Dhaka, Bangladesh – Adiba Islam Hridi says she is tired of holding a placard showing her missing father. She is only 12.
Hridi’s vacant eyes betray strain and weariness as she sat with around 20 other children inside an auditorium in Dhaka on Wednesday to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
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The children had gathered along with their mothers and other family members to plead for the return of their fathers allegedly abducted by state agencies for their political affiliations and views.
The demonstration was organised by Maayer Daak, Benagli for Mother’s Call, an organisation formed in 2014 to seek justice for the victims of the enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.
Rights groups say more than 600 people disappeared since the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009.
‘This wait never ends’
Hridi’s father Parvez Hossain was a grassroots member of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He was taken away by policemen in plain clothes before the national elections in December 2013.
His whereabouts are still unknown.
“For the last 10 years, I have been told that my father will come back but this wait never ends. I want to be hugged by my father. I want to celebrate Father’s Day. I don’t want to be a part of this ‘Disappearance Day’ anymore,” Hridi said in her address at the demonstration.
She was two when Hossain disappeared and says she barely has any memory of her father.
Hridi’s pleadings were echoed by other children and their families.
“I simply want my husband back. We have no complaints against anyone,” said Tahmina Akter, wife of Ahmed bin Quasem, lawyer and son of an opposition leader, who has been missing since 2016.
“I am tired of living this life. I can’t give an answer to my daughters who keep asking where their father is,” she said.
Hummam Quader Chowdhury, son of jailed opposition leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, was abducted in 2016 and was missing for seven months.
“After I was abducted, I was taken to the office of a very high official [of a security force]. In that very office, I saw on live TV that his force denied having any information about me to the media,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I realised at that very moment that Bangladesh had become a lawless country.”
‘This will change’
Asif Nazrul, law professor at Dhaka University who also spoke at Wednesday’s vigil, said people were “abducted by state actors to create a culture of fear in the country”.
“They [government] believe that by instilling fear among people, they would silence all and keep doing all the wrong things like stealing elections and plundering people’s money,” he said.
“But this will change. They will have to answer for their crimes.”
In a report in 2021, the United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there was no trace of nearly 100 out of 600 people who disappeared in Bangladesh.
But the trend reduced significantly after December 10, 2021 when the US Department of Treasury sanctioned Bangladesh’s notorious security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and six of its officials for their involvement in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Since then, only five cases of such disappearances allegedly by the RAB have been reported, according to Odhikar, Bangladesh’s foremost rights group which tracks incidents of political violence and other violations.
Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for international non-profit CIVICUS, said the reduction in enforced disappearances following the US sanctions shows that “state actors” were behind most incidents of enforced disappearances in the last decade.
“This is what human rights groups and victims have been saying for years,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the declining number of cases also proves that sanctions are having an impact and negatively affecting those in power.
Concerns ahead of polls
But Odhikar director Nasiruddin Elan is still concerned. “Even though abductions by RAB have declined, there are still forced disappearances orchestrated by other state actors,” he said.
According to the group, at least 16 people disappeared in Bangladesh between January and June this year. Fifteen resurfaced alive while information regarding one victim could not be ascertained, it said.
Elan said the police’s Detective Branch is accused of involvement in at least 20 enforced disappearances since the US sanctions on RAB.
“Fortunately, all victims of such disappearances were later produced and charged with seemingly false crimes like arson, vandalism and terrorism,” he told Al Jazeera. “But at least their families got to know their whereabouts.”
Al Jazeera reached out to officials at the Detective Branch but they declined to comment on the matter.
Odhikar’s Elan said he feared the number of disappearances may increase as the country gears up for the national elections, due by January.
“There are real concerns that we will see an escalation of enforced disappearances ahead of the elections early next year,” he said.
“The international community must monitor the developments and call out the government when such cases occur. They must also stand with the families of the victims of enforced disappearance and support efforts to ensure justice.”
Meanwhile, authorities in Bangladesh deny the involvement of state agencies in enforced disappearances.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told Al Jazeera there was “no question of any involvement of our law enforcement agencies”.
“Those who are missing are mostly hiding by themselves,” he said, adding that police have already solved many of the disappeared cases.
“If someone comes with a complaint of a missing person, police take it seriously and conduct an investigation,” Kamal said.
But Sanjida Islam, convener of Maayer Daak, termed the government’s denial a “great insult” to the families of the victims.
“We have been looking for our near and dear ones for the last 10 years. When they say people are hiding themselves, it not only breaks our heart, but also makes us very angry,” she told Al Jazeera.