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)

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)

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)

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.