This Wednesday was the first weekday in Bangladesh since February 1 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led 20-party alliance did not enforce a strike. Instead, the coalition leaders used the day to organize protests against the disappearance of a BNP joint secretary general Salahuddin Ahmed — just one of many politicians who have gone missing recently.
The senior party leader and former state minister was allegedly picked up by law enforcement officials in Dhaka earlier in March, according to his family members.
They claim that on the night of March 10, a team of around 20 to 30 people, who identified themselves as Bangladesh Police detectives, took Ahmed, along with two staff members, from a house in the north of the Bangladeshi capital.
Although more than two weeks have passed, Salahuddin's wife Hasina Ahmed has not given up hope of learning about her husband's whereabouts.
"We have not heard anything new from the law enforcement agencies about him," Hasina told VICE News on Saturday. "We have not received any assurances from the agencies about finding him either," she added.
Yet Hasina still hopes to receive some information on Ahmed, adding: "We submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on March 19 seeking her intervention in tracing him." Ahmed's wife, who is a former BNP lawmaker herself, has also sought an appointment with the PM to discuss the issue.
Ahmed was acting as BNP's spokesperson after the previous arrests of the party's acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Ahmed Rizvi.
The party has been leading an ongoing nationwide blockade along with strikes since January 6 to press forth their demands for a national election. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has also had an arrest warrant issued against her.
After Hasina filed a writ petition with the High Court on March 15, five Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies, including the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) elite paramilitary force denied that they either arrested or detained Ahmed.
Ahmed's "enforced disappearance" and the subsequent government denials have reminded some of how BNP leaders Ilias Ali and Humayun Kabir Parvez, former MP Saiful Islam Hiru, and Dhaka councilor Chowdhury Alam have disappeared in similar incidents in the past.
Parvez and Hiru were allegedly picked up by the RAB in November 2013. Ali and his driver were allegedly arrested by law enforcement officials in April 2012, and Chowdhury Alam was apparently taken into in a microbus by a group of men on June 2010.
All four politicians remain missing to this day, according to their family members and the party.
* * *
Disappearances have occurred in Bangladesh since the early 1990s. The victims are often picked up by groups of men who identify themselves as law officials. Their bodies are sometimes found later with signs of wounds.
The spate of disappearances has increased this year, however, since the BNP intensified their political activities on January 6.
According to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a Dhaka-based human rights promoting organization, there have been at least 20 disappearances between January 6 and March 15.
In comparison, during 2014 and 2013, there were at least 74 and 62 incidents respectively. Of those abducted, 23 corpses were found in 2014 and five in 2013.
Such a bleak situation has frustrated Shah Israt Ajmery, the wife of Anisur Rahman Talukder Khokon, a former organizing secretary of the BNP student wing.
Khokon was picked up by a group of men identifying themselves as law enforcement from his house in Dhaka around 8.00pm on March 5. His family has searched for him at the different offices of the security agencies. "But all of them have denied arresting him," Ajmery told VICE News.
Following Khokon's abduction, officials have claimed he was involved in financing arson attacks. Ajmery added, however: "If he is guilty of a crime, then the police can arrest him and try him at court. We have not heard anything about him since the day he was taken."
Rina Alam, the wife of Nur Alam, a leader of the Jubadal wing of the BNP, is also desperately seeking any information about her husband. On February 15, around 8.15pm, Nur was detained by a group of 10 to 12 men in a minibus on the outskirts of Dhaka, according to his wife.
"While arresting him, they identified themselves as law officers. When we asked where they are taking him, they answered, 'Your husband knows,'" Rina told VICE News.
"When we asked how we can find out about him later, they asked us to contact the nearest police station," she added. "But we still do not know where he is."
* * *
Less than a week after Ahmed disappeared, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) urged the Bangladesh government to immediately investigate his disappearance and take all appropriate measures to find him, or at least inform his family of his whereabouts as soon as possible.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that this particular incident may "affect the political climate in Bangladesh." Alluding to the present political crisis in the country, Adams added: "On top of the mass arrests and the way the government has treated Khaleda Zia, the disappearances certainly poison the possibility of political talks. But the chances of serious political talks were already small, with both sides engaged in human rights abuses and pointing the finger at the other without taking any responsibility for what their subordinates are doing."
The ruling Awami League and the BNP are already blaming each other for Ahmed's disappearance.
While speaking at an event in Dhaka last week, Prime Minister Hasina claimed that the BNP has orchestrated Ahmed's "disappearance." Adding that police are looking for the BNP leader and that they would arrest him when they find him, she said: "Khaleda Zia will have to answer [questions] about his whereabouts."
In reply, Zia blamed the government agencies for taking Ahmed and warned of dire consequences if he was not returned. "They are not releasing him, not producing him in court or admitting to his arrest," said Zia. "I strongly demand that Salahuddin is immediately produced in court or given back to his family."