(New York) – Bangladeshi authorities should immediately release three children of opposition leaders convicted of war crimes who were forcibly disappeared and have been illegally detained since August 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Bangladesh’s donors and counterterror partners should speak out against frequent abuses committed by the Bangladesh government against political opponents and critics in the name of fighting terrorism.
The three men, Humam Quader Chowdhury, Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, and Amaan Azmi, were arrested without judicial warrants or formal charges. They have not been produced before a magistrate as required by law and have not been allowed access to family or lawyers. The government denies having them in custody despite credible statements from witnesses that all were arrested by law enforcement authorities (see below for details on each case).
“Bangladesh law enforcement authorities have a long history of politically motivated arrests and disappearances, including detaining people and then denying that the person is in custody,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “In many cases detainees are tortured or even killed. The government should immediately charge or release these men and put an end to disappearances and illegal detentions.”
The three arrests came in the aftermath of a string of horrific murders of bloggers, atheists, foreigners, and LGBT activists, culminating with the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, in which 20 people and two police officers were killed. The authorities took little action at first in response to the string of murders, then sprang into action, arresting nearly 15,000 people in June. Since the bakery attack, the security forces have conducted raids, killing alleged militants in what they claim were armed exchanges, and arresting many others.
Of the three, only Chowdhury was actively involved in politics. Bin Quasem works as a lawyer and does not hold any political position. Azmi is a retired brigadier general. All three men had expressed anxiety over their safety in the months and weeks prior to their arrest, with at least Chowdhury and Azmi reporting police surveillance at and outside their homes.
Arbitrary and illegal detentions are routine security force tactics in Bangladesh. Two hostages in the Holey Artisan Bakery attack were secretly detained afterward for over a month before the government, in the face of intense national and international pressure, admitted to having them in custody. One was finally released without charge after three months in detention; the other is still in detention and it is unclear what charges, if any, he faces.
“If the government has evidence against any of these three men, it should charge them and immediately grant them access to lawyers and family and then follow all other due process norms,” Adams said. “The government also should own up to its secret detention practices, and put a stop to them.”
Humam Quader Chowdhury
Humam Quader Chowdhury, 33, is the son of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) who was executed in November 2015 following his conviction for war crimes. Humam Chowdhury is also a senior member of the BNP. On August 4, 2016, he was pulled out of his car and arrested while traveling with his mother to a courthouse to attend a hearing. His mother said that several men in civilian clothing forced Chowdhury into another vehicle. They were surrounded by other armed men in uniform.
The family had previously reported that on several occasions security force members had harassed and threatened security staff at the family home. Staff members eventually quit out of fear. Several family members went into hiding as a result of the repeated threats and intimidation. Humam Chowdhury had not been allowed to leave Bangladesh for the last seven years and had been turned back with no explanation at the airport each time he tried to leave.
The family has had no news of Humam Chowdhury’s whereabouts. Immediately after the arrest, his mother tried to file a general diary complaint, the standard first report of transgressions filed with the police, but the police said they would need permission “from above” to accept the report. A well-placed diplomatic source told the family that the government had confirmed that it was holding Humam Chowdhury and that he had not been harmed. Another source told them that he was being held by the Detective Branch’s counterterrorism unit. The family is clinging to this information and rumors for hope that he is alive and well.
Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem
Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, 32, is the son of Mir Quasem Ali, a prominent leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party. Quasem Ali was convicted of war crimes in November 2014 and was facing execution when Bin Quasem was arrested.
Bin Quasem is a Supreme Court lawyer who had also served as his father’s lawyer. He was arrested at his home at around midnight on August 9, 2016, by several men in civilian clothes. The men said they were members of the administration but did not identify themselves as being with any specific branch of the security forces. His wife and cousin were present during the arrest. Bin Quasem told the security forces that as a lawyer he knew his rights and demanded to see an arrest warrant. The men said they did not need a warrant and dragged Bin Quasem away, refusing even to let him put on his shoes.
Quasem Ali was hanged in September. The government denied the family’s entreaties to allow Bin Quasem to see his father before the execution or to attend to his father’s funeral.
In the weeks before his arrest, Bin Quasem had told Human Rights Watch that he was worried about his safety. He had ruled out leaving the country because he wanted to support his family in the period before his father’s execution. His family has subsequently been told, but has not been able to confirm, that he was initially held, along with Humam Chowdhury, at the headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion, and has since been moved to the headquarters of the Detective Branch. Bin Quasem’s wife has filed a general diary complaint. As with Chowdhury’s family, a diplomatic source confirmed that the government admitted to holding Bin Quasem but was unable to offer any further information.
Amaan Azmi, 57, a retired brigadier general in the army, is the son of Ghulam Azam, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party who was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death in 2013. In light of his age of 90, the court ruled that Azam would serve a life sentence rather than face execution. He died of a heart attack in prison in October 2014.
Amaan Azmi was arrested on the evening of August 22, 2016. About 30 men in civilian clothes entered the grounds of his apartment building, telling staff that they were from the Detective Branch. They assaulted the building caretaker, leaving him unconscious, then went apartment to apartment until they found Azmi. His wife, mother, and several staff who were present confirmed that the men said they were from the Detective Branch and told Azmi he had to come with them.
Azmi asked to see an arrest warrant. They said they didn’t have one and grabbed him and blindfolded him. He asked to take some clothes, but they refused. They took him away in an unmarked car, and the family has had no news of him since.
Like Chowdhury and Bin Quasem, Azmi had been concerned about his safety in the months before his arrest. Police, both in uniform and civilian clothes, had regularly parked outside his building and would occasionally go to the apartment to ask about him and his whereabouts. Immediately after his arrest, Azmi’s mother went to the nearest police station to file a complaint. The police took it but told her they would not register it officially. The family has heard rumors that Azmi is being held at the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.