Article published in New Age on 28 November 2014
This is the first in a series of articles published in New Age investigating 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
Picked up a year ago, they’re yet to return
David Bergman and Muktadir Rashid
Witnesses to the abductions a year ago of 19 Dhaka-based opposition student activists provide evidence of the involvement of the state agencies, an investigation by New Age reveals.
All 19 were picked up over a period of two weeks and are believed to have ‘disappeared’.
The abduction of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists took place between 28 November and 11 December 2013 at a time when the Awami League government was battling the strikes and blockades launched by opposition BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami to press their demand for an interim election-time government.
The ‘pick-ups’ also occurred at a time when the government and the police were accusing opposition protestors of responsibility for the deaths of over a dozen people in Dhaka by setting buses alight and throwing crude bombs over the previous weeks.
The whereabouts of the 19 young men, some of whom were named in criminal cases involving election-time violence, remain unknown. Families of some of them continue to hope that the men remain somewhere in the state’s custody, while others increasingly fear that the authorities may have killed them.
New Age has spoken to over 30 relatives of the families and witnesses to the events.
State minister for home affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said that though ‘one or two incidents’ had happened at that time ‘law men were not involved in any of those cases.’
He claimed that in ‘most cases the people have gone into hiding to avoid legal action for their alleged involvement in violence, arson attacks and torching vehicles during that time.’
The men were picked up in eight separate incidents in different parts of the city, including outside the central jail, Shahbagh, Bashundhara residential area, Shahinbagh, Mollartek and Pallabi.
Two Dhaka-based opposition activists were also abducted at Sonargaon in Narayanganj.
The New Age investigation has found evidence suggesting that Rapid Action Batallion participated in three separate but connected incidents which took place on the evening of 4 December and early morning of 5 December, involving the abduction of a total of eight young men.
One construction worker who saw six men, including the 38-year old Sajedul Islam Sumon, the general secretary of BNP ward 38 in Shahinbagh thana area, being taken from zone-I in Basundhara area on the evening of December 4, said, ‘One of the three vehicles that came was the typical black pick-up van which RAB uses, and some of the men wore RAB’s black outfit.’
The wife of Adnan Chowdhury, who was picked up from Shahinbagh in the early hours of the next morning told New Age, ‘Some of the men who came into the house and took my husband away wore the RAB’s black uniform, and the word ‘RAB’ was also written on their clothes.’
And a neighbour who witnessed Md Kawser being taken away shortly afterwards from Shia Majar Dhal, just behind the prime minister’s office, said that the men responsible included some who wore the ‘typical RAB uniform.’
In two other incidents involving the abduction of a total of six men, the evidence suggests the involvement of the Detective Branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
In one, an entrepreneur told New Age that a couple of days after four Bangshal Chhatra Dal activists were picked up from outside a restaurant in Shahbagh on 2 December, he saw one of four men, Mahfuzur Rahman Sohel, inside the Detective Branch office on Minto Road.
And a day after two men, Mahabub Hasan Sujon and Kazi Farhad, both Chhatra Dal activists at Sabujbagh, were taken from a farmhouse in Narayanganj on 6 December, a businessman told New Age that he saw Sujon being taken to a flat at Fakirerpul in Dhaka where Sujon had been living.
The witness who was present in the area at that time, said the men bringing Sujon to the flat were in civil dress, but that one man had the letters ‘DB’ written on the back of his jacket.
In the four other incidents the identity of the force is unclear – but witnesses firmly state that the men who ‘arrested’ the opposition activists were from law enforcement agencies.
Talking to New Age, RAB rejected the allegation of its involvement in these incidents. ‘Why would we abduct people. These are false allegations against RAB,’ Muklesur Rahman, its director general, said.
He said that RAB was aware that some people were missing, and the battalion had itself also tried to find these people. ‘We are still searching, but so far we could not find these people.’
Maniurul Islam, the joint commissioner of the Detective Branch, also said that it did not ‘have any knowledge about the disappearance of these people. We always are respectful to our law and regulations. If we arrest someone, we send them to the court within 24 hours.’
Although family members were either present when the ‘arrests’ took place or were informed within hours by witnesses about what had happened, the police stations refused in subsequent days to file a case or a ‘general diary’ containing an allegation that law enforcement authorities were involved in the incidents.
In just about all the cases, the police only allowed the families to file a ‘missing person’ complaint stating that their relative had left the house at a particular time on a specific day and ‘had not been seen since.’
All the family members told New Age that in the days and weeks after their relative were picked up, they visited RAB offices and police stations in the city, the Detective Branch office on Minto Road, and jails around the country in a desperate but unsuccessful search for their relatives. Some also followed up any news of the discovery of unidentified bodies.
In many cases, families had thought that the government would free the men soon after the elections on 5 January 2014, and did not until recently seek any media attention fearing that to do so might jeopardise their release.
Whilst family members are now willing to tell their stories, most of the non-family witnesses who spoke to New Age did so only on the basis of anonymity fearing repercussions from state agencies if they came forward publicly with their stories.