Incidents of enforced disappearances grabbed the headlines in Bangladesh throughout 2017.
Most alarming of all was the number of noted individuals who went missing - the most in any year since 2013.
The matter of known faces being made to “disappear” came under the limelight after BNP leader Ilias Ali and his chauffeur went missing around midnight on April 17, 2012.
According to an estimate from rights group Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), in total at least 340 abductions were reported in the five years to November, including 53 in 2013, 88 in 2014, 55 in 2015 and 91 in 2016.
Up to November in 2017, at least 54 people were subjected to enforced disappearances. Of them, 29 people are still to be identified, including three from the ruling Awami League and its affiliated wings and four belonging to BNP and its associate organisations.
ASK said it gathers information for the estimates from the appeals of victims’ families, or by relying on news reports and eye-witness accounts.
“The way these disappearances took place indicates that the abductors are very organised,” former ASK director Nur Khan Liton said.
“But there are no visible measures (taken) against the abductors. Although some of the victims have been returned, the law enforcers have showed very little interest in solving the cases.”
Many disappearances still a mystery
Several abduction victims who were released throughout the year and could return home were unable to shed any light on why they had been taken.
Adding to the confusion are claims of abduction made by some people who, law enforcers say, had gone into hiding voluntarily.
One such case involved the columnist Farhad Mazhar, whose family claimed was picked up by some unknown men on July 3 near his home in Dhaka.
Although the 70-year-old was rescued by law enforcers in Khulna the following day, police after investigation said they found the claim baseless, with Inspector General of Police (IGP) AKM Shahidul Hoque dubbing the alleged abduction “fake”.
On Thursday, Farhad and his wife, Farida Akhter, were charged with starting a case through false information over the abduction.
In another such incident, a Natore Catholic priest named Walter William Rozario was found in the Dakshin Surma upazila of Sylhet on December 1. It was later revealed that he had been by himself as he travelled various districts for the four days after he was reported missing.
Law enforcers claim many of the missing people actually staged their own disappearances in order to avoid arrest.
Only a few of those who returned after so-called enforced disappearances or abduction claims opened up about their ordeals, leaving the rest a mystery.
Panic over disappearances stays
While the term “enforced disappearance” is yet to have a clear definition in any of the existing laws in Bangladesh, the continued cases of people being abducted are unsettling to the general public.
“People are living in fear because of these incidents, and I am not disagreeing with it,” NHRC Chairman Kazi Rezaul Hoque in early December told Bangla Tribune. “The law enforcers need to bring back the missing people to alleviate the fear.”
Opposition parties led by BNP have also claimed that many of their leaders and activists were “disappeared” by law enforcers this year.
Bangladesh Janata Party President Mithun Chowdhury and its leader Asit Ghosh were arrested on November 18 for allegedly plotting to topple the government, more than two weeks after the duo reportedly went missing.
Meanwhile, police found MM Aminur Rahman, secretary general of Kalyan Party, an ally of BNP, late on December 22, nearly four months after he went missing.
Aminur, the fourth person to have returned after going missing this year, was later sent to jail in a 2015 sabotage case.
The parties expressed their fear that the number of the disappeared could rise further in 2018, mainly ahead of the next general polls.
The return spree at year end
According to claims made by families, at least 15 people have gone missing or were abducted under unclear circumstances from various parts of Dhaka in the past four months.
As the year neared its end, however, a significant number of “missing” people began returning, one after another.
Over the last two weeks alone, three such cases of return were reported, with North South University teacher Mubashar Hasan Caesar being reunited with his family on December 22 after one-and-a-half months.
Kalyan Party leader Aminur returned on the same day, while 24 hours earlier, journalist Utpal Das safely returned home after almost eight weeks.
Aniruddha Kumar Roy, the RMM Group Managing Director and the honorary consul of Belarus in Bangladesh, returned home on November 16, 83 days after he was reportedly abducted from Gulshan on August 27.
The other seven recent returnees are IFIC Bank official Shamim Ahmed, BJP’s central leader Asit Ghosh, former engineer of Nokia-Siemens Asaduzzaman Asad, pharmacist of Sanofi-Aventis Jamal Rahman, fruit trader Giasuddin, publisher Tanvir Yasin Karim, and Bank Asia AVP Shamim Ahmed.
However, the disappearances of the former Bangladesh ambassador to Vietnam, Maroof Zaman; McGill University student Ishrak Ahmed Fahim are still worrying their families.
Fingers pointed at each other
On November 27, Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque in Chandpur said abductions and enforced disappearances were “nothing new in the country” and had been taking place “since the ancient period”.
He then claimed that the law enforcers solved the mysteries behind 75% of abduction cases and rescued the victims.
Debate over the issue intensified last month after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the disappearance of people was a common phenomenon not only in Bangladesh, but in developed countries including the US and the UK.
“Developed countries with much smaller populations have modern technology yet many people disappear in those countries,” she told a parliament session on November 23.
The following day, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told reporters that the premier herself had admitted the government’s involvement in incidents of enforced disappearance.
Fakhrul added that the government was making its opponents disappear using the law enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on November 8 said there are always reasons behind people going missing, with some doing so intentionally.
“Many are embarrassing us by willingly going into hiding. This becomes difficult for the intelligence agencies to address,” he said. “Still, I hope we can bring them back. Our intelligence agencies are working (on it).”