Dhaka: Why are the sons of two Bangladesh opposition politicians being secretly detained by the country’s law enforcement authorities, and what will happen to them?
Over two weeks ago, on the morning of August 4, 33-year-old businessman Hummam Quader Chowdhury, the son of the late Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was taken from his car as it stopped at traffic lights close to the magistrate’s court in Old Dhaka.
Six days later, 32-year-old Supreme Court lawyer Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, the son of Mir Quasem Ali, leader of the other main opposition party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was also picked up by law enforcement authorities from his house late at night.
Bangladesh’s various policing and intelligence bodies all deny knowledge or involvement in the pick ups of the two men and their continuing unlawful detention. The Wire, however, has confirmed that both men are being held in state custody, and also that Bangladeshi authorities have informed the US government of their detentions.
It should of course be of no surprise that the state agencies deny knowledge of their detention, as to do so would be to admit that they are operating outside the law. The Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 requires the police to bring the men to court within 24 hours of detention, and only detain them further following a magistrate’s order – none of which has happened.
Secret detentions are no longer uncommon in Bangladesh. Before the cases of Chowdhury and Quasem, this practice most recently gained international media attention following (as reported by The Wire) the month long detentions of Hasnat Karim and Tahmid Khan who were diners at the Holey Artisan Bakery when it was attacked by militants on July 1.
Human rights organisation Ain-O-Salish Kendra reports that in the first seven months of the year 60 people secretly detained by law enforcement authorities – whilst Odhikar identified 48 such cases until June. Both these figures are likely to be a significant underestimate of the true number as many cases go unreported.
The reason for Chowdhury and Quasem’s secret detention
The unlawful confinement of Chowdhury and Quasem is not in doubt – but why were they picked up by the authorities?
Somewhat extraordinarily, The Wire has come to know that their detention was triggered by a decision by the country’s highest court to adjourn proceedings involving Quasem’s father.
The fathers of both Chowdhury and Quasem are not just leaders of opposition parties, but men convicted at the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971.
Whilst Salauddin, Chowdhury’s father, has already been executed earlier this year (following a controversial trial at the ICT in which key witnesses were not allowed to provide oral or written testimony), the final decision on whether or not to execute Quasem’s father Mir Ali is still in the hands of the appellate division.
In November 2014, the ICT had convicted Ali of crimes against humanity, and earlier this year the appellate division had upheld its sentence of execution (a decision criticised by human rights organisations). But Ali had one further avenue to reverse this decision – a ‘review’ application to the same appellate court.
The court was due to hear this application on July 25, but on that day, Ali’s lawyers sought an adjournment for two further months to allow them more time for preparation. The appellate division granted one month’s deferment until August 24.
The government was not happy with this decision, claiming that the court had not given such long adjournments in previous ‘review’ cases involving the other five war crimes convicts.
At the cabinet meeting held later that day, ministers set out their “concern over the Appellate Division’s decision” and “expressed fears that the convicted Jamaat leader would now give away more money and his followers might plan extremist attacks during the time to disturb the country’s stability”.
It was also reported that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had told ministers that that new terror attacks were being planned and that “their goal” was “to free Mir Quasem [Ali]”. Ministers told the paper that Ali, “considered a top financier of Jamaat, could spend a huge sum of money on terror activities to foil the hearing of his review petition at the Supreme Court”.
The reported claims of the prime minister and her ministers were reflected in an article, published at the same time in the pro-government and cabinet minister-owned newspaper The Daily Ittefaq. Titled ‘Gulshan attacks to disrupt war criminals’ trial’, the report stated that militants responsible for the Holey attack on July 1 , in which 20 people were killed, had “planned to put pressure on the government and free the war criminals now under trial”, including stopping “the possible execution of high-profile Jammat leader Mir Quasem Ali”. The report quoted the home minister as stating that the militant attack was, in part, “aimed to foil the trial and execution of the notorious war criminals … to set Mir Quasem free”.
No basis was given for these allegations apart from broad claims by anonymous intelligence officials that Ali’s “fortune … is the hotbed for recruitment of militants into other homegrown terrorist outfits”.
In seeking to buttress its claim of Ali’s financial support for militancy, the article repeated the inaccurate allegation, widely cited in the country’s newspapers, that the Jammat leader “struck a $25 million deal with one of the most influential US lobby firms, Cassidy & Associates,” to campaign against the war crimes trial. Official documentation – rather than a forged contract – shows that the true sum was less much less.
