South Asia

Bangladesh’s Secret Detentions: The Case of the Two Dhaka Attack Hostages

Tahmid Hasib Khan and Hasnat Reza Karim are caught in a turf war between different law enforcement and intelligence agencies as the government tries to justify the month-long detainment of the two men.

Hasnat Reza Karim and Tahmid Hasib Khan are both survivors of the terrorist attack in Dhaka last month, who are now accused of being accomplices to the attackers despite a lack of substantive evidence. Credit: Twitter/UND

Hasnat Reza Karim and Tahmid Hasib Khan are both survivors of the terrorist attack in Dhaka last month, who are now accused of being accomplices to the attackers despite a lack of substantive evidence. Credit: Twitter/UND

Dhaka: A week ago two diners, who were at the up-market restaurant in Dhaka when it was attacked by Islamic militants, were formally arrested by the police on suspicion of being involved in the attack that killed 22 people.

The police said that the two men – 47-year-old Hasnat Reza Karim, a Bangladesh-born UK citizen working as a businessman in Bangladesh and 22-year-old Tahmid Hasib Khan, a Canadian resident studying at Toronto university – were detained that evening on the streets of Dhaka.

The next day, law enforcement officials presented the two men at the Dhaka magistrate court, arguing that they may be accomplices of the perpetrators and not victims of the July 1 raid. The magistrate presiding over the case remanded Karim and Khan to police custody for eight days.

However, formally arresting these men was far from a significant development in Bangladesh’s investigation into the major terrorist attack. Instead, the arrest was a piece of political and legal theatre to cover up the state’s illegal and secret 30 day detention of these two men.

Karim and Khan had both been in the custody of law enforcement authorities since they were taken to the detective branch office on the morning of July 2. Apart from their first 24 hours, the remaining days of their secret detention were illegal.

Evidence of the Secret Detentions

At around 7 am on July 2, Karim and Khan were released by the militants from Holey Artisan Bakery, where they had been held since the attack started the previous evening. Karim was accompanied by his wife and two children, and Khan was with two female friends.

Security forces took the group to a nearby safe house where they were allowed to meet family members and after a short period they were transported to the headquarters of the detective branch of the police on Mintu Road for ‘debriefing’.

On the following night, the police allowed Karim’s family and Khan’s two friends to leave the detective branch office. They continued to hold the two men in custody.

On July 4, the police acknowledged to Bangladesh’s Daily Star and the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspapers that the men remained in their custody; and confirmed the same once again with The Times on the evening of July 5 – two days after the law required the men to be released. On the following afternoon, Monirul Islam, additional commissioner of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit also confirmed that the two men were in their custody.

On July 9, the police began telling reporters that Karim and Khan were no longer in their custody. Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner of the police, told the Dhaka Tribune that before Eid the police had released “all the rescued hostages after questioning them about the incident.”

However, on July 12, police officers informed journalists ‘off-the-record’ that that two men remained in law enforcement’s custody. As a result, the Dhaka Tribune ran an editorial stating, ‘The opacity surrounding the disappearance of the two is alarming, and can only serve to lessen the public’s trust in the ongoing investigation ….’ Amnesty International issued a statement pointing to the ‘conflicting claims’ made by the police about the detention of Hasnat Karim.

However, any doubts that Karim and Khan’s families may have had about the two men’s whereabouts were dispelled a day later.

On July 13, Karim’s wife, Sharmina Parveen, had been asked to return to the Mintu Road headquarters of the detective branch for further questioning – and accompanied by her mother-in-law, she saw Karim.

“After Sharmina had finished providing a written statement there was a single officer in the room”, a relative of Karim’s said. Karim’s mother again asked to see her son and then after a while, Karim entered the room, brought in by another person. Surprised to see his mother and wife, he asked, “How did you get in here?”

Karim’s wife and mother began to cry. According to the relative, Karim said “Don’t worry, I am doing okay” and asked after his children, Safa and Ryan. He was then asked to leave and he walked away to another room.’ Khan is also understood to have come into the room at one point.

On July 15, with clear confirmation that the two men were being held in state detention, Human Rights Watch issued a statement, titled ‘Bangladesh: Charge or Release Holey Attack Hostages.’

The next day, in a sudden about-turn, the police acknowledged that the men were indeed in their custody. “We have to conduct the investigation through interrogation of witnesses, rescuers and others concerned. The puzzle cannot be solved without interrogation”, Asaduzzaman Miah, DMP Commissioner told reporters. ‘They are neither arrested nor detained, but being interrogated,” he said.

Ten days later, on July 26, the home minister again confirmed that Karim remained in state custody. “Hasnat Karim is still being interrogated,’ he said. ‘No information about him is yet confirmed. Everything will be disclosed after the investigation ends.”

On Tuesday, August 2, the police then made another about-turn, with the inspector general of police AKM Shahidul Hoque suggested at a press conference that Karim was not in their custody – though he claimed to have ‘knowledge about his [Karim’s] location’ and was able to ‘bring him under custody any time.”

