Isil, detention and enforced disappearances

by David Bergman

Samiun Rahman, outside court in Dhaka

It is difficult to judge the credibility of the allegation made by Bangladesh detective branch officers – that Samiun Rahman is a jihadist recruiter who came to Bangladesh to recruit fighters for ISIL.

Rahman admitted to me that he had spent time in Syria at the end of last year (supported by his passport stamps) and clearly this does raise legitimate suspicions. He, however, says that he went for ‘humanitarian’ purposes and was not involved in militant activity. Whilst it is true that some people have gone to Syria for that reason alone, one should be mindful that humanitarian aid may well have become a useful excuse for others to hide their jihadism behind.
Rahman also said that when he returned to the UK from Syria, he was questioned for five hours before being let into the country – by which he was suggesting that if the UK police really thought he was a jihadist, he would have been arrested at that time. However, there could have been many reasons – other than the police accepting his version of what he did in Syria – as to why the police took no action against him.
However, this blogpost is not about whether Rahman is or isn’t a jihadist recruiter.

For me, his arrest is interesting for two reasons.

The first, is about how it reflects the Awami League government’s intention to represent itself internationally as an ally of the United States and its allies in the new war against Islamic terrorism. The timing of the arrest – right in the middle of the UN general assembly – could not have been more helpful.

The second and more significant reason why Rahman’s arrest is important, is that this case provides further evidence of how the police are running something akin to a parallel system of justice – in which a small but significant number of people are detained and then either ‘disappeared’ (Odhikar statistics suggest that family members or witnesses identified detective branch officers involved in 20 out of the 74 disappearances since January 2013) or alternatively brought to the court at a later date at the convenience of the investigators and their political masters.

This is the parallel system of justice operated by the police for a certain category of people.

An enforced disappearance?
The police say that they raided Rahman’s village house in Habiganj, but did not find him there, and that he was finally arrested when getting off a train from Sylhet that arrived late on Sunday evening, the 28th September.
Rahman denies this. He says that he was arrested when the police raided his village home on Wednesday 24 and that since then he was detained in Dhaka for five days. On the Sunday evening, he said that a small drama was played out:

‘They arrested me five days ago without any charge. Left me in a cell for five days. Yesterday, they take me out of the cell to a train station. Two officers beside me, another two were way forward. They take me forward and then say, ‘yes I have got him. I have got him’’

This issue is significant as the police are only allowed by law to detain someone for a maximum of 24 hours without the permission of a magistrates court. Section 61 of the criminal procedure code states that:

No police-officer shall detain in custody a person arrested without warrant for a longer period than under all the circumstances of the case is reasonable, and such period shall not, in the absence of a special order of a Magistrate under section 167, exceed twenty-four hours exclusive of the time necessary for the journey from the place of arrest to the Magistrate’s Court.

For the police to hold a person for more than 24 hours is illegal.

So did the police hold Rahman for five days before bringing him to court? On this point, I tend to believe the accused for the following reasons.

First, this practice of the police, and in particular the detective branch of the police, of detaining someone, and then formally arresting the person some days or even weeks later, and then bringing them to court, is now an allegation that is not uncommonly made by some of those detained and their families. In fact, according to detective branch sources, the seven JMB men arrested ten days ago and brought to court, had been detained a week earlier.
Secondly, a couple of days ago, one of my colleagues had mentioned to me that he had been told that the British jihadist was already in their custody.
It should be noted that Rahman’s detention in this way was ‘an enforced disappearance’ according to article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This states:

For the purposes of this Convention, “enforced disappearance” is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.

An interesting question of course is what interest do the police have in detaining someone outside of the court’s jurisdiction. Possible reasons for this are:
– the police are asked to detain someone for political reasons and the police are waiting to hear what they should do;
– it allows the police to take other investigative action (perhaps detaining others) without drawing attention to the arrest of the person which could otherwise create difficulties.
– provides the police time to find out information that they need – though interrogation and torture – without any pressure of time or external scrutiny.

In the case of Rahman, who was treated well, and where (at least according to him) he was not interrogated, his apparent illegal detention may well have been about simply creating a convenient time politically (during the UN general assembly) to present his arrest to journalists. There may be some other reason, however.

The illegal detention of those accused of crimes in this way – their enforced disappearance, to give the process its true legal name – must stop. And this will only happen when government stops this happening, or the courts start exposing this practice and hauling up senior police officers.

A couple of other matters
First, the detective branch police officers said that Rahman ‘confessed’ his involvement in ISIS and in his involvement in recruiting.
Having spoken to Rahman, that seems very difficult to believe. Whatever the truth of the matter, he very vehemently denied all the claims against him, and says that he was not even properly questioned, just assertions made against him. When Rahman states that he was not tortured, what interest would he have in confessing such an offense?
Again it has become very common for the detective branch officers to claim that this or that person has confessed to his or involvement in particular offences – in circumstances where it would seem very odd that they had done so.
Second, when the matter came up before the court, there was no lawyer representing Rahman. Apparently, Rahman asked the court if he could say something since he was not represented. The court refused.
It is difficult to understand why a magistrate would not allow an accused to represent himself in a bail application – or at the very least to make some representations before the court – when no lawyer was present. As a result the courts were none the wiser to the fact that he was claiming he had been illegally detained for five days before being brought to court.