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The Disappearance and Arbitrary Detention of Rohingya Refugee Leader Dil Mohammed

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The Disappearance and Arbitrary Detention of Rohingya Refugee Leader Dil Mohammed

Dil Mohammed was abducted from a Rohingya refugee settlement in January, only to appear in a Bangladeshi jail in May.

The Disappearance and Arbitrary Detention of Rohingya Refugee Leader Dil Mohammed

Dil Mohammed at the barbed wire fence in No Man’s Land.

Credit: Special arrangement

In May, just days after my article in The Diplomat shed light on the perplexing situation surrounding Dil Mohammed, a prominent Rohingya community spokesperson and advocate, he was suddenly imprisoned in Bandarban jail in Bangladesh. This development came after months of silence, with neither news nor official statements about his situation following his abduction in January. This raises pressing questions about what is likely a case of forced disappearance and/or arbitrary detention, warranting immediate international scrutiny.

Dil Mohammed had been a vocal advocate for the Rohingya people in the politically sensitive No Man’s Land (NML) between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The NML encampment sprang up as a sanctuary for Rohingya refugees following Myanmar’s “clearance operations” – a euphemism for a brutal operation others have called a genocide – that began in August 2017. Initially, Bangladesh was not only accommodating toward this enclave but, according to former residents, even encouraged its existence.

Despite this, Dil Mohammed’s life was disrupted not just by shifting political landscapes, but also by the silence and inaction of the very institutions that were once seemingly amenable to protecting people like him. His ordeal began with his abduction on January 18 by the reactivated Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) amid the ruins of the NML Rohingya encampment. He was subsequently placed in jail by Bangladeshi authorities on May 24, and his first court appearance occurred on May 30.

Bangladesh’s law is explicit: Individuals cannot be detained for longer than 24 hours without being produced in court. However, Dil Mohammed was detained for over four months before his first court appearance on May 30, flagrantly violating this legal standard. His family members were not informed about his whereabouts in the interim.

The context in which Dil Mohammed was apprehended is even more fraught than it initially appears. The No Man’s Land, also known as “zero point,” had been a sanctuary for just over 4,500 Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution from Myanmar. Eyewitness accounts and desperate messages sent during the RSO-led attack on the NML encampment claim to have seen the presence of the RAB, a special force of the Bangladesh government, adding a deeply troubling layer to this episode. While the RSO was ostensibly the organization behind Mohammed’s abduction, it is widely suspected to have been operating under the instructions of Bangladeshi authorities at the time of the attack.

Dil Mohammed’s own account and those of other displaced Rohingya imply that the RAB were not merely passive observers but potentially active participants in the violence. Sources say Mohammed was handed over to Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion the very same day he was abducted by the RSO. These claims raise disturbing questions about the Bangladesh government’s role in his ordeal.

Furthermore, leaked documents from a high-level meeting of Myanmar’s junta corroborate that the actions taken by Bangladesh in No Man’s Land were part of a coordinated effort between the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments to neutralize another Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). This information brings into sharp relief the geopolitical intricacies that underlie Dil Mohammed’s arrest, and amplify concerns about the complex alliances and governmental involvement in his detention.

Between January and May, there was no official acknowledgment of Dil Mohammed’s status or whereabouts, marking a period of nerve-wracking uncertainty for his family. Curiously, despite the charges against him being submitted as early as November 23, 2022, no immediate action was taken to arrest him. This raises uncomfortable questions, given that Mohammed regularly liaised with the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and other intelligence agencies – entities stationed merely yards from his shelter. Why did it take the destruction of NML, and the ensuing turmoil, to apprehend him?

The severity and breadth of the charges leveled against him only accentuate these questions. Why was he not produced in court promptly in light of such serious accusations?

This protracted, unlawful and incommunicado detention has cast a long shadow over Dil Mohammed’s family, notably his wife and 11 children, who grapple with the emotional turmoil of his uncertain fate. The adverse impact reverberates across the Rohingya community, especially among those who were part of the NML encampment.

The residents of the NML now find themselves scattered across 34 camps, facing unequal treatment. Unlike other refugees, they have not been given smart cards, which are integral for accessing certain services and opportunities. This disparity amplifies their marginalization and exposes the harsh realities they endure. In addition, families grappling with loss and trauma due to the attacks of November 2022 and January 2023 remain unsupported and unattended, adding insult to injury.

The arrest and extended detention of Dil Mohammed is not just a singular event but sits uncomfortably within a broader context of arbitrary arrests and detentions in Bangladesh. It’s worth noting that Bangladesh is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which under Article 9 safeguards the right to liberty, a right that extends to migrants and refugees. According to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, these rights should apply “without discrimination between citizens and aliens,” including refugees like Dil Mohammed.

Recent international scrutiny has heightened these concerns. Five U.N. Special Rapporteurs, in conjunction with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, have explicitly written to the Bangladesh government, voicing concerns about the use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests in their policing of demonstrations by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) between July and December 2022. Beyond this, U.N. experts have called upon Bangladesh to cease reprisals against human rights defenders and relatives of forcibly disappeared persons, citing a campaign of threats, intimidation, and harassment against these groups. Such patterns of behavior, including raids on the homes of relatives of forcibly disappeared individuals, expose an increasingly challenging environment for human rights activism in Bangladesh. The experts caution that these reprisals could have a chilling effect, deterring public discourse on issues including human rights.

In this challenging climate, the case of Dil Mohammed assumes an even more unsettling resonance. A psychology graduate from Yangon University, Mohammed evolved from a businessman into an influential advocate, liaising with international figures such as Nobel Prize laureates and Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee. His plight, however, reveals deep fissures in the rule of law in Bangladesh.

A Bangladeshi legal expert who wished to remain anonymous told me that “the treatment of Dil Mohammed casts a severe indictment on the Bangladesh government’s actions, not merely as a breach of international law but a violation of its own constitution. From the 24-hour rule to preventing torture and custodial deaths, the state has acted in stark opposition to its own directives and international commitments.” Such actions raise critical questions about the government’s sincerity and compliance with the rule of law.

The legal expert poignantly continued, “In the case of Dil Mohammed, and others from NML incarcerated in a similar fashion, the government potentially stands accused of committing crimes against  genocide survivors. Given the magnitude of this issue and the implications for human rights, Dil Mohammed’s case merits nothing less than immediate international attention.”