Enforced Disappearances: Days in custody unaccounted for
"They [police] took me to the under-construction BRP [Bhashantek Rehabilitation Project] building and made me climb into the septic tank. I spent the whole day and the whole night there."
There is a kind of enforced disappearance where a person is picked up or abducted, vanishes into thin air and is never heard from again.
There is another kind where the person returns but after many months or years.
Then there is a more common form of enforced disappearance.
These are the cases where a person is picked up and kept at a certain location for a few days before being produced before a court as arrested. This leaves a certain number of hours, days, or weeks in custody unaccounted for.
According to the Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 167) an arrestee must be produced before the court within 24 hours of arrest. But as law enforcement agencies, journalists and rights activists know, this stipulation is often flouted.
Rights organisations are rarely able to collect data on this. The phenomenon only recently came under media scrutiny when cartoonist Ahmed Kishore filed a case alleging that he was kept in an unknown location for several days and tortured.
But at the Metropolitan Sessions Judge's Court in Dhaka, stories like these can be picked like fruit in harvesting season.
On the third floor of the court building, a fish trader named Mosharraf narrated how he was beaten up and kept inside an empty septic tank for nearly 36 hours before he was officially shown arrested for possession of 200 pieces of yaba.
This happened on June 30, 2015, but he was at court even yesterday for a hearing -- fighting not to prove the case of his enforced disappearance, but to prove that he was not carrying 200 pieces of yaba.
"I was fishing at a pond inside the cantonment area around 10:00am in the morning, when I was picked up by Bhashantek police," he claimed.
"They took me to the under-construction BRP [Bhashantek Rehabilitation Project] building and made me get into the septic tank. I spent the whole day and the whole night there. The next day, a child, who is a police informer, came to me and asked me what I wanted to eat. I asked him if he had a cell phone and he said yes," narrated Mosharraf.
"I asked him to call a number and put it on loudspeaker, and in that manner, I talked to my wife to let her know where I am," he narrated.
His wife informed a journalist of this newspaper, who then informed a police high-up.
"It was right before iftar that I was taken out of the manhole," he claimed.
However, as per the first information report filed by Assistant Sub-inspector Sohel Md Mohiuddin, Mosharraf was arrested from beside a garbage bin in Damalkote at 6:45pm on July 1, 2015.
According to the case, police learnt from a tipoff that Mosharraf was selling yaba, went to find him and caught him.
When asked why he did not file a case against the police for keeping him in a manhole, Mosharraf looked befuddled for a minute. "I was sent to prison for nine months. By the time I got out, wouldn't it have been too late?" he asked.
His lawyer Mozammel Haque, however, stated that the issue was brought up during hearings in court.
In February 2016, when Md Arman was picked up from Mirpur-10 Bihari camp, he was hit in the back of the head with a rifle butt.
He woke up four days later in a hospital bed at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. "When I regained consciousness, I could inform my family, who had been searching for me since I was picked up," said Arman.
He was shown arrested the same day in a case filed against someone whose father and Arman's father had the same name.
Arman was incarcerated for five years until the High Court declared on December 31, 2020, that the arrest and detention was illegal and contradictory to his fundamental and human rights, and asked the authorities concerned of the government to immediately release him from jail.
Compared to five years of incarceration, the four days of frantic searching probably meant nothing, but it is imperative to reiterate that it was a violation of the law dictating that an arrestee be produced before the court within 24 hours of being arrested.
Taking a look at 122 cases of enforced disappearances that happened between 2017 and 2019 where the victims were returned, it becomes clear that the most of the victims disappeared for two days. In almost all of these cases, the victims were shown arrested.
This is according to data provided by Mayer Daak, a platform of the families of the people who fell victim to enforced disappearances, who documented the date of arrest, and date of return of these victims.
Odhikar tracked 31 cases of enforced disappearances last year where 22 returned alive. Six people were found dead, and three were never found.
The year before, they tracked 34 cases, where 17 were returned alive. Nine people never returned.
"Keeping someone outside of the 24 hour time limit provided in law is a crime. But this is an extremely common type of enforced disappearance where the victim stays disappeared for days, weeks or even months before being produced before a court as arrested," said Nur Khan Liton, rights activist and former chief of Ain o Salish Kendra.
"Other than Kishore, nobody has ever challenged this in court. These people do not have enough faith in the judicial process to challenge their arbitrary detention," said Liton.
In a report released by Human Rights Watch this month, the global watchdog recommended that law enforcement units follow a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that directed all law enforcement agencies to ensure that the family of a detained person is informed within 12 hours of arrest, and to allow a detained person access to lawyers.
Ain o Salish Kendra yesterday issued a statement demanding that the government of Bangladesh ratify an international treaty by the United Nations titled International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
It also demanded that the government initiate an investigation into all cases of enforced disappearances.
Furthermore, it stated that a specific law must be crafted to recognise enforced disappearance as a crime, instead of simplifying it as abduction.