View from Bangladesh

Sheikh Hasina’s son says no enforced disappearances in Bangladesh – never mind the evidence

But Sajeeb Wazed Joy’s claims fall flat in the face of eyewitness accounts, Hasina aide’s admission.

Before United States President Donald Trump, Bangladesh was among the countries that led the way in high-profile political propagandists willing to say just about anything – however inaccurate, false or misleading – as long as it helped them or their party remain in power.

With the Awami League in government since 2009, perhaps the most potent of Bangladesh’s propagandists is Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He is active mostly through his Facebook account, where he has over 2 million followers.

Sajeeb Wazed – known widely by his family nickname Joy – is also the Awami League’s leader in waiting, ready to take control of the party from his mother when the time comes (though he may have to fight off other ambitious relatives waiting in the wings).

Joy has spread propaganda inaccurately about many things, including a supposed Bangladesh Nationalist Party plot to kill him, a Canadian court’s decision apparently exonerating Bangladesh of corruption and reasons why an editor should be prosecuted for treason.

Yet, the falsehoods and misrepresentations found in these Facebook posts now seem tame in comparison to his most recent big lie – his claim that in the nine years the Awami League has been in power, no state body has been involved in enforced disappearances.

In an article published in the Diplomat on May 23, Joy argues that any claim that the government is involved in kidnapping “hundreds – and possibly thousands – of citizens for nefarious reasons, mostly political… is false and reckless”. He says the allegations are “false rumours” spread by the main Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and that “the world should reject the fairy tale of Bangladesh disappearances as the lie that it is”. According to him, the police have “investigated every instance of a reported disappearance” and these investigations have not uncovered “any evidence that suggests the government is behind them”. Instead, he says the police have located many of the disappeared, who where “in hiding” as they “were wanted by Bangladeshi authorities for violent felonies, including the rampant fire bombings around the time of the last national election”.

Barely a single word of this is true.

Eyewitness testimony

In making this claim, Joy is contesting the work of local and international human rights organisations – as well as many journalists – that since 2009 have documented over 400 cases of illegal pick-ups and secret detentions. (It is notable that Joy seeks to ridicule the claim about secret detentions by falsely suggesting there are allegations of thousands of such detentions, when the number alleged remains in the hundreds.)

Joy suggests the men who disappeared have gone into hiding. But if that were the case, why is there so much eyewitness evidence pointing to the direct involvement of the country’s law enforcement agencies in their disappearance?

In a two-week period at the end of 2013, just before the country’s parliamentary elections, 19 men, all activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, were picked up in and around the capital Dhaka in seven separate operations. They remain missing.

In each of the seven incidents, eyewitnesses testified that law enforcement agencies were involved. Detailed interviews with these witnesses confirmed that the Rapid Action Battalion – the anti-crime, anti-terrorism paramilitary unit of the Bangladesh Police – was involved in two operations related to the kidnapping of eight men while the Detective Branch of the police had picked up six men.

In August 2016, the sons of three Opposition leaders were picked up in Dhaka. Again, multiple witnesses in each of these cases confirmed the involvement of law enforcement agencies.

And in June 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report – researched by this reporter – that documented many other disappearances where eyewitnesses confirm the involvement of these agencies.

Eyewitnesses have testified of the involvement of the Rapid Action Battalion and the Detective Branch of the police in the detentions. (Credit: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP)
Eyewitnesses have testified of the involvement of the Rapid Action Battalion and the Detective Branch of the police in the detentions. (Credit: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP)

Criminal cases

Joy argued in the Diplomat article that the men who had disappeared were seeking to escape arrest for criminal cases. However, the majority of the men who were picked up and secretly detained did not have criminal cases lodged against them.

For example, of the 19 who disappeared at the end of 2013, at least 10 did not face criminal cases. Of the three men picked up in August 2016, two – Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem and Brigadier General Abdullahil Amaan Azmi – had no criminal cases lodged against them. And Humman Quader Chowdhury was picked up when he was on his way to court for a hearing in a case filed under the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006, the only criminal case against him.

