Samiha Zaman says she will always remember December 4, 2017 as the most agonising day she has ever lived. That day, she returned home to Bangladesh after a month-long vacation in Europe with her only sister. Her father, Maroof Zaman, a former Bangladeshi diplomat, was supposed to pick her up from the airport, but he never showed up. Samiha Zaman waited for nearly two hours and then took a cab home. She found her father’s room in disarray and their two housemaids distressed.
One of the maids told her Maroof Zaman had left their home in Dhaka for the airport, some 17 km away, at around 6.20 pm. At around 7.45 pm, he called the residence from a “masked number” and told the maids a few people would be coming by to take his electronic devices. Three men subsequently arrived at around 8 pm and took away his laptop, home computer, camera and spare smartphones. They showed no identification. What is more, they wore caps and surgical masks to conceal their faces from the building’s CCTV cameras.
Samiha Zaman waited the night for her father to return and filed a missing persons complaint the next day. The police took the report and that was it. There has been no progress in the investigation in the past year. The police’s inability to find Maroof Zaman has frustrated his family, haunted by questions about his disappearance. “No one seems to care a person is missing for over a year,” Samiha Zaman said. “We have received no help from the law enforcers. None whatsoever.”
His family allege that Maroof Zaman was kidnapped by government agents. “It appears he was abducted by professional people who later came to our home to seize his laptops and other devices,” said his elder daughter Shabnam Zaman. “I say professional because they knew how to hide from CCTV cameras.”
But why would the government abduct him? “All he ever did was share a few anti-government posts on Facebook,” said Shabnam Zaman, who is studying for a PhD in Belgium. “He didn’t even write those posts, he just shared them.”
She cannot think of any other reason for her father’s disappearance, Shabnam Zaman maintained.
Mohammad Abdul Latif, head of the police station where the complaint was filed, claimed they are “still investigating” the matter. But he could not provide any details about the sort of investigation they are conducting.
‘All signs of an abduction’
Maroof Zaman was Bangladesh’s former ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam. Though he had never been politically active or charged with any offence, he was recalled from his last post as soon as the Sheikh Hasina government took over in January 2009, and then forcibly retired as an additional secretary in the foreign ministry.
Before starting his career as a diplomat, he had briefly served in the country’s army, joining in 1977 and taking early medical retirement in 1982.
His family and friends describe Maroof Zaman, who was 61 at the time of his disappearance, as a “modest gentleman” who never participated in politics “or similar activities”. He was, however, perceived to be “anti-Awami League”, mainly because he was appointed ambassador by the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party government.
It is unfortunate, Shabnam Zaman said, that “there has been no statement regarding this matter from the Government of Bangladesh, which has not only failed to prioritise the investigation, but refused to even acknowledge Zaman’s case in any way”.
An old friend of Maroof Zaman who asked to remain anonymous claimed that the former diplomat’s disappearance “has all signs of a state-sponsored abduction”. The friend added: “It is not surprising the local police has practically refrained from advancing any investigation in the matter.”
As to the possible motive, he explained that Maroof Zaman held “important postings during the BNP era”. He explained: “May be someone in the current government perceived him to be a threat since he had diplomatic connections in different countries.”
‘Intolerant of any criticism’
Interestingly, around the same time Maroof Zaman disappeared, a renowned academic and a journalist were abducted in broad daylight from Dhaka. The academic, Mubashar Hasan, had written scholarly articles on political Islam and militancy, while the journalist, Utpal Das, had written about Bangladesh’s armed forces. Hasan and Das were missing for 44 and 71 days, respectively, before reappearing in the last week of December 2017. They told strikingly similar stories: both were kidnapped by four or five “unidentified abductors”, whisked into vehicles and held in solitary confinement. They were eventually blindfolded and dropped off on a highway in the capital. However, they have said little else about their ordeal.
The human rights lawyer Shahdeen Malik believes these abductions of “seemingly ordinary citizens” were intended to create a chilling effect. “Whoever did it wanted to send out a message that there will be no room for dissenters against the government,” he claimed.
Josef Benedict, a civil rights activist, said Maroof Zaman’s “continued disappearance”, allegedly by security officials, is extremely disturbing. “Enforced disappearance is a serious crime and for over a year his family has suffered the unbearable agony of not knowing if he is dead or alive,” he said. “We call on Bangladeshi authorities to redouble their investigation efforts into determining the fate and whereabouts of Zaman and bring those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice. Failing to do so will entrench the climate of impunity within the security services and leave his family with continued uncertainty.”
According to the human rights group Odhikar, Bangladesh witnessed at least 486 enforced disappearances between January 2009 and October this year. Activists, however, believe the actual number could be three or four times higher.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that “enforced disappearances” have created a climate of fear in Bangladesh. “Earlier people used to say they worry about ‘crossfire’,” she added. “Now they also fear they will be disappeared. The Sheikh Hasina government has become increasingly authoritarian, intolerant of any criticism.”
On November 15, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling upon Bangladesh “to conduct independent reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and excessive use of force…and to bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards”. It explicitly highlights Maroof Zaman’s disappearance.
Benedict contended that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dhaka has an obligation “to end this cruel practice which violates a number of rights in the covenant, including the right to liberty and security of person, the right to a fair trial and, in particular cases, the right to life”.
“As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ends her term in office, she should establish an independent body to investigate and resolve these cases, bring the perpetrators to account, including those with command responsibility,” he added. “Bangladesh should also ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.”
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.