Republished from Bangladesh Politico 28 June 2019
(First reported in Bangladesh Politico, which is now blocked in Bangladesh)
The story about what has happened to Colonel (rtd) Shahid Khan over the last fourteen months published on this blog (and previously by Al Jazeera) says a lot about contemporary Bangladesh – the impunity, the links between politics and business, the corruption of law enforcement, intelligence and other state bodies, the unlimited power of people around the prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the lies and false allegations – and how the victims simply just keep on piling up.
Below are five key points that emerge from this story 1. The number of secret detentions and disappearances are almost certainly much higher than we know.
How many people have been secretly detained/disappeared in Bangladesh? The most authoritative source of public information on this has been the human rights organisation Odhikar which has sought to follow up reports given by families after law enforcement authorities pick up their relatives and then deny having them in their custody. However, Odhikar can only count those incidents where families members go public about their relative being picked up. If families are too scared to go the media, their case is not reported, and Odhikar cannot include it in their list. In the case of Khan, a total of 8 people are now known to have been secretly detained for various lengths of time – with the whereabouts of four of them remaining unknown. In each case, the immediate families of the person picked up and disappeared have not gone public and talked to the media. This is because the families are too scared to do so – fearful of what might happen to their relative currently in secret detention and also scared that a similar fate may befall another of their relatives if they make a noise about it. It is only because, unusually Khan lives with his family in the UK, and was in a position to provide information about the disappearances (which could then be independently corroborated) that these have now come out in the public domain.
It suggests that there are probably dozens – perhaps hundreds more – secret detentions and disappearances that are simply not recorded. 2. State bodies have been outsourcedIn August 2016, three sons of opposition leaders all of whom were convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal were picked up by law enforcement agencies. Reports suggest that these pick ups and subsequent secret detentions were authorised by Sheikh Hasina. One of the men has been released, also on Hasina’s authorisation.
Hasina had given authorisation for the pick-ups and continuing secret detentions after DGFI informed her that these three men were involved in a conspiracy against the government, including involvement in the Holey Artisan cafe militant attack, a month earlier. This was of course hocus-pocus – but Bangladesh governments, and intelligence agencies, are prone to believe conspiracy theories. These three disappearances, followed a pattern of many similar incidents – for example the 19 opposition activists picked up just before the 2014 election – in which state bodies were deployed for clear political ends, however misconceived, and illegal. However the disappearances involving Khan are rather different as they revolve around a personal dispute between Siddique and Khan, linked to their previous business relationship. It has nothing at all to do with politics or state affairs. Siddique appears to be abusing his ability to corrupt and control intelligence and law enforcement authorities for his own personal benefit. Siddique has now tried to make the personal dispute into one involving the State – by getting the police to claim that Khan is a jihadist and terrorist, but these allegations are still simply part of his personal dispute with Khan. It is now not uncommon in Bangladesh for state agencies to be used by powerful businessman and politicians to help them succeed in their personal disputes. 3. No independent judiciary
There was a time in Bangladesh, not so long ago actually, when people could count on the judiciary to act independently – that it would come boldly to the aid of those subject to abuse of power by state bodies. Those times are well and truly over.
Almost no family, whose relative has been disappeared will entertain the possibility of approaching the High Court seeking its intervention. This is because they know the High Court will do nothing – they know the Judges will either be partisan in support of the governing party, and so would not do anything or, if they are of part of the ever diminishing category of remaining judges that are independent minded, they are too scared to take a position against the state’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
In the Khan case, no family members went to court over the secret detentions and disappearances. But there was one part of the overall harassment where a family member did go to court – over the blocking of Khan’s mother-in-law from leaving the country.
Legally, this is a black and white matter. The constitution provides the right of a citizen to leave the country. Immigration authorities at the airport can only block someone if there is an ongoing criminal case against them or the courts have ordered that person not to leave the country. In this case there was no court order and there is no ongoing criminal case.
This kind of blocking has happened before, and in earlier situation the High Court has been quick to pass an order allowing the person to leave the country. In this case, however the High Court did not do so. This failure is notable and provides further illustration of how the courts have lost their independence, and one can reasonable speculate that specific pressure was imposed on the judge in question not to pass the regular order.
4. Journalists in Bangladesh are scaredIt is not just that journalists and editors are unwilling and unable to publish investigative journalism, but they are also scared to undertake inquiries. So, for example, in reporting on this story, I sought the assistance of a number of Bangladesh based journalists to speak to the families of the men disappeared, but as soon as they heard that the pick ups involved Tarique Siddique and DGFI they were scared to even make the calls.
5. The extent of harassment on one family is remarkable
The extent of harassment on Khan and his family is exceptional. Three of his employees have been picked up and disappeared; so have three of his brothers; his finance has been blocked; the travel of his family outside the country has been prohibited; his office and home have been raided; his lawyers have been stopped from working for him; and he and his wife have been accused of involvement in terrorist and money laundering.