Police investigation

Joy also claims that police investigations have exonerated state agencies of involvement in the disappearances.

This is perhaps his most extraordinary assertion, as in perhaps 90% of cases, the police do not allow the families to even file a first information report where they may seek to allege that their relatives were picked up by state agencies. The only document the police allow the families to file is a “missing person report” in which they are required to state that their relatives went missing after leaving home at a particular time, even if the family knows perfectly well they were picked up by state agencies. The refusal of the police to accept complaints by families of the disappeared is set out in case after case in the Human Rights Watch report.

Only one of the seven incidents – referred to above – that involved the disappearance of six persons at the end of 2013 is known to have resulted in some kind of police investigation. However, this inquiry was farcical.

The police only investigated the case of one of the six men, did not seek to interview any of the eyewitnesses who saw officers and vehicles of the Rapid Action Battalion pick the men up, and concluded that the man had been abducted by “an organised criminal gang”.

Family members of the missing at an event calling for an end to enforced disappearances, killings and abductions in Dhaka in 2014. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)
Family members of the missing at an event calling for an end to enforced disappearances, killings and abductions in Dhaka in 2014. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

Specific disappearances

Joy’s article also refers to a number of specific disappearances, which he suggests are “comical”. One of these is the abduction in March 2015 of Salahuddin Ahmed, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader, who he claims was in fact “hiding in India”. However, there is a wealth of evidence that Ahmed was picked up in Dhaka by Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies, secretly detained for six weeks and pushed over the Indian border.

Three days before Ahmed was picked him, two of his drivers and his personal assistant were taken from their homes and secretly detained for 48 hours before being arrested. Officers from the Rapid Action Battalion then raided a flat where Ahmed had been living until a few days earlier as well as the headquarters of a bank located in premises owned by him. The caretaker of the building from where Ahmed was finally taken told reporters that law enforcement authorities had entered the flat where Ahmed was living and had taken him away.

Ahmed’s appearance across the Indian border should also come as no surprise. This was exactly what Bangladeshi authorities did in 2013 after picking up and secretly detaining Sukhranjan Bali, a witness in the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka that is trying war criminals from the time of the 1971 Liberation War.

Another case Joy refers to is the disappearance of the businessman and Opposition police leader Syed Sadat Ahmed in August 2016. According to Ahmed’s family, he was picked up by men who introduced themselves as law enforcement officers. Joy suggests this is spurious as Ahmed was wanted in connection with an arson attack but was “miraculously found, unharmed” by the police.

However, what happened to Ahmed is common practice.

While many of the disappeared never return or their bodies are subsequently found, about half of them are secretly detained for various lengths of time – usually several months – before being brought to the magistrate court, where a police officer falsely claims the police detained the person the night before in connection with an existing or new case. Even when the accused tells the magistrate that this is not true, the magistrate routinely remands the person into custody.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's aide has claimed that she authorised a number of secret detentions. (Credit: Reuters)
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's aide has claimed that she authorised a number of secret detentions. (Credit: Reuters)

Sheikh Hasina’s authorisation

While there is no need for additional evidence of the systematic practice of disappearances in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s senior political aide provided more of it by confirming to this reporter the role of the Rapid Action Battalion and the Detective Branch of the police in the secret detentions.

“The most active used to be RAB [Rapid Action Battalion], then they felt that RAB was getting a very bad reputation, then they said ok let the DB [Detective Branch] do it,” said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Then DB started these so called encounters and shootouts, things like that so what RAB was doing DB also started doing, they were also sanctioned to do it. So there was not much difference between the two of them.”

The aide also said he knew the prime minister had authorised a number of secret detentions, including that of Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem.

Perhaps Joy should talk more to his mother before publishing spurious and inaccurate information about the country’s record on enforced disappearances.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.