However, it is not what is true that is relevant. What is important is what the Bangladesh government and its intelligence agencies believe to be true – and this was that there was a conspiracy between Ali’s son and Chowdhury, the son of the executed BNP leader, to use the adjournment period to stop Ali’s execution.
So, as a precautionary measure the two men were detained.
Linking current militancy to the opposition
But the detention of the two men has also provided an opportunity to the government and law enforcement agencies to try and directly link together the opposition parties, the war crimes trials and the ongoing deadly militancy – something which they have long been trying to do.
Ever since the killing of 50-year-old Italian citizen Cesare Tavella on September 28, 2015, the first murder claimed by ISIS in Bangladesh, the government has said the opposition parties are responsible.
Three days after Tavella’s murder, Hasina said: “I saw suspicious activities of a BNP leader after the murder [of the Italian]. I think the clue to the murder will be found if the BNP leader is grilled. I’ll take measures in this regard after returning home.”
The second killing claimed by ISIS was the murder five days later on October 3 of 66-year-old Japanese citizen Hoshi Kunio. The next day the prime minister again alleged that, “[The BNP-Jamaat] must’ve had a hand in these [killings]. There’s no doubt about it”.
Following these two murders, ISIS claimed responsibility for a string of further killings, for which Hasina continued to blame the opposition parties, suggesting in May 2016 that they were done to “foil the war crimes trials”.
A month later, just weeks before the Holey attack, and the day after the murder of Hindu priest Ananta Gopal Ganguly, Hasina re-emphasised her view that the two opposition parties were responsible for this stream of murders. “Those who are committing these targeted killings somehow have links with these two parties …. As the head of the government I have the information about their linkage with the secret killings and we never say anything without fact,” she said.
However, to the government’s annoyance, it has not been able to substantiate these allegations against the opposition.
The secret detentions of Quasem and Chowdhury are in part an attempt to do just that.
What will happen to Chowdhury and Quasem?
Secret detentions in Bangladesh result in a number of different outcomes.
At the extreme end, many detainees are never returned, almost certainly killed by law enforcement authorities. An example of such disappearances are the 19 BNP opposition activists picked up in and around Dhaka over a two week period just before the controversial January 2014 election. Out of Odhikar’s 48 disappearances, 12 have not yet been returned and may well have suffered the same fate.
Some secret detainees are not disappeared but instead, after a period of time in state custody, killed by law enforcement authorities in alleged ‘shoot-outs’. Out of Odhikar’s figure of secret detainees from January to June this year, eight were found dead.
However, a small number of secret detainees are simply released, with threats of not to speak about what happened.
An example of this is A.B. Siddique, the husband of environmental activist Rezwana Hasan, who was picked up on April 16, 2014 and released two days later on the streets of Dhaka. In addition, three BNP activists, picked up along with the 19 disappeared men from the BNP mentioned above, were also freed on the outskirts of Dhaka.
Occasionally, secret detainees are not released in Bangladesh – but into India. This happened with both Sukhranjan Bali, a witness to the ICT, and Salauddin Ahmed, a senior opposition leader, who, in separate incidents, were first held by Bangladesh law enforcement agencies and released into India after some weeks, where they were arrested by the Indian authorities for illegal entry.
However, the most common outcome for secret detainees is for the law enforcement agencies to bring the men to the magistrate court, concoct a false story that they were arrested a day earlier in relation to the commission of a particular offence or on suspicion of committing an offence and apply for a court order remanding them in police custody. In such cases, the courts go along with the police fiction and remand the men into further police custody.
This, for example, is what happened to four men detained over Tavella’s death and, more recently, to the two men detained over the Holey attack – with the police pretending in each case that they had arrested the men on the streets of Dhaka and then obtaining an order from the court remanding them into police custody. This has also happened in relation to 29 of the 48 Odhikar cases.
This process is akin to whitening black money. Once the illegally detained men are brought to court and remanded into custody, the previous illegal custody gets ‘wiped clean’. With a court order, the men are now legally detained – and it is as though the secret detention never happened.
This is what is most likely to happen to Quasem. Soon after the execution of Ali, the authorities will probably announce that he was detained earlier that day, name him in a case relating to militant financing, and the court will then remand him into police custody.
Although the same could happen to Chowdhury, he may escape a link to a new case since he is already facing imprisonment for the commission of a ‘cyber-crime’ involving the leaking of the draft judgment relating to his father’s war crimes conviction. The decision in that case is due to be made on August 28, and if the court convicts him and imposes a sentence of imprisonment, Chowdhury may well be released from his secret detention by the state agencies, only to be detained again to serve out his sentence for this offence.
And the ‘whitening’ of the state’s illegal detentions will be complete.