A secret prisoner returns

The recent disappearance and arrest of a Bangladesh photojournalist mirrors experiences of many other secretly detained men.

A secret prisoner returns
In this undated private photo, the journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol is seen with the influential Jubo Mohila League leader Apu Ukil. Kajol is understood to have good links to the ruling party.

There may be some people reading this who do not know how secret state detentions work in Bangladesh. They may think that the arrest on May 3rd of the journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol close to the Indian border means that he was never picked up by security agencies on March 10th and never kept for 53 days in secret state detention. They might assume that the events on May 3rd suggest that Kajol simply went into hiding in India — somehow avoiding the strict Covid-19 lockdown over there — and was arrested as he tried to return, illegally. 

They would however be mistaken. The so-called “arrest” of a person who has spent weeks, months and sometimes even years in secret detention is the most common drama staged by the authorities who want to bring the state-sponsored disappearance (read: secret imprisonment) of a person to an end.

In Bangladesh, there are two ways that such a disappearance resolves itself.

The first pattern involves the authorities killing the person. Sometimes the authorities kill the secretly detained man — and it is almost always a man — and just dump the body for it to be found later. But if the person has a criminal record, or has cases filed against him, the killing is staged as a “crossfire” with the authorities subsequently providing a detailed fable of how the “criminal” came to be killed avoiding arrest or trying to escape. At other times, the security agencies kill the person and dispose of the body so that it is never found. This is most likely what has happened to those who were picked up many years ago and remain “disappeared” to this day.

While a fair number of disappearances end in a killing, most however do not. In this second pattern, which comprise at least half of the cases, the illegally picked up person is released after they have spent some time in secret detention. This seems to  happen in one of two ways. They may be  released onto the streets in the middle of the night: the opposition activist Humam Quader Chowdhury (son of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, who was executed for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence) was released in March 2017 after seven months in secret detention; the academic Mubashar Hasan and the journalist Utpal Das were released in December 2017 after being held for 44 days and two and half months respectively; and, the retired ambassador Maroof Zaman was held secretly for 17 months before being released in May 2019. After their release they and their families never speak in public about their experiences or call for any investigation into the circumstances of their disappearance and reappearance. In the alternative, and more common, scenario, secret prisoners are “released” but only to be immediately arrested by the police in some kind of staged drama.

This is what most likely happened to Kajol, who was supposedly found “walking across a field” in Benapole, hundred yards away from fencing that separates Bangladesh and India.

The same thing happened to dozens of other secretly detained people.

Remember the Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack on July 1st 2016? Two innocent men who were dining there that night, Tahmid Hasib Khan and Hasnat Reza Karim, were kept in secret detention for a month before they were supposedly “found” in the streets of Gulshan from where they were formally arrested for alleged complicity in the attack from which they were later discharged. It also happened to British Bangladeshi Yasin Talukder who was kept in secret detention for three years before being “released” and  arrested in May 2019 on terrorism charges.

Kajol is no dissident or opposition activist, and there are certainly no terrorism allegations against him. In fact he reportedly have good links to the ruling party. So why was he targeted, when so many of the disappearances involve men who are linked to the opposition or dissident politics?

Kajol was picked up after the publication of an article in the daily newspaper Manab Zamin on the arrest of Jubo Mohila League leader Shamima Noor Papia who allegedly ran a secret escort agency where some senior Awami League leaders and members of parliament are said to have been clients. A member of parliament filed a case against the editor of the newspaper along with 30 other people who shared the article on social media, some of whom named Awami League leaders and MPs as escort agency clients. Kajol was one of the 30 men listed in the case and it appears he, out of those 30 individuals named in the case, was the only one to be picked up  because some Awami League politicians suspected that he had incriminating information of the goings on in this escort agency and they feared exposure.

Kajol’s disappearance is a good illustration of how security agencies are increasingly hired out by powerful politicians and businesspeople  to protect their interests. Another recent example involves the disappearances of three staff members of retired army officer and now London-based businessman, Colonel Shahid Uddin Khan, who were picked up in Dhaka simply because of the breakdown of the business relationship between Khan and Tarique Ahmed Siddique, the prime minister’s security adviser.

These cases instigated by private persons should not obscure how disappearances have taken place over the years for more direct political ends and are sanctioned at the highest political level in Bangladesh. The businessman Aniruddha Kumar Roy was picked up in August 2017, and released three months later in November 2017. According to the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, the military intelligence agency Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) abducted and secretly detained Roy solely in order to pressure him to resign as the chief justice, telling him  that they would otherwise kill Roy. 

It has also been reported that the secret detentions of Brigadier General (retired) Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, Humam Quader Chowdhury and Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem were directly sanctioned at the very highest level. These three — sons of opposition Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP leaders who had been convicted by Bangladesh’s controversial International Crimes Tribunal — were detained in August 2016. Amaan Azmi and Mir Ahmad either continue to be in secret detention or have been killed. Humam Quader, as noted above, was released seven months later.

When people are picked up and disappeared by Bangladeshi security agencies, families do not know what to do. They fear that if they campaign openly for their relative’s release, they may jeopardise any possibility of  negotiating for their release or that those holding them may then kill the detainees. This is in part why only a proportion of the total disappearances ever make it into the public domain or when they do, the families are reluctant to speak out.

The very open campaign organised by Kajol’s son calling for the release of his father is unusual in Bangladesh, as was his seeking the intervention of the High Court which passed an important order requiring the police to record a criminal case regarding Kajol’s disappearance. Both  may well have played a key role in his release. However, before Kajol was “released” from secret detention, a senior member of the security agency holding him would most likely have told him in no uncertain terms that he must not speak publicly about what actually happened to him. Kajol is likely to have been told that if he cared for his own future safety and that of his family he must not tell the truth.

We are therefore unlikely to hear much more in the future about Kajol’s secret state detention. With a largely supine judiciary, a suborned police service, fearful civil society and a lack of independent institutions it is however only when those disappeared break out of that fear and start to speak the truth will it be possible to start to hold to account those responsible for state sponsored abductions and murder. Until then, the politicians and security agencies involved can continue with impunity. And in the meantime let’s be relieved at least that Kajol is alive, and hope that the cases against him will soon be dropped and he can live his life as a free man again.

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

* May 7th: An earlier version of the article inaccurately stated that Kajol’s wife is a member of the Mahila League. This has now been corrected.

🔗 The Daily Star, A shingara thonga for Kajol: Missing journalist, photographer and father

🔗 Human Rights Watch, Bangladesh: Man released from long secret detention

🔗 Al Jazeera, Bangladesh disappearances a matter of grave concern

🔗 New Age, British Bangladeshi held after three years of disappearance

🔗 Al Jazeera, Employee of UK-based Bangladeshi businessman dies in custody

🔗 Netra News, A general’s vendetta

🔗 The Wire, Sheikh Hasina complicit in secret detentions by Bangladesh intelligence, says source

🔗Human Rights Watch, “We don’t have him” — Secret detentions and enforced disappearances in Bangladesh

🔗 Al Jazeera, Bangladesh: Former chief justice alleges he was “forced” to resign