“Someone told me you can help,” she said. “Please, we are desperate.”
At Human Rights Watch, sadly too often, we hear these words from strangers. But what is most chilling is when the call is about an enforced disappearance.
Hasina Ahmed wanted to speak about her husband, Salahuddin Ahmed a politician with the opposition Bangladesh National Party. He was last seen on the evening of March 10, when he was taken away by men identifying themselves as belonging to the detective branch of the police. The government, however, has denied involvement.
And that really is the tragedy of enforced disappearance. Loved ones end up enduring years of uncertainty, veering between hope and despair. In Jammu and Kashmir, those still awaiting news of their missing husbands are called ‘half widows’.
Last December, the New Age reported 19 cases of alleged enforced disappearance of Opposition members in Bangladesh. In some cases, families say they were last seen in the custody of law enforcement agencies. The same month, the law minister promised an investigation, but the families are still waiting for results.
Ahmed’s disappearance comes in the middle of an ongoing stand-off between the government and Opposition, which began in early January. Since then, over 150 people have died and several hundred have been injured, largely when defying Opposition-enforced strikes.
Hasina says she wishes her husband had been arrested as well. “If he has done something wrong, he can be punished,” she said. “But he has simply disappeared. How do I explain this to the children?” She has filed a habeas corpus petition and sought a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. “The government doesn’t seem to care,” she says.
But authorities in Bangladesh are obligated to care under international law. Enforced disappearances are defined as deprivation of liberty by the State agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the person’s whereabouts, which places the person outside the protection of the law. Enforced disappearances constitute multiple human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention.
While she was in Opposition, Sheikh Hasina deplored the longstanding practice of enforced disappearance by law enforcement agencies, and promised reform if she was elected. After the Opposition boycotted the January 2014 election, she enjoys absolute authority. She can choose to do the right thing, investigate these disappearances and hold perpetrators to account. As a start, she should reach out to Hasina Ahmed and order an independent investigation into her husband’s whereabouts.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director, Human Rights Watch
The views expressed by the author are personal