External Affairs

Anatomy of a Disappearance, and a Reappearance

File photo of BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed (Credit: Daily Star)

File photo of BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed (Credit: Daily Star)

Dhaka: A week ago, Salahuddin Ahmed, a joint general secretary of Bangladesh’s main opposition party who had been ‘missing’ for two months after allegedly being picked up by his country’s law enforcement authorities in the capital city of Dhaka, suddenly ‘appeared’ in the Indian city of Shillong.

The Bangladesh Nationalist party leader is now in police detention, under treatment at a local hospital, accused of illegal entry under the Foreigners Act.

Bangladesh’s Awami League government, which has all along denied any involvement in the disappearance of the former minister, claims that his sudden appearance in India proves that Salahuddin had never been picked up by law enforcement agencies and was simply absconding from criminal cases that he faces.

‘This entire episode was a stage managed drama by the BNP to try and discredit our Awami League Government,’ stated the Prime Minister’s son in a Facebook post after the BNP leader turned up in India.

A more detailed version of the government’s narrative was presented by an un-named ‘senior intelligence officer’ in a pro-Awami League news website, who claimed that over the last two months Salahuddin had been trying ‘to cross the border from different areas of [the] country but because of strict monitoring of the border he had failed’.

This intelligence officer went on to state that in the third week of April – that is to say over two weeks before Salahuddin appeared in Shillong – the BNP leader ‘entered Meghalaya through Sylhet’s Jokiganj with the help of an agent’ and that his plan to go from Meghalaya to Nepal had to be scrapped because of the earthquake.

The BNP leader himself, who faces the prospect of up to 5 years prison in India or extradition back to Bangladesh where he has been named in a number of criminal cases, has not yet gone public on his past two months. However, in snatched conversations in the corridors of the Shillong hospital, he has told reporters that he found himself in the hill city after being kidnapped, blindfolded and dumped.

The BNP, which over the past two months has strongly asserted that its joint general secretary had been in the custody of the law enforcing agencies is, like Salahuddin, also saying very little. The party is apparently concerned not to prejudice what they see as his precarious legal situation, and no doubt for the same reason, his wife, who has now seen Salahuddin a few times in hospital, is also keeping her lips tightly sealed.

So what is this all about? How did an important Bangladesh opposition leader turn up in Shillong without any legal papers alleging that he had been kidnapped and dumped there?

Although there are significant elements of this whole story that we will only know when, or if, Salahuddin decides to go public, there is much that is already known which strongly points to the BNP leader having been picked up two months ago by Bangladesh law enforcement agencies and kept illegally in their custody

It is, therefore, difficult to see what other explanation there can be for the BNP leader’s presence in India other than that he was taken there by Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies — or by others acting on their behalf.

How the story begins

The story starts on 5 January 2015, the first anniversary of Bangladesh’s disputed national elections, when Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, called a non-stop blockade after the Awami League government had refused to allow the party to hold a public meeting in Dhaka.

Fearing immediate detention, a significant number of opposition party leaders, moved out of their family homes.

One such person was Salahuddin, a BNP joint general secretary, who moved into a flat of a friend who lived in Gulshan, one of the swisher parts of Dhaka. This friend, Shahidul Islam, who like Salahuddin was from Chittagong, was also director of the First Security Islami Bank whose head office is in a building owned by the BNP leader himself. The flat owner was also the brother of the chairman of the bank.

BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed’s wife Hasina Ahmed meets party chief Khaleda Zia at her Dhaka office (Credit: Asaduzzaman Pramanik/ bdnews24.com)

BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed’s wife Hasina Ahmed meets party chief Khaleda Zia at her Dhaka office (Credit: Asaduzzaman Pramanik/ bdnews24.com)

What followed from Khaleda’s announcement on 5 January was two months of country-wide disruption and violence. In that period, over 70 civilians were burnt to death apparently from the activities of opposition pickets and, in response over 40 opposition activists were killed by law enforcement authorities, many in alleged ‘cross fire’.

After a few weeks of country-wide shutdown, Salahuddin’s significance within the BNP skyrocketed. It’s then spokesperson, Rizvi Ahmed, whose job since the middle of January had been to issue press releases to the media and who had also been ‘in hiding’, was arrested by the law enforcement authorities.

And in his place, Khaleda Zia appointed Salahuddin.

The new BNP spokesperson continued to operate out of the Gulshan flat, but around March 6 —four days before his alleged pick up — fearing that his location was now not safe, he moved to a new flat in Uttara, on the outskirts of Dhaka.

