The Colour of Tragedy
The 22 August 2017 is marked in the calendar with the colour of tragedy. The date represents the first anniversary of the disappearance of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, who exactly one year ago, was abducted from his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by at least thirty armed officers who claimed to be members of the Detective Branch of the Bangladesh Police.
Members of his family, including his mother, wife and two youngest children, were present during his abduction. With a voice choked with emotion and despair, they narrate the events of which they were direct witnesses. At approximately 22.00, a group of men cordoned off the street and stormed the family residence. They blindfolded and beat the caretaker of the property, broke the door of the apartment, threatened the whole family, and took Azmi without producing any arrest warrant or providing reasons for the apprehension. Since then, Azmi has been missing and held incommunicado in an unknown location, without access to a lawyer, family and friends.
Although the Bangladesh authorities denied their involvement in the incident, eye witnesses confirm that those who cordoned off the street were official security forces carrying firearms, thus placing law enforcement agents on the crime scene.
Enforced disappearances are considered one of the most egregious and damaging violations of human rights, as they not only affect the personal liberty of the direct victim, but also the psychological health, social and economic situation of the victims’ families. Enforced disappearances are crimes that stretch across time and cause permanent trauma on the families, which due to the lack of information about the fate of the disappeared, have demonstrable difficulties to start a grieving process that would allow them to alleviate their suffering. It must be noted that Abdullahil Amaan Azmi was the only male member of his household in a patriarchal society.
A Pattern against Dissent
Nevertheless, the disappearance of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi is not an isolated incident, but part of what could be considered a widespread and systematic pattern of enforced disappearances against members and supporters of the political opposition in Bangladesh.
The number of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh has dramatically increased in the last few years. While in 2009, the human rights organization Odhikar reported less than 10 cases of enforced disappearances in the entire year, the same organization documented more than 60 disappearances in 2015. In July 2017, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive and well-documented report claiming that the number of disappeared had risen to 90 during 2016. Notably, it is estimated that at least 320 Bangladeshis have disappeared since the election of the Awami League Government.
Like Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, the whereabouts of many of the disappeared are still unknown. However, the majority of those who disappeared are either produced before a Court after months of unlawful incommunicado detention, or appear dead after having been shot during alleged “crossfire” -the last narrative figure invented by Bangladeshi security forces, now widely considered to be a synonym of “extrajudicial execution”-.
The case of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi embodies the tactics of oppression that members and supporters of the political opposition have endured during the last few years. Through the approval of draconian legislative measures against freedom of expression and association, censure of the media through the criminalisation of defamation, and the practice of enforced disappearance of any voice of opposition, extrajudicial execution of political opponents through a judicial process largely regarded as a farce, mass arbitrary arrest and torture, criticism and political denunciation have progressively disappeared from the Bangladesh social scene.
Although a democratic state on paper, the Awami League governs the country with an iron fist since the party won the overwhelming majority of seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2014, which were boycotted by the full political spectrum in the opposition: 154 out of the 300 parliamentary seats were uncontested. Since then, both the opposition and Bangladesh civil society critical of the Awami League have faced a crackdown of unprecedented proportions, as shown by the sharp increase in the number of disappeared.
The Awami League Government, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has attempted to create a veneer of respectability, both domestically and internationally, through a series of perfidious means; the most recent being an attempt to use the President and Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to legitimize their own flawed judicial process.
A Threat that Expands Through Generations
The case of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi stands out from the statistics for one important reason: he is the son of Professor Ghulam Azam, a well-known political leader in the opposition who died in prison after having been sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh (ICT). Although there was a real need for a meaningful process of transitional justice in the country, the ICT has been internationally condemned for serious violations of fair trial and due process standards. The ICT has systematically targeted members of the political opposition and has already executed six defendants.
The sons of two of those executed at the orders of the ICT, Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem and Humam Quader Chowdhury, also disappeared in the summer of 2016 in very similar circumstances. Their disappearances took place amidst widespread international criticism of the ICT immediately before the execution of Mir Quasem Ali, father of Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem. The timing of the three abductions and the fact that Bangladeshi authorities failed to initiate any criminal investigations to clarify the whereabouts of these three men, were widely perceived as an indication that their disappearances were carried out as a means to send a powerful and intimidating message: there is no place in Bangladesh for those who dare to dissent. Nor for their families.
The Role of the International Community
The enforced disappearances of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem and Humam Quader Chowdhury were condemned by numerous human rights organizations, including by United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which in February 2017 called upon the Government of Bangladesh “to act now to halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances in the country”. Humam Quader Chowdhury was released short after this statement, but the whereabouts of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi and Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem remain unknown.
These disappearances constitute an abhorrent violation of the human rights obligations accepted by and binding on Bangladesh authorities. Bangladesh security forces continue to act with utter impunity; this is a failing of the international community whose silence is perceived as acquiescence.
Hopefully, the anniversary of Abdullahil Amaan Azmi’s disappearance could be tinged with the colour of hope and mark a toughening in the international community’s position and agenda towards the Government of Bangladesh and the concerning human rights situation in the country. Or even better, the release of the dozens of victims.
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