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1,095 days in waiting
Sunday, 11 December 2016

just want to give a hug to my son before my last breath”, moaned the mother of a young BNP activist who was picked up allegedly by members of a high-profile law enforcement agency in December 2013. Father of another victim of disappearance, Adnan Chowdhury, lamented that he would have to go to his grave with the enormous burden of guilt that he handed over his own son to the law enforcers with the firm belief that the latter was innocent and would soon return home. Wife of yet another victim broke into tears narrating that her four-year-old daughter does not want to attend school socials. “All my friends go with their parents, I want my dad to come along with my mum,” she demands.

The above statements were made at a commemoration meeting to mark the third anniversary of enforced disappearance of eight young BNP supporters on December 4, 2013, and twelve more from different parts of Dhaka city during the preceding months. The families claim that they have strong reasons to believe that members of law enforcement agencies (LEAs) picked up their loved ones. When confronted by the families about their identity, members of search parties informed they represented a specific agency and some were in uniforms. In other instances though, persons were in civil clothes the victims were whisked away in clearly marked vehicles. 

The affected families gathered not only to share their grief and anguish but also – more importantly – to seek justice and to raise their collective voice to demand the state brings back their loved ones and punishes the perpetrators of the heinous act. They informed the audience that they left no stone unturned to know the whereabouts of the victims. All families reported that soon after the incidents they got in touch with the local police stations, Detective Branch and Rapid Action Battalion offices, local public representatives, senior functionaries of the LEAs, and some even high ups in the administration. 

A shared experience of all victim families was the refusal of the LEAs to register complaints (First Information Report). The families also informed that there was palpable indifference of the agencies to investigate. In some instances, instead of helping the families find the disappeared, pressure is exerted on the families to produce the latter. The law enforcers justify such action alleging that there are pending cases against those disappeared activists. In at least one instance, a family member was taken to custody for interrogation to extract information about the location of the disappeared member of the family. In another instance, police came to seize the possession of a victim only to find the victim owned nothing worth. 

The uncertainty about the whereabouts of the victims has taken toll on the family members. Life is no longer the same for them. Gaping holes in their hearts has made life of many not worth living. Mothers cannot find words when children ask them when their dads will come back. Elderly parents pass each day wondering if ever they would get to see their lost sons. Relatives and friends gradually distance themselves for fear of coming under the radar of surveillance or retribution.

Over the last three years, at least three members of the 20 victim families met untimely deaths. The families maintain they could no longer bear the agony of the loss. One of most vocal of the campaigners, Mr. Shamsuddin of Dakkhinkhan, suddenly dropped dead. He was in his mid 50s. His hope to see his son alive had faded with time. His last desire was to see his son\'s final resting place, a wish that remained unfulfilled. Mother of Sajedul Islam Shuman still rushes to the window when she hears clatter of a vehicle in early hours of the morning. She does so with the unending hope that security forces has come to drop back her son whom they had taken away years ago with the promise that he would be back home soon. 

The families feel they have hit stonewall in seeking justice. Senior functionaries of LEAs shunned them. The National Human Rights Commission was of no avail. Their appeals to the chief executive of the state did not yield result. Despite all these, they remain resolute in pursuit of their demand for justice. This, they feel, they owe to the disappeared members of their families. And that\'s reason for their congregation at the National Press Club on December 4 each year, with photos of their loved ones on their chest and tears in their eyes. They do so to reach out to what they feel is their resort - the collective conscience of the people of Bangladesh who are so proud of the great spirit of liberation war. The victim families remind us that \'right to life\' and accessing justice remain integral elements of that spirit.

In his reaction to the claims of \'enforced disappearance\', the custodian of law enforcement of the country, the Home Minister, stated that the term \'enforced disappearance\' has no place in the lexicon of Bangladesh\'s law enforcement. The Minister wants the nation to believe that many among the disappeared are opposition political activists hiding from the LEAs. If that were the case does not it fall on the state, and more particularly agencies under him, to find the alleged criminals? Are not the infamous seven murders of Naryanganj an impeccable evidence that enforced disappearance is a reality in Bangladesh? Thanks to River Meghna for refusing to be an abettor of the murders of those who disappeared in Narayanganj. The state has a strong case to answer that if its functionaries are not involved in such gruesome acts what deters them to register the FIRs lodged by the victim families? What bars them from launching investigation?

If the state genuinely holds the view that Bangladesh\'s LEAs are being accused of engaging in enforced disappearance with malicious intent then what precludes it to pay heed to the demands of the victim families and those of rights activists to institute a credible judicial commission to look into the claims of enforced disappearance? 

Written by C R Abrar, a teacher of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.