(New York) - The Bangladeshi authorities should immediately order an independent investigation into the enforced disappearance of Salah Uddin Ahmed, spokesperson and joint-secretary of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP).
Ahmed was last seen on the evening of March 10, 2015 when, according to an eyewitness, he was taken away by men identifying themselves as belonging to the Detective Branch of the police. The government has denied involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts.
Despite complaints to the police by Ahmed’s family members and the filing of a case with a court by Ahmed’s wife demanding that the government produce him in court, Ahmed has not surfaced. On March 16, the Inspector General of Police, responding to a Dhaka High Court order, reported that the various security services under his control had not detained or arrested Ahmed. The court found there was little evidence to show that the police had conducted a serious investigation, but then adjourned the hearings until April 8.
“The Bangladesh government has a history of failing to investigate the enforced disappearance of opposition members,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ahmed’s forcible disappearance needs a credible and independent investigation. This should happen urgently, since by April 8 it could be too late.”
According to interviews of the caretaker of the building where Ahmed was staying, several men in plain clothes identifying themselves as members of the Detective Branch came to the building around 10 pm on the night of March 10 and went inside. The caretaker said that the men showed him their official badges when identifying themselves. When the men emerged about half an hour later, Ahmed was with them in handcuffs, the witness said. They put him in a van and drove off. According to another eyewitness, a vehicle from the elite anti-terrorist Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was also present at the scene. Ahmed has not been seen or heard from since.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, largely by members of the security forces since at least 2007. In 2012, BNP leader Elias Ali also went missing, and the authorities have failed to determine his fate. In May 2014, Bangladesh authorities ordered investigations of members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for their role in the abduction and apparent contract killing of seven people in Narayanganj, but only because of intense media scrutiny. RAB officials had earlier denied their role, but were exposed after the corpses, drowned in a lake, accidentally floated up.
Ahmed’s disappearance comes in the midst of an ongoing violent stand-off between the government and opposition parties, which began in early January 2015. Since then, over 150 people have died and several hundred have been injured, largely when defying opposition enforced blockades known as hartals. The government’s response has been to arrest thousands of opposition members across the country.
The current wave of violence in Bangladesh is a continuation of a longstanding disagreement between the government and the opposition surrounding the conduct of national elections held in January 2014. Several hundred people were killed or disappeared before and after those elections.
“Many enforced disappearances have been well documented as carried out by the authorities, yet there is little and in many cases no evidence that the government has investigated these cases,” said Adams. “No members of the security forces have been held to account for their role despite public pledges by the government.”
Under international law, an enforced disappearance is any form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.
The current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, came into power in 2009 promising an end to security forces excesses, but there has been no difference in the culture of impunity that plagued Bangladesh before her tenure in office.
“Ahmed’s disappearance is part of a larger pattern,” said Adams. “Unfortunately, the denial of any involvement by the Bangladesh government, and its refusal to take meaningful action to investigate, is also part of the same pattern of behavior.”