In our wonderful land, it’s possible for people to literally disappear without triggering any alarms. Eyewitnesses often blame security forces, whereas the authority simply denies having ever taken them.
Rarely are these people ever seen again. Some are killed in “gunfights,” while the others’ fates make people doubt whether they ever existed at all. In some rare cases, however, the vanished have become visible at the courthouse, only to be charged in random criminal cases. Nevertheless, for their families, the pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones is immeasurable.
When I met AKM Nurul Alam, the elderly father of Dr Muhammad Iqbal Mahmud, I sensed a shred of his pain. With a shaky voice, he told me how his son, a doctor, was grabbed by a gang of men inside a microbus -- a story I already knew, and one he has been tirelessly telling journalists.
A few days ago, Mr Alam called me to say that he still didn’t know about his son’s whereabouts. When I cited a few media reports claiming that the police might have detained him due to his suspected links to terrorism, Mr Alam burst into a fit of rage.
“Even if it were the case, what’s wrong in handling the matter within the country’s legal framework?” he asked me, a tone of indignation in his voice. “They should at least confirm that he is in their custody.”
The term “enforced disappearance” may sound chunky, but the human story is quite simple -- if he is killed, you know that he is dead. If he is detained, you know he is in jail. But you know nothing when he is in that space between.
The pain of waiting for someone without having any idea whether he would ever return is the worst part -- but Rumeen Farhana, a lawyer and a prominent opposition figure, in a recent op-ed piece published in Bangla Tribune, wrote how the relative of a “missing” man had asked her if there could be a new law declaring such persons dead.
Whether you view it as ‘enforced’ or ‘voluntary’ disappearance, it remains, nonetheless, the state’s duty to locate these disappeared and/or missing men
The missing man was the only breadwinner in the family. All their bank accounts, businesses, land, and even the house, were registered in his name. Despite having considerable amount of money in their bank accounts, the family cannot withdraw a single penny. Nor are they able to sell any of their land. The man’s eldest son halted his education and started searching for jobs. If the man were declared dead, his inheritors could at least have withdrawn some money or sold some property.
Over the years, the number of such frustrated and helpless families has increased. These days, it sounds like too much of a coincidence that all these families, from different parts of the country, have somehow described such kinds of events in similar ways. All the while, the government has denied all the allegations outright, even in the face of compelling evidence.
In Dr Mahmud’s case, for instance, a Dhaka Tribune report revealed that, immediately after he was picked up, a police van started trailing the abductors’ microbus with a carefully balanced pace. For Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the interior minister, nothing is enough to point the finger at the force. “Those alleged to be forcefully disappeared are in hiding for different reasons. As we saw in the past, many of them later returned.”
The government’s sheer apathy to take potentially strong evidence into account shows its unwillingness to stop this horrendous crime. In addition, this culture of denial has consistently provided the perpetrators with a shield of impunity, eroding every hope of justice, further jeopardising the process of establishing the rule of law.
Mr Kamal’s remarks also echoed the government’s disturbing line of response that no disappearance is taking place. Even so, the government has done little to answer a few simple questions.
If some gangs are able to abduct people in the guise of law enforcement officials, to make the government look bad, should the nation’s entire security apparatus not be extremely worried?
Alternatively, if people can keep going into hiding, and be able to make it seem like the state forces are behind this, does that not show a grave hole in our national security system?
The point is, whether you view it as “enforced” or “voluntary” disappearance, it remains, nonetheless, the state’s duty to locate these disappeared and/or missing men -- be it the accused forces, or the person himself, or a third party.
While detaining criminals without leaving footprints may seem temporarily convenient in our overburdened and complex judicial system, in the long run this grave malpractice risks collapsing public confidence in the system, and hence, severely deteriorates all dispersed efforts to establish rule of law.
The authorities have always ignored these fundamental arguments.
Nazmul Ahasan is a freelance contributor.