Dhaka: “Are they going to be killed?” a friend asked me.
He was referring to the three sons of opposition leaders who were picked up by Bangladeshi law enforcement authorities last month. The authorities were now secretly detaining the three men, but denying that they had arrested them or knowing where they were.
The question shook me. Though not because it was an unreasonable query.
In the years that the Awami League government has been in power, dozens of people have been picked up by state authorities, secretly detained and then killed in ‘shoot-outs’ or simply disappeared, presumably killed.
What amazed me about my friend’s question was how normal that query had become in Bangladesh.
Of course, it is not that previous regimes had anything close to a perfect human rights record – remember the Clean Heart operation under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its formation of the Rapid Action Batallion – but the number of secret detentions, often followed by disappearances, has now reached unprecedented levels.
“No,” I said. “The men will be released.” I explained that the international community knew of these men’s detention and therefore the law enforcement authorities would not kill the detainees.
I had previously written (before the third of the three men was picked up) that the detainees’ social and political connections meant that they would escape being killed; they would most likely be released, immediately ‘re-arrested’, presented to the court and then formally remanded to police custody – an old trick used by the state to conceal secret detentions.
“But, what does this government care about the international community,” my friend asked.
This was, of course, a fair question.
The time when international diplomats had much, if any, impact on human rights in Bangladesh – at least in relation to civil rights – is long gone, but I explained that the predicament of these men was a little different.
“The Bangladesh government had confirmed to the US government that the men were in state custody – so the government could not simply authorise them to be killed,” I said. “They would not dare.”
My friend nodded at my explanation.
As I left the room, I was far from certain about whether he thought I would be proven right.
Over one month after the first of the three men was detained, we still don’t know.
But assuming that these men are released, it certainly won’t have anything to do with the demands being made by civil society, the media, human rights organisations or even opposition political parties to which the three men are connected.
The men themselves of course come with a lot of political baggage – and so it is unsurprising that a section of Awami League supporters, including those who are part of civil society and the media, are willing to turn a blind eye to government ‘excesses’.
Many people believe that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jammat-e-Islami are an existential threat to the country and any action against them, or those connected to them, however illegal, is justified.
More notable is the fact that there has barely been a peep from people who are outside this section of government supporters.
Bangladesh has become a country where few dare to speak up about these issues.
It is not just the questioning of state killings that has become normalised – but also living under the significant restrictions on freedom of expression that now exist in Bangladesh.
This became clear to me during a recent conversation with a senior BNP leader – who like many others – has accumulated a dozen false criminal cases filed against him over the last few years.
I asked him about his own future.
“I am ok,” he said. “As long as I don’t say anything critical of the government, then they will not take further action against me.”
In order to avoid the state lodging more criminal cases against him and being arrested again he has to keep his mouth shut.
And, of course, his story reflects those told by almost every other opposition leader.
Civil society and human rights activists also face similar concerns – as well as fearing the possibility of other kinds of harassment affecting their life and work.
And those who decide to write critically of the government on social media or in newspapers also do so under the threat of being arrested.
Just in the last week a leftist leader at Rajshai University was arrested for posting a Facebook status that was critical of the prime minister. A website’s editor was also picked up for criticising a senior educational bureaucrat whose husband is a member of parliament.
In recent months, Islamic militancy has been at the fore of media coverage in and about Bangaldesh. And quite rightly so, given the slew of targeted killings and the Holey restaurant attack which killed 20 people that has rocked Bangladesh in the recent past.
Yet, whilst that threat continues to remain a very real one in Bangladesh – so do the actions of an increasingly repressive government.