Earlier this month, Bangladesh captured international headlines as an enormous fire ripped through an informal settlement in Dhaka’s Mirpur area. Thousands of people became homeless overnight. Already, questions are beginning to be asked about the circumstances surrounding the blaze and the control pro-government groups exerted over the settlement, charging residents disproportionately high sums of money to provide them with illegal electricity and water connections.

Even as groups like these have helped Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League to consolidate power over their ten-year reign, Bangladesh has been hailed as a welcoming host for Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.

What can these two separate events tell us about Bangladesh’s disappeared, murdered or traumatised human rights activists?

The enforced disappearances in Bangladesh of activists, political dissidents and journalists are well documented. According to Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar, more than 500 people have disappeared in the country since 2009: 62 of them have been found dead and 159 are still missing.

Testimonial evidence often alleges that state forces or groups controlled by the state abduct activists in broad daylight. The victims include Michael Chakma an indigenous rights activist who went missing in April; Mubashar Hasan, an academic who was abducted for a month in broad daylight on in November 2017; and Ilias Ali an opposition Bangladesh National Party activist who disappeared in April 2012 after openly criticising the Bangladeshi government’s inaction on the construction of a controversial Indian dam in Manipur that would impact communities on the border between the two nations. Such disappearances are frequent before and during elections, international human rights groups claim.

The United Nation’s Working Group on Enforced Disappearance has repeatedly highlighted Bangladesh’s lack of response to its queries about specific cases of abduction. The Working Group is yet to be allowed to visit the country since first requesting access in 2013. Despite international condemnation by human rights groups, the government only recently agreed to participate in a United Nations Committee Against Torture review of its practices to prevent torture. Yet, this is little comfort for the families of the disappeared. Many fear that the wait for justice will be long.

Refugee crisis

At the same time, Bangladesh’s acceptance of over 900,000 Rohingya refugees have given the regime a shield to evade criticism for its human rights abuses. Many families or whole communities of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape a campaign of ethnic cleansing by authorities across the border. As donors and aid agencies flooded in, focus was firmly fixed on the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. The goodwill earned by Bangladesh as it dealt with the influx of Rohingya refugees has given the government space to dismantle the opposition and enfeeble critical civil society groups.

Rohingya children enjoy a carousel ride at a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Credit: AFP

According to the pressure group Mayer Daak (Mother’s Cry), which represents families of disappeared activists, the stories told by victims followed the same disturbing pattern. Activists would be picked up by men in plain clothes – who may or may not have been security agents – and were simply never seen again.

In a series of recent missions to Bangladesh as part of CIVICUS the global alliance for civil society, I met with many victims of enforced disappearances who had returned, as well as the families of those still missing.

When I interviewed victims, they frequently highlighted two key issues. Firstly, many emphasised the role of pro-government groups in supporting Bangladeshi authorities to disappear activists. More often than not, these groups were directly linked to the ruling party. The Chhatra League (the Students’ League) and Jubo League (the Youth League) were cited as playing a vital role in enabling the state to orchestrate a campaign of disappearing government critics. Documentary evidence also highlighted that these pro-government groups frequently perpetrated the most heinous forms of torture against individuals singled out by the state.

Secondly, victims noted that the Rohingya crisis has emboldened the authorities in Bangladesh to carry out brazen human rights violations against the opponents of the ruling party.

A blind eye

As the country bounds towards a one-party state, Bangladesh’s pro-government groups have grown increasingly powerful. The Chhatra League and the Jubo League have become enforcers of violence as the government looks the other way.They are alleged to have been involved in organising violent counter-protests against students in Dhaka in August 2018 and intimidating voters during elections in December the same year.

As the Mirpur fire highlights, the Jubo League were supplying illegal gas, water and electricity to residents, which may have led to the tragedy in the slum. These groups have a hand in everything from utilities, to extortion and political violence. Their growing influence also enables them to perpetrate human rights abuses, including enforced disappearance with complete impunity.

An injured student is taken to the hospital during clashes with pro-government groups while students were protesting traffic accidents that killed a boy and a girl, in Dhaka in August, 2018. Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30 is a moment to reflect upon disappearances across the Asian region. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, a global tool tracking civic space, at least 13 countries in the region documented cases of enforced disappearances over the last year.

In this regional context, Bangladesh emerges as the perfect storm. In the absence of international scrutiny, the state and pro-government groups in Bangladesh will almost certainly rachet up their campaigns of disappearing, torturing and murdering activists until they are held to account. Sadly, their brutal tactics are working.

The psychological trauma suffered by those who do return from abduction is amplified by the ever-present threat of being kidnapped again. While the families of the missing continue their fight for those who are yet to return, the story in Bangladesh remains unchanged. As the fire in Mirpur shows us, it is the most powerless in society who pay the highest price for the Awami League’s iron-grip on power.

Dominic Pereira is a PhD candidate at the University College of London and a human rights researcher for the CIVICUS Monitor.