Human Rights Watch has called for a United Nations probe into the enforced disappearances of Bangladesh opposition activists.
The international non-governmental organization also demanded sanctions on the officials found responsible.
The rights watchdog released a report titled “‘Where No Sun Can Enter’: A Decade of Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh” identifying 86 political activists, businessmen, and student members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party who have gone missing over the past decade.
It said that disappearances have become a “hallmark” of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rule and are being used as a tool to curtail free speech and criticism.
“We want the UN and other international experts to launch an independent investigation because it has become quite clear that the Bangladesh authorities are willing to look away and even provide impunity for these kinds of abuses,” HRW’s South Asia expert Meenakshi Ganguly told AFP.
The organization called for sanctions on members of the elite police squad Rapid Action Battalion as they have been accused multiple times of carrying out the disappearances.
Officials from HRW have called on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to ban Rapid Action Battalion officers from participating in UN peacekeeping missions and ramp up screening of those deployed under the UN flag to ensure its human rights screening policy is being effectively applied in Bangladesh.
Asia Director at HRW Brad Adams said, “Members of a death squad should not be deployed in UN peacekeeping missions abroad. The UN Department of Peace Operations should ban the Rapid Action Battalion from peacekeeping and the US should bring individual human rights sanctions against Bangladesh commanders implicated in serious crimes like torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.”
The report also showed that despite credible and consistent evidence that Bangladesh security forces routinely commit enforced disappearances, the ruling Awami League has ignored calls by donor governments, the UN, human rights organizations, and civil society to address the culture of impunity.
“Awami League leadership and Bangladesh authorities mock victims and routinely obstruct investigations, making clear that the government has no intention of meaningfully addressing enforced disappearances by its security forces.” Adams further said. “As critics of the government live in fear of being forcibly disappeared, and families of the disappeared have little hope of getting justice from the government, UN human rights experts should open an investigation into enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.”
Alongside the report, Human Rights Watch created a webpage tracking and profiling the cases of 86 victims in Bangladesh who were forcibly disappeared and who remain missing.
The report is based on over 115 interviews conducted between July 2020 and March 2021 with victims, their family members, and witnesses to enforced disappearances.
In one of the cases listed by HRW, low-level BNP activist Mohammad Parvez Hossain disappeared in December 2013, allegedly abducted with three friends.
“They went out to buy birthday flowers for the son of a party colleague and never returned,” said his wife Farzana Akter, who was pregnant at the time.
Akter, now 30, said police repeatedly refused to discuss her husband’s case.
“If the government says my husband is in hiding, then why don’t they find him?” she said. “He didn’t commit any crime, didn’t kill or rob anyone. He was not corrupt. Why would he be killed?”
There was no comment on the allegations from the government or the Rapid Action Battalion.
According to Bangladeshi human rights groups, nearly 600 people have been forcibly disappeared by security forces since 2009. While some victims have been released or produced in court after weeks or months of secret detention, others became victims of extrajudicial killings that are falsely claimed to be deaths during gunfights. Many of the victims were critics of the ruling Awami League government.
“These enforced disappearances have created a terrible environment of fear,” said Nur Khan Liton, a former chief of Ain o Salish Kendra, a leading Bangladesh rights group.
Senior government officials have in the past denied that security agencies had seized anyone, saying the alleged victims have gone into hiding.