In his statement on the International Day of the Disappeared on Monday, August 30, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of enforced disappearance, once a tool of repression primarily employed by military dictatorships, as a global problem. Hundreds of thousands of people across more than 80 countries have been “disappeared” by state authorities. Entrenched lack of accountability remains widespread.
In the United States, lawmakers on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission honored the U.N. remembrance day by focusing on the increasing use of enforced disappearance to silence dissent, undermine independent media, and intimidate human rights advocates in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has seen an intensifying wave of state repression in recent years. A counterterror paramilitary unit called the Rapid Action Battalion has carried out intimidation campaigns, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. A new report by Human Rights Watch documents the escalation of the use of enforced disappearances since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office in 2009. The report calls out the Bangladeshi authorities for their “persistent refusal to investigate enforced disappearances and hold perpetrators accountable.”
Thirty-one incidents of enforced disappearance were reported over the course of 2020, among them a college teacher, an editor, a businessperson, two students, and four opposition activists. Three were later “found” by the police and then detained, and a student leader was released by undisclosed captors after 48 hours, amid protests from civil society and human rights organizations. One political activist was found dead, and four others remained missing at the end of the year. According to Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar, 16 individuals have been subjected to enforced disappearance between January and June of 2021.
“How can people be expected to believe a government that allows this to happen?” asked Shahidul Alam, a photojournalist who spoke of his own enforced disappearance at the Lantos briefing on August 31.
Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was forcibly disappeared on March 10, 2020, a day after a case was filed against him under the Digital Security Act (DSA) – a draconian law authorities have used since 2018 to stifle dissent – for sharing a Facebook post critical of a lawmaker. Fifty-three days later, police sent him to pre-trial detention for seven months. Although he was released on bail last December, he has been charged under the DSA and could face up to seven years in prison. At a webinar on World Press Freedom Day this year, he said, “I still don’t have the courage to say whether I was forcefully disappeared or I was lost.”
Enforced disappearances have a crippling effect on political freedom, civil society, independent media, and human rights advocacy. As a significant provider of humanitarian and development aid, the U.S. government has both the opportunity and the obligation to press Bangladeshi authorities to uphold human right norms. Pressure from Washington to end ongoing crackdowns on freedom of expression, enforced disappearances, and other rights violations could provide respite for civil society, journalists, activists, and others in Bangladesh who fear the government’s ability to carry out violence with impunity.
A statement for the record submitted to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission by Amnesty International USA in advance of Tuesday’s briefing urges Congress to ensure the United States does its part to stop the devastating practice of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.
As the U.N. calls for justice for those who have been “disappeared” around the world, the Tom Lantos briefing presents an opportunity for U.S. lawmakers to draw political attention and pressure to the government of a country where too many people have been stifled and silenced by pervasive violations.
“It’s now come to a state where it’s simply unbearable,” Shahidul Alam said at the briefing.