Bangladesh authorities were pissed off with Odhikar, a human rights organisation, its boss Adilur Rahman Khan and its Director Nasir Uddin Elan for the last several years.
The government was angry because Odhikar was frequently quoted by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union for its authoritative research, monitoring and documentation on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of opposition, critics, dissidents, human rights defenders and even journalists were victims.
Some of the victims have returned, but maintained dead silence over their captivity]. A significant number were found dead and the rest have disappeared forever.
Each year, the family members grieve in silence about the disappearances of their loved one, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances is organised by Mayer Dak on 30 August each year.
Mayer Dak, a network of family members believed to have been forcibly disappeared by state and non-state actors. The Mayer Dak is taken from Argentina’s popular platform Mothers’ Call. Its defiant coordinator Sanjida Islam, is also harassed and intimidated by state security apparatus and law enforcement agencies.
The government officials, the governing Awami League have a scripted message, playing the same record again and again. The content of the message is a mix of denial. A conspiracy theory to overthrow the democratically elected regime of Sheikh Hasina and to undermine the massive development of the country.
The government is too sensitive to the use of “enforced disappearances” and instead likes to say “missing” persons. Then who is responsible for the “missing” persons? In this regard, the government again prefers to remain silent and dumb.
Many top ministers said most of the “missing” persons are due to the inability to repay loans from lenders, family disputes over properties, secret multiple marriages, and migrants missing on dangerous journeys in the sea.
The apologetic officials do not understand that such an explanation is shrugging responsibility for the disappeared persons. The sincerity of the government in international media and rights groups were questioned, as the authorities refused credible probes.
Such attitude of the government has encouraged the police stations to refuse to register cases of disappearances, missing or kidnapped persons by their immediate family members.
This has encouraged criminal gangs to kidnap victims for ransom, as they very well know the police will not accept complaints and will not launch a hunt for the missing persons.
The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) published a study by Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor at Illinois State University, USA which stated that as many as 86 per cent of the Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in small towns and grassroots are intermittently faced obstacles in their work from the state and governing party.
The CGS study “Who Defends the Defenders” said the obstacles the HRDs face come from law enforcement agencies, state intelligence agencies, and government officials have been identified by 42.3 per cent of the respondents. While 23.7 per cent of ruling party activists were identified as troublemakers.
Threats, harassment, intimidation or persecution forced 28.6 per cent of respondents to scale down their work and 10.7 per cent have relocated in fear of harassment, said Ali Riaz quoting the findings of the research.
After the publication of the HRD study, CGS is often harassed and intimidated.
The government has been harassing and intimidating the rights organisation Odhikar for the past 12 years. The two rights defenders were under surveillance, their phones were tapped and bank accounts were scrutinised.
The government cancelled Odhikar’s NGO registration and permission to receive foreign funds.
Rights organisations Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) and BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust) were harassed by the NGO Affairs Bureau (under the Prime Minister’s Office) causing immense delays in approval of their projects and sometimes denied.
The government seems allergic to rights organisations and human rights defenders. What do the authorities want to hide?
In a glaring example of an orchestrated campaign against the HRD, on 14 December 2022, the American Ambassador Peter Haas visited the home of Sanjida Islam, coordinator of Mayer Dak to hear the agony and trauma of the family whose loved ones became victims of enforced disappearances.
Barely 30 minutes of the discussion. Due to security concerns, suddenly the meeting was cut short and security staff hurriedly escorted the ambassador to his vehicle. The crowd of pro-government ‘Mayer Kanna’ (Cry of Mothers) and local Awami League supporters was swelling in front of the residence of Islam making hue and cry.
The crowd mobbed the Ambassador and wanted to hand down a statement, which was declined. His security whisked the envoy safely from the area.
Commenting on the incident a US embassy spokesperson Jeff Ridenour said, “We have raised this matter at the highest levels of the Bangladeshi government, as well as with the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, D.C.”
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. AK Abdul Momen expressed his annoyance and said that ‘Mayer Kanna’ went against the [diplomatic] norm by trying to submit a memorandum [statement] to the US ambassador. “Our country does not have the culture to stop a foreign ambassador on the road to submit a memorandum,” he remarked.
Despite all odds, Odhikar did not cease monitoring despite the government’s sensitivity to the issue, the extra-judicial deaths and enforced disappearances. The data with sensitive information was uploaded and updated on Odhikar’s website in both English and Bangla, which was also annoying for the regime.
The information was used by major international media, rights groups and human rights annual country documents of American and European governments.
Such sensitive information in the public domain caused outrage among bureaucrats, political leaders, and policymakers, which had dented the government’s international reputation.
Despite the global outcry, the authorities did not bother to investigate the wrongdoings of the state actors and non-state actors.
Instead blamed Odhikar for disseminating disinformation, misinformation, fake news, hoax news, mal-information, and rumour and of course fake news.
Coming to the issue of numbers, Odhikar has been banned and two leaders of the organisation were sentenced to two years in prison in September.
The crime of Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasir Uddin Elan was that ten years ago Odhikar published a number of people killed on 5 and 6 May 2013. The midnight police crackdown brutally suppressed the Islamist protest.
Thousands of members of a hardline Sunni Muslim organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam (Defender of Islam) occupied downtown Motijheel Commercial Area unless the government accepted their demands to declare Bangladesh an Islamic Republic, scrap the secular constitution, and change the national flag and the national anthem. Also implement Shariah laws and a host of other Islamic dogma, which incidentally match with the Wahabi creeds advocated by the Taliban and Islamic State (ISIS).
The Human Rights Watch said at least 58 people were killed in police action. Amnesty International put the figure at 44. It said 3 members of law enforcement and 41 civilians were killed in the violence on May police mayhem.
Well, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) and Home Affairs Ministry contradicted each other. Police said the figure was only 11, while the Home Ministry said 28 dead. Both DMP and the ministry never published the names of the dead people.
Odhikar, several times changed the figure and finally concluded that the death stood at 61. The organisation never published the names of the victims and their addresses.
Khan defending himself in the court said it’s a moral obligation that the privacy of the immediate family members be protected from the wrath of law enforcement agencies.
He said that Odhikar did not publish the names and addresses for fear of being harassed and intimidated by law enforcement agencies in forcing the victim’s families to sign a paper stating that the person is living in the Gulf countries or another story.
In a ‘white paper’ published by the “People’s Commission” formed by Ekattorer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee (committee against the collaborators of 1971) challenged the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hefazat-e-Islam’s claim that thousands of people have been killed, which were exaggerated and incomplete.
The “People’s Commission” got a list of 79 names from Hefazat-e-Islam.
“Awami League leadership and Bangladesh authorities mock victims and routinely obstruct investigations, making clear that the government has no intention of meaningfully addressing enforced disappearances by its security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.
Bangladesh has not ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
The curious question arises, why did the government target Odhikar? Why did authorities not list Hefazat-e-Islam, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for disseminating misinformation or disinformation? The question is left to the readers to respond.
- Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist and media rights defender based in Bangladesh. A recipient of the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <[email protected]>; Twitter @saleemsamad