This flat was rented by another friend of his from Chittagong, Habib Hasnat who was also the Deputy Managing Director of the First Security Islami Bank, the bank whose head office building Salahuddin owned, and whose director had owned the flat where the BNP leader had been hiding earlier.

Desperately seeking Salahuddin

The BNP’s main spokesperson, Rizvi Ahmed had been detained at 2.30 am on January 31 by a Bangladesh law enforcement agency called the Rapid Action Battalion – a highly identifiable paramilitary organization many of whose members wear black uniforms with black bandanas around their heads, and who drive around Dhaka in black pick up trucks.

File photo of R.A.B. personnel by Tanvir658

File photo of R.A.B. personnel (Credit: Wiki Images)

It should therefore come as no surprise that after Rizvi’s detention it was this agency that desperately went looking for Salahuddin.

It is not known what operations RAB undertook during the month of February in their search for the BNP leader, but the New Age newspaper has reported on a series of significant raids and arrests that started in the early hours of March 8.

In the early hours of March 8 — two days before Salahuddin was allegedly picked up from the Uttara flat – independent eyewitnesses confirm that RAB raided five different buildings in Dhaka in the course of which they arrested four people, three of whom were the BNP leader’s own employees.

Between 1 and 2 am, the battalion officers first arrested two of Salahuddin’s drivers from their homes. It is likely that on the basis of information that RAB obtained from these two men, it then raided a block of flats in Gulshan in one of which Salahuddin had been staying until a few days earlier. At the time of the raid, the only person present in this particular flat was a 70 year old cook. And RAB arrested him.

And the fourth person arrested from his home in the early morning hours was a personal assistant to Salahuddin, one of whose responsibilities was to look after the maintenance of the head office building of First Security Islami Bank on behalf of his boss.

All these four men were subsequently arrested on charges of ‘harbouring’ the BNP leader. Despite three applications for bail, they remain in Dhaka jail.

One further building was raided that morning – the Gulshan head office of First Security Islami Bank. ‘About half of the men were in the black RAB uniform, with black bands around their heads and the other half were in plain clothes,’ said one person who saw them arrive.

The RAB officer demanded to be taken to the board room of the bank which was on the sixth floor as they had information Salahuddin was hiding there. It was locked, and no one at the bank had keys. The bank’s duty officer was woken up and ordered to come to the bank. When he came, they found the board room empty. After looking at a few other floors, the dozen or so officers left.

Later in the morning, a RAB officer returned to the bank. He was seen taking away the bank’s digital video recorder and CPU, which were linked to the bank’s CCTV cameras. The surveillance equipment was returned to the bank some days later. It is not clear whether RAB took the CCTV equipment to check whether Salahuddin was hiding in the bank’s premises or to delete evidence that the law enforcement officials had been present in the bank earlier that morning.

The pick up

With its raid on First Security Islami Bank, RAB appears to have been circling in on Salahuddin.

Two days later, on the night of 10 March, a RAB vehicle was seen in sector 3 in Uttara. It stopped outside the office of the local Kalyan Samity which provides security in the area. ‘It was between 9:00 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. on that night [March 10] when a patrol-van carrying RAB personnel stopped in front of the Kalyan Samity office,’ a middle-aged security guard said. ‘I greeted them and one of them asked me about the location of road 13/B,’ the security guard added. ‘I showed them the way and they drove in that direction. Four or five men in uniform were in the rear of the black pickup while two were in front.’

Located in road 13/B was the flat rented by Habib Hasnat, a deputy managing director of First Security Islami Bank, and where Salahuddin was then holed up.

Other local residents also confirm that they saw a number of different law enforcement vehicles in and around this road.

At about 9.30 p.m., one of the guards to the house where Salahuddin was staying was cooking his dinner, when a handful of men entered a small opening in the large security gates.

‘I challenged them and asked what they wanted, but they shouted back, “Shut up. Don’t say anything. We are from the detective branch,’’’ the guard said. ‘They pulled up their shirts and showed their detective branch badge attached to their belts, and I could also see two pistols,’ he said. ‘They said that they had information that an accused person was living on the second floor,’

A few of the men went upstairs to a flat on the first floor and 30 minutes later brought down a man, blindfolded, and put him in a vehicle outside. The caretaker gave this statement over the next few days to a number of newspapers, and his interview has been recorded and filmed.

Habib Hasnat and his wife took the first flight out of Bangladesh early the next morning on 11 March, the day after Salahuddin was taken away from his flat. According to politician’s wife, Habib called her from Dubai airport and told her that her husband had been taken away by law enforcement authorities.