The Wire, however, learnt that Karim’s father, Rezaul Karim, received a phone call the following evening on August 3, telling him to go to the detective branch office.

According to Karim’s family members, when the father arrived at Mintu road, he was taken to a room where his son was sitting. After a short conversation, Karim’s father was told that his son would be “shown arrested and taken to court the following day”. According to family members, the police did not tell Karim’s father that the police would make it seem as if Karim was arrested “somewhere outside” on the streets of Dhaka – which is what the police claimed in court in an apparent attempt to cover up the secret and illegal detention.

No anomaly

The secret detentions of these two men are not anomalies in Bangladesh. Secret detentions – also known as ‘enforced disappearances’ – are increasingly becoming a standard technique used by the country’s law enforcement authorities.

Five men accused of the first ISIS-claimed murder, the killing of the Italian NGO-worker Cesara Tavella in Dhaka in September 2015, were also secretly detained for periods of up to two weeks. Russel Chowhdury, Minhajul Abedin Russel, Tamjid Ahmed Rubel and Shakhawat Hossain Sharif were picked up by plain clothes officers between October 10 and 14 – and then all four men were brought before the media on October 26 with the police claiming that they had arrested the men the night before. Five days earlier, M.A. Matin, the alleged financier of the killing, was picked up by plain clothes officers, kept in secret detention, before he was brought to the court 16 days later on November 6, 2015.

Unlike Karim and Khan, who received some protection from police excesses due to their social class and links with the West, at least two of these five men accused of killing the Italian NGO worker were tortured and threatened with ‘cross fire’ to give confessional statements to magistrates, their families said.

Even these five should count themselves lucky. Many men who are illegally picked up and secretly detained by Bangladeshi law enforcement authorities are never even registered through the formal legal process. Instead they are ‘disappeared’, with their families never knowing exactly what the state has done to them, or more commonly these days such men are the subject of extrajudicial killings.

In the month of June, 22 people were killed by law enforcement authorities in alleged shootouts with police – many of which are suspected to be straightforward extra judicial killings. In one example, on the last day of the month, police claimed that Shahid Al-Mahmud, 25 and Anisur Rahman, 28, two student leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, were killed in a ‘shootout’ in the district of Jhenaidha earlier that day. Their family members however stated that two weeks before that, plain clothes officers had picked the two men up and taken them away, and that the men were killed while in state custody.

The future for Khan and Karim

It remains unclear how the state will now deal with Karim and Khan – but any decision is likely to be made by politicians rather than detectives.

Unlike the Tavella murder case, where police apparently tortured the accused to coerce confessional statements out of them, the police will not be able to force either of these two men to do the same.

Further legal action against them will therefore depend on other evidence.

Much has been made of photographs which show Khan, alongside Karim and one of the militant attackers, with a gun in his hand. But statements given by other hostages held that night demonstrate that Khan was forced to hold the gun, and cried when he was initially asked to do so. Two hostages told the New York Times that “the attackers directed Mr. Khan to carry a gun and go with them to the roof of the restaurant … They said Mr. Khan resisted, and to persuade him to hold the weapon the attackers fired it to show him its magazine was empty. Mr. Khan broke down in tears at their insistence he take the gun, one of the hostages said, but reluctantly complied.”

Moreover, one of the friends who went to Holey with the 22-year-old Canadian has said that the decision to go to there was her idea and was unplanned. “It was an impromptu decision of hers to go to the café, given its proximity to the third friend’s house, and because she was due home at 9 pm”, one reporter quotes her as saying. How does that tie in with his alleged involved in planning the militant raid?

As for Karim, would a man involved in planning a terrorist attack actually bring his wife and two children to the site where it was due to happen? It seems highly unlikely.

There have been claims from the media that Karim was involved in the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir and was forced to resign from his job at North South University as a result. One Bangladeshi newspaper recently published a report stating that the deputy spokesperson at the university had gone on the record to confirm this. However, the university spokesperson in question denied ever saying any such thing to the newspaper, formally or informally – and the official position of the university remains that Karim was not forced to resign.

Reporters must always keep an open mind, particularly when they are not privy to all the information held by the authorities – and new evidence might come to light – but nonetheless there remains good reason for thinking that Karim and Khan were not involved in the Holey attack.

The most significant factor in all this is that for one month Karim and Khan were in the custody of law enforcement officers. They were questioned repeatedly during this period. The police had access to their phones and (in Karim’s case) his computer and the police must have completed all the necessary forensic tests. Investigators have interviewed all the other hostages and no doubt questioned them at length about the conduct of the two men on the night of July 1st.

Yet, despite all this investigative enquiry, the authorities have no substantive evidence against the two men.

Khan and Karim now seem to have become pawns in a turf war between the different law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Before the government further compounds its problems by pressing unjustified charges against them, the men should be released.

And, beyond that, the state should stop its policy of secret detentions – and operate within the law.

David Bergman is a writer based in Bangladesh.  He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs. Follow him on @davidbangladesh