Article published in New Age on 29 November 2014
This is the third in a series of articles published in New Age investigating the disappearances of 19 opposition activists that took place in or around Dhaka in a two week period in Nov/Dec 2013. To see the full series, go here
Birthday parties that did not take place
David Bergman and Muktadir Rashid
Monday, 2 December 2013 was supposed to be a day of celebrations in the house of 35-year old Mahfuzur Rahman Sohel, the vice-president of the Bangshal thana Chhatra Dal, the student wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
It was his son’s 14th birthday, and the family had a party planned for later that day.
Instead, a few hours before the celebrations were due to start, he was picked up as he was standing outside a tea house at Shahbagh along with three fellow activists, by men in plain clothes and was put into a white microbus.
This was the second of eight incidents that took place in Dhaka just before the January 5 election over a period of two weeks involving the abduction and disappearance of 19 BNP activists. It was a period of intense political protests with the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami opposition alliance trying to force the government to install an election-time interim government, and the opposition was accused of responsibility for the deaths of over 12 members of the public killed in fire-bombing attacks on vehicles.
As New Age reported on Friday, the string of pick-ups started four days earlier with the ‘arrest’ of five men from outside Dhaka Central Jail, two of whom remain missing.
According to his family, at about 2:00pm on 2 December, Sohel, whom the police had earlier named in a number of criminal cases, left his house in Old Dhaka saying that he was going to buy some flowers for his son.
At about 3:00pm, he met at Shahbagh with some other fellow activists from Bangshal, including Habibul Bashar Zahir, 27, and Parvez Hossain, 27, the president and secretary of BNP ward 71, and Md Hossain Chanchal, 32, a student wing member.
Three days earlier, arsonists who police claim were BNP protesters had set fire to a public bus at Shishu Park, just 100 metres from Shahbagh, that had left one young boy dead and many others grievously injured.
A witness told New Age that the he saw the four men sitting in the same restaurant he was in. ‘After they had finished, they went out and were standing and chatting on the pavement,’ he said.
‘I then suddenly saw three men manhandle two of the friends and put them into a white microbus that was parked nearby,’ the witness said. ‘They put up a bit of a struggle, but not much.’
The witness, who provided details of what he had seen on condition that he would not be identified, said that he did not see what happened to the two other young men.
The men who picked them up were all in plain clothes, he said.
Sometime after 4:00pm, Sohel’s father, Md Shamsur Rahman said, he had received a call from one of his son’s political colleagues who had earlier been with the four men in Shahbag, and had escaped being picked up as he had gone to buy some tickets at Shishu Park.
‘He said that Sohel and the others had been picked up at Shahbagh by administration people,’ his father said.
New Age avoids naming the two men who escaped being picked up for their security. Both were unwilling to speak to New Age.
Sohel’s brother, who was at home with his father, immediately called his number and heard what appeared to be muffled cries on the other end of the line.
‘Within a couple of hours, I went to Shahbagh police station, and they said that they did not know anything about the incident,’ Sohel’s father said.
As he started searching for his son, Parvez’s wife, Farzana Akhter, who was four month’s pregnant, was still waiting for her husband to return home.
Parvez had phoned his wife at about 2:00pm to say that he was at Shahbagh with some of his friends and that he would be home in an hour.
Sometime after 4:00pm, when he had not returned, she called his two mobile numbers but both were switched off.
At about 10:00pm, she received a call from one of the friends who escaped. ‘He told me that my husband had been picked up with three others.’
‘He said that they had been taken away by plainclothes people, who he assumed were Detective Branch men, and told me that I should check with the DB office. …. He said that there were two vehicles,’ she said.
Md Hossain Chanchal’s wife was also waiting for her husband. That morning he had told her that he was going to take her from her parents’ house at about 3:00pm, as it was also his son’s birthday.
‘At about 5:00pm, Chanchal’s wife called me to say that he had not returned and his phone was off,’ said Chanchal’s brother Anwar Hossain. ‘I also tried to call him and found his phones off. I then called the phones of Zahir and Sohel, and their phones were also off.’
When Chanchal had not returned home later that evening, Anwar went around to the house of Sohel, and there he heard what had happened.
All four families went on a frantic search for the four men, visiting police stations, Rapid Action Battalion offices and jails. The Bangshal police station only allowed the families to file ‘missing person’ GDs, and did not permit them mention anything about the alleged pickup.
A few days after the four men were picked up, the families received a bit of hope. They had given photographs of the four men to an entrepreneur who lived in the local area and had ready access to the Detective Branch office on Minto Road.
He told them that he had seen Sohel in the detective branch office.
‘About two or three days after the incident, I made an excuse to meet a friend in the Detective Branch office, and was able to get into the area of the cells. There I saw Sohel and the three other men,’ the entrepreneur told New Age.
Although the entrepreneur tried to assist the families in the next few days, he heard that the men had been moved out of the Detective Branch office but did not know where they were taken.
‘I came to know that one of the men was considered notorious by the police and I decided not to help any further,’ he told New Age. ‘I was also warned against trying to assist them.’
The whereabouts of all four men remain unknown.
The Bangshal police station officer-in-charge Abdul Kuddus Fakir, who is investigating the GDs filed by the families said that they were looking for the four men because they were ‘accused in a number of cases.’ He said that they were yet to find them.
Monirul Islam, the joint commissioner of the Detective Branch, denied DB was involved in the incident ‘We do not have any knowledge about the disappearance of these people … If we arrest someone we send them to the court within 24 hours.’
The state minister for home affairs, Asaduzzaman Khan, also told New Age that ‘law men were not involved’ and that these cases involve people who have gone into hiding to avoid arrest for violent crimes.