Amaan Azmi’s Disappearance is an Epitome of Injustice in Bangladesh
Last 27 December 2016, was the 58th birthday of former Brigadier General of the Bangladesh Army Abdullahil Amann Azmi. Regrettably, he will not receive warm wishes on his birthday from his near and dear as he remains missing since he was abducted by the Bangladesh Security Forces more than four months ago.
On the evening of 22 August this year, 30-armed, civilian-clothed, individuals claiming to be from the Detective Branch of the Bangladesh Police stormed into Mr Azmi’s family residence in Moghbazar, Dhaka, rounded up all the staff in the building, severely beat the residential caretaker, threatened and intimidated his wife and mother, searched every apartment of the building, and eventually took him blindfolded after a three-hour operation. Since then, the Bangladesh authorities have refused to publicly acknowledge his abduction, and even denied registering him as a missing person. His family are helpless and have no scope to know his whereabouts, spending every day with the hope that he will return one day. However, a complete denial by the Bangladesh authorities, and the indifference towards this matter by journalists and civil society actors in Bangladesh, and foreign governments give little hope to the family that he will be brought back alive any time soon.
What was Amaan Azmi’s crime and why was he abducted?
This is a question that can have only one answer. It may sound strange to non-Bangladeshis, but if you are a Bangladeshi, it should come as no surprise. The crime of Amaan Azmi is that he happens to be a son of the late Professor Ghulam Azam, the former President of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, who died in custody two years ago after being convicted by a controversial and highly disputed verdict following a political show trial that has been described as a flagrant denial of justice, for his alleged role in Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971. This article is not about Amaan Azmi’s father, so I will not go into the detail of the trial process of Azmi’s father, which has been condemned by every credible international human rights organisation and prominent international lawyers for failing to maintain the minimum standard of fair trial and due process. It is important to note that Human Rights Watch condemned the trial and were subsequently charged with contempt by the Tribunal.
This is not the first time Azmi has become a victim of injustice by the Government of Bangladesh for being Ghulam Azam’s son. He had been a decorated army officer winning many accolades during his 30 years of honest and professional service to his beloved homeland, and many had known him to be one of the most professional officers the Bangladesh Army had ever produced. He had also served with distinction in UN peace keeping missions in several conflict zones. Yet, in June 2009, a few months after Sheikh Hasina Wajed came to power, Azmi was called to the headquarters of the Bangladesh Army, and was handed a letter stating that he had been dismissed from the Army. No reason was given as to why he had been sacked, which denied him from obtaining any pension or other retirement benefit for his selfless years’ long service.
Leaving the profession he loved so much in such a humiliating fashion, and being unjustly denied of financial benefits that many decorated officers take for granted, Amaan Azmi dedicated his entire time looking after his elderly parents. None of his five siblings living abroad could share this responsibility as they are not allowed to visit Bangladesh, again because of their father’s identity. Azmi tried to establish an educational institution as he had always dreamt of serving in the education of children, but the current Government’s attitude led to the dream remaining unfulfilled. He maintained his steadfastness in serving his parents and played a pivotal role in managing everything on behalf of his brothers after the death of his father in 2014 as none of them could attend the funeral due to the risk of repercussions to members of the family. After that, until he was abducted, he gave his everything to look after his ailing mother.
Never during his time in the Army or even after he was dismissed was Mr Azmi ever involved in anything that could concern the law enforcement agencies. He never joined politics despite a great deal of media speculation that he would join his father’s party and engage in active politics. He remained virtually under house arrest for a long time as he had no employment and was under constant state surveillance. As a conscientious citizen and a patriotic citizen of Bangladesh, the only thing he did was remaining active in social media writing about the current human rights situation in Bangladesh. No one could ever find any of his social media writings as provocative or overtly political.
Yet, without any logical reason, and without any political or other provocation, the Bangladesh authorities decided to stoop to such a low as to forcefully abduct him, hold him arbitrarily and without access to a lawyer or his family, and then pretend that nothing had happened, acting with wilful blindness. If there were any credible allegations against him, they should have produced him before a court and let the law of the country take its course. Why did they decide to enforce his disappearance in such a brutal fashion? Only because he is someone’s son? Can that be a reason to deny a man from his basic and most fundamental human rights?
Azmi is not the only victim of state brutality against children of opposition leaders. Within a month before his abduction, Mir Ahmed Bin Qasem, a young lawyer and son of executed Jamaat-e-Islami leader Mir Qasem Ali, and Hummam Qader Chowdhury, son of executed BNP leader Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury, had been abducted and remain missing to date. There have been many other enforced disappearances in Bangladesh over the past few years and very few of them returned home safely. Unfortunately, the current Government of Bangladesh led by Sheikh Hasina has been carrying out these atrocious state-sponsored crimes with absolute impunity.
Despite enforced disappearances being flagged up by all major international human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch whose reports specifically mention the abductions of Amaan Azmi and the other two sons of opposition leaders, and despite considerable coverage of this issue in major international media like the BBC, Forbes, New York Times, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera etc., foreign governments have failed to raise concerns about these events. None of the Western governments gave official statements about these abductions. The so-called champions of human rights do not appear to be overly concerned at these human rights violations as the current Bangladesh government is their natural ally. It is such an irony that Sheikh Hasina’s niece, now a Labour MP and a Shadow Minister in Britain, is vocal against state oppression of individuals in Iran, but feels proud of her Aunt who is spearheading such brutal oppressions on innocent civilians in Bangladesh.
The role of Bangladesh’s civil society and the media has been nothing but shameful on this issue. The media’s political bias in the Western world is no secret, but the media in Bangladesh have taken this bias to an unprecedented level. Majority of Bangladeshi news and broadcast media outlets are owned by leaders or businessmen affiliated to the ruling Awami League, so opposition voices are severely oppressed in the media. Apart from one or two reports at the initial stage, the Bangladeshi media have shown complete indifference to the tragic events of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. Civil society has shown little concern about these abductions.
These enforced disappearances are the epitomes of injustices happening in Bangladesh, but who is there to listen to the cries of the victims’ families? Who is ready to raise their voice against the oppression faced by Amaan Azmi, Mir Ahmed, Hummam Chowdhury, and all others who have been abducted by the authorities in Bangladesh? Who is there to say that this is wrong and cannot continue? It seems that there is no one to hear these cries of help. Therefore, It is pertinent to end this article with the famous quote of Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardly silence of German intelligentsia during the Nazi oppression:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Those in Bangladesh who are not active supporters of the ruling party and think that these oppressions will never come to them, a gentle reminder that oppressors never stop oppressing. One day, they may end up as victims similar to what Amaan Azmi and others are facing today. The question is whether there will be anyone left at that time to speak for them.
Written by: Salman Al-Azami A linguist with keen interest in religion, media, politics, and sports. He is also the younger brother of the victim Amaan Azmi