“Someone told me you can help,” she said. “Please, we are desperate.”
At Human Rights Watch, sadly too often, we hear these words from strangers. But what is most chilling is when the call is about an enforced disappearance.
Hasina Ahmed called me about her husband, a politician with the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Salahuddin Ahmed. He was last seen on the evening of March 10, 2015, when, according to an eyewitness, he was taken away by men identifying themselves as belonging to the Detective Branch of the police. Hasina says she has spoken to other people who saw that the abductors had arrived in vehicles belonging to the dreaded paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion. The government, however, has denied involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts.
And that really is the tragedy of enforced disappearance. Loved ones end up enduring years of uncertainty, veering between hope and despair. Mothers wonder if they will recognize their sons once they return. In India’s Jammu & Kashmir, those still awaiting news of their missing husbands are called “half widows.” Families say that they are unable to grieve properly. They keep wondering if their loved ones are suffering torture, or have been killed and denied the dignity of a burial or cremation.
In Bangladesh today, there are many families left with these questions. Last December, the New Age reported 19 cases of alleged enforced disappearance of opposition members. In some cases families say they were last seen in the custody of law enforcement agencies. However government forces all deny any knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing men or involvement in the abduction. The same month, the law minister promised an investigation, but the families are still waiting for results.
Ahmed’s disappearance comes in the midst of an ongoing violent stand-off between the government and opposition parties, which began in early January 2015. Since then, over 150 people have died and several hundred have been injured, largely when defying opposition enforced strikes and blockades known as hartals and oborodhs. The government’s response has been to arrest thousands of opposition members across the country.
Hasina says she wishes her husband had been arrested as well. “If he has done something wrong, he can be punished,” she said. “But he has simply disappeared. How do I explain this to the children?” She has filed a habeas corpus petition, written to diplomats, and sought a meeting with the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed. “The government doesn’t seem to care,” she says.
But the Bangladesh authorities are obligated to care under international law. Enforced disappearances are defined as deprivation of liberty by the state agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the person’s whereabouts, which places the person outside the protection of the law. Enforced disappearances violate customary international law and constitute multiple human rights violations including of the prohibition of torture and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.
While she was in opposition, Sheikh Hasina deplored the longstanding practice of enforced disappearance by law enforcement agencies, and promised reform if she was elected. After the opposition boycotted the January 2014 election, the prime minister enjoys absolute authority in her second consecutive term in office. She can choose to do the right thing, investigate these disappearances, and hold perpetrators to account. As a start, she should reach out to her namesake, Hasina Ahmed, and order an independent investigation into her husband’s whereabouts.