Shahidul Islam, the owner of the first flat where Salahuddin had hidden, is also believed to have left Bangladesh soon after the alleged pick-up, though he is now back in Bangladesh.

RAB’s denial

The government, RAB, the detective branch and other law enforcement authorities have all denied any involvement in Salahuddin’s pick up, and claim that for the last two months they have been looking for him.

In relation to the arrest on March 8 of the BNP leader’s three employees and the cook belonging to the flat where Salahuddin first stayed, Lieutenant Colonel Tuhin Mohammad Masud, the Rapid Action Battalion-1 commanding officer admitted that RAB was involved and that it ‘had been looking for [Salah Uddin] before [10 March]’

However, he said he could not remember whether RAB was involved in a raid on the headquarters of First Security Islami Bank. The director of RAB’s legal and media wing, Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan also stated that he did not know whether such a raid had been conducted. ‘March 8 is a long time ago to remember what happened’ he said a few weeks ago.

About RAB personnel and vehicles being seen around road 13/B in sector 3 of Uttara on the night of March 10, the RAB commander said, ‘I did not send anyone there [road 13/B].’

The officer-in-charge of Uttara West police station says that the caretaker of the building did not tell him that law enforcement personnel were involved.

The precedent

If precedent is anything to go by, one should not be surprised that evidence strongly points to Bangladesh law enforcement being involved in the illegal pick up of Salahuddin. Bangladesh’s human rights organisations report dozens of disappearances each year allegedly undertaken by law enforcement authorities, many of them involving opposition activists

Just before the January 5 2014 national elections, which the BNP boycotted, 19 party activists were picked up in a single two-week period in the city of Dhaka in 8 separate incidents. In each of these cases, eyewitnesses confirm that law enforcement personnel – most often RAB and detective branch officers – were involved, though the state agencies deny this. The whereabouts of all of these activists continue to remain unknown.

However, there is another key precedent important to understanding how Salahuddin found himself in Shillong.

File photo of Sukhranjan Bali

File photo of Sukhranjan Bali

On February 5, 2012, a man called Sukhranjan Bali, was allegedly picked up by law enforcement personal from outside the gates of the International Crimes Tribunal on the morning that he hoped to give evidence on behalf of one of the men accused of war crimes during the 1971 war. His defence lawyers claimed that law enforcement officials, who introduced themselves as detective branch officers, took him away. The police, and tribunal prosecutors, roundly denied that any such thing had happened, and blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami for creating a drama to discredit the tribunal.

Seven months later, Bali was found detained in an Indian jail, having been convicted for an offence under the Foreigners Act. In a statement he gave from the jail, which was reported in the Bangladeshi newspaper New Age, Bali confirmed that he was picked up from outside the court gates by law enforcement officials and kept for six weeks in a place that he thought was an office of the detective branch. He says that he was then driven to the India border, blindfolded and handed over to India’s Border Security Force.

“They stopped the car in Magura at a hotel to provide me with food. They removed the blindfold and I found out that I was brought there in a private car. After I finished my meal, I was again blindfolded and we were driving again and they finally handed me over to the BSF about 5:00pm and then they left,” he says in his statement.

It seems quite possible that Bangladesh’s law enforcement personnel used a similar modus operandi to the one they used for Bali.

India’s dilemma

What happens next? For the Indian government, with its strong alliance with the current Awami League government, the appearance of a senior Bangladesh opposition leader without any legal papers in one of its border cities is no doubt something that they would prefer not to have to deal with. Whilst the Indian government would not want anything to happen that could embarrass its ally, at the same time, one imagines, it would rather not do something that suggests complicity in a disappearance which is the responsibility of another government.

Assuming the police and the courts in Shillong are allowed to act independently, what decision they take depends very much on whether the BNP, and Salahuddin, are willing to tell the full story. If the party and Salahuddin were to do this, it is difficult to see how the courts in good faith could convict him under the Foreigners Act.

However, to do so is a risk. Speaking openly would seriously embarrass the Bangladesh government. And if the Indian government does decide to send him back to Bangladesh, his outspokenness will likely result in him being detained in jail for a long time without bail.

What the BNP may be hoping for is a deal where Salahuddin is sent to a third country and agrees to keep his silence about what happened. This would be good for both the Bangladesh and Indian governments and for Salahuddin – though not for those concerned about getting to the truth of the Bangladesh law enforcement’s seeming propensity to illegally pick up the government’s political enemies.

David Bergman and Muktadir Rashid are journalists based at the Bangladesh national newspaper, The New Age. Bergman also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs.