously, the Home Minister suggested that alleged victims were hiding "to embarrass the government globally" or to escape from unpaid debts or criminal detention.
"There is no single incident of disappearance or extrajudicial killing with the knowledge of this government."
Instead, the Bangladeshi government acknowledges and rewards its police officers' killings of "criminals" in gunfights and cross-fire. A month after the December 2018 election, numerous police officers received prestigious awards for their roles stifling opposition during election season, including arresting activists, surveilling student leaders, arresting opposition and carrying out extrajudicial disappearances and killings during the war on drugs.
In addition to these rewards for service, the Bangladeshi government has passed several laws and statutes in the last 10 years ostensibly to protect its citizens from such miscarriages of justice -- in 2013 outlawing torture in the state and in 2016 delineating the process to arrest an individual (with ample information to provide to the family). Given the numerous testimonies of torture and enforced disappearances carried out by state forces, these laws seem to be only for show. In particular, legal immunity for members of RAB, the military and police officers working on the job makes these statutes extremely difficult to mobilize against an officer.
HRW proposed suggested steps for the EU, UN, concerned governments, donor governments, trade partners and those involved in security-sector support in Bangladesh to take.
To apply increased scrutiny to relationships – and any engagement at all – with Bangladeshi security forces and raise concerns over security force abuses at every opportunity.
To call for Bangladesh to revise their Digital Security Act to follow international law, to disband RAB, to initiate transparent and independent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses, prosecute law enforcement officers found responsible for enforced disappearances and miscarried justice, and to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
To stop all export of surveillance equipment – especially dual-use surveillance equipment – to Bangladesh until the aforementioned reforms have been made. Additionally, to create and make public evaluations of previous exports.
To sanction officials with command responsibility for enforced disappearances and other abuses of human rights.
To ensure that the protection of free expression is central to future engagement with Bangladesh.
For the UN:
To lead an independent, international investigation into enforced disappearance in the country.
UN Department of Peace Operations to exclude from UN peacekeeping all RAB officers and all units and commanders tied to serious human rights abuses; and to implement enhanced screening for Peace Operations personnel.
To make specific, public benchmarks of the aforementioned reforms for Bangladesh to make as part of the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
To make clear that even the discussion of GSP+ status depends on the country's progress on the aforementioned reforms, as Bangladesh is expected to progress from its Least Developing Country status in a few years.