Bangladesh: Enforced disappearances amount to crimes against humanity

(Paris) A new report from FIDH establishes that enforced disappearances in Bangladesh constitute crimes against humanity, and calls on the international community to take all necessary measures to ensure that the government fulfils the right of victims to truth, justice, and reparation. The report illustrates how Bangladesh’s government has used enforced disappearances to silence members of the political opposition and dissenting voices.

Based on 30 interviews with victims of enforced disappearances that occurred between 2012 and 2017, their family members, eyewitnesses, and information from other civil society organisations, the report, “Vanished Without a Trace: The Enforced Disappearance of Opposition and Dissent in Bangladesh,” details how State actors, including military and police, worked in tandem to make people disappear. Some returned home, alive but silenced. Some were found dead, supposedly killed in crossfire. Others never came back.

There is a clear pattern of Bangladeshi authorities using enforced disappearances to silence political dissidents, especially since 2011, the report found. Documented cases of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh share key features and modus operandi, strongly suggesting that they are part of a concerted strategy executed by State actors. Far from being spontaneous and arbitrary acts, these attacks are systematic and amount to a State policy. This, combined with the fact that most of the victims were targeted on political grounds, qualifies these acts as a crime against humanity.

“FIDH condemns enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, which are part of an ongoing strategy of State-sponsored violence to suppress political opposition and dissent in the country. The international community must recognize the seriousness of these crimes and intensify efforts to press the government of Bangladesh to put an end to them, surface the disappeared, and ensure victims obtain, truth, justice and reparation for the harm they suffered.”

Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General and ALTSEAN-Burma Coordinator

FIDH’s findings are consistent with those of local civil society groups, which have documented more than 500 cases of enforced disappearances over the past decade. There has been a marked increase in cases of enforced disappearances leading up to, and following, general elections in 2014 and 2018, with a noticeable exacerbation in the framework of Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism policy. Enforced disappearances often occur in conjunction with other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and torture.

Many of the victims, almost all of whom were men, were active in political parties that opposed the ruling Awami League party. Non-partisan critical voices, intellectual figures, academics, and journalists were also among those subjected to enforced disappearance.

Indirect victims who were left behind also suffered. According to testimonies gathered by FIDH, the family members of those who disappeared faced harassment by local authorities, trauma, and a general climate of fear. Relatives were often terrified by the potential consequences of seeking information about their loved ones’ fate or whereabouts. When they did take these risky steps, authorities were not cooperative, with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary taking no action to investigate these cases.

The Bangladeshi government has intentionally refused to take steps to determine the fate or whereabouts of victims of enforced disappearances, condemn these crimes, and conduct investigations and prosecutions. Authorities at the highest levels of government have denied the existence of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. Family members, however, are sure that the government is behind the disappearances. As one victim’s father told FIDH:

“The government has disappeared many people for the purpose of being in power. But they are still in power, their purpose has been fulfilled, so why are they still hiding our son? Why are they not releasing him? Our lives are being destroyed by this”

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