(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should urgently locate the journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who has been missing since March 10, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The day before he disappeared, Kajol was among those accused in a criminal case against a prominent news editor, Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, and 30 others under the draconian Digital Security Act.
On March 2, Chowdhury’s newspaper, the Manabzamin, published an article describing various lawmakers who, according to an unverified list, visited a sex trafficking ring allegedly operated out of a hotel in Dhaka by a member of the ruling Awami League party. Shifuzzaman Shikhor, a lawmaker and former aide to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, later filed the case against Chowdhury, Kajol, and others. While the newspaper did not publish any names, some people – including some of those accused by Shikhor – circulated this unverified list on Facebook, which included Shikhor’s name.
“The case of Shafiqul Islam Kajol is deeply concerning, particularly given the Bangladesh authorities’ record of abducting people and holding them in secret detention where their safety and lives are at risk,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Bangladesh government should take immediate steps to locate Kajol and bring him to safety.”
Kajol’s family suspects he was abducted and has called on the authorities to help ensure his safe return. At a news conference on March 13, Kajol’s son said that his father left their home in Dhaka on his motorbike at about 3 p.m. on March 10 with two phones. When he did not return home, at around 10 p.m. they tried to call him, but both phones had been switched off. His motorbike has not been recovered.
“We don’t think my father went missing on his own,” Kajol’s son told Agence France-Presse. “We suspect he may have been abducted.” He said that the family had searched hospital emergency wards and filed a missing person complaint at the Chawkbazar police station on March 11. He also said that the family met with the Detective Branch of the police to ask if Kajol had been arrested because of the case filed against him, but officers there said that none of the 31 people named had been held.
Bangladesh authorities have a history of arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances. While some people are later released or formally taken into custody, officials have in some cases said they were killed in alleged gunfights with the security forces or in crossfires. The Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar reported that security forces have forcibly disappeared over 550 people over the last decade of the Awami League’s rule. Many of these victims were targeted as members of the political opposition. In recent years, however, there have been cases in which security forces have disappeared individuals in what appear to be the result of personal retribution by members of the ruling elite. Enforced disappearance – the deprivation of liberty by government officials or their agents and concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the person in custody – is prohibited under international human rights law.
The international community and Bangladesh civil society have repeatedly called on the government to repeal the vague and overly broad segments of the Digital Security Act, which facilitates abuse. While the act limits defamation charges to those that meet the requirements of criminal defamation in the penal code, it is contrary to a growing recognition that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment.
“Bangladeshis should not live in fear of abduction if they share something on Facebook,” Adams said. “The government needs to seriously investigate the many cases in which family members allege that the victim was picked up by security forces but whose whereabouts remain unknown.”