Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Who has questions to answer over the apparent abduction of Sukhranjan Bali?

By David Bergman

At any time, the illegal detention of a Bangladeshi citizen by law enforcement agencies is a serious matter – but the alleged abduction of a witness from outside the international crimes tribunal in November 2012, must be of particular concern.

Back on 5 November 2012, lawyers acting for the ICT accused Delwar Hossain Sayedee alleged that on that very morning, three men, who said that they were from detective branch of the police, picked Sukhranjan Bali up as he stood at the gates of the tribunal, and walked him outside the High Court perimeter and into a police van.

Photographs taken on the mobile phone by a driver of one of the defence lawyers appeared to support aspects of the allegation – but were too grainy to be any where near conclusive. The defence claim was also supported by two journalists who were present during part of the alleged police abduction – but since they both work for the Jamaat-e-Islami newspaper, their testimony was liable to be disputed.

Statements given by his family did support the claim made by the lawyers that Bali had gone to Dhaka to give evidence to the tribunal. When Bali’s wife was asked how she knew where her husband was, she said: ‘Yes, he called me on the day when he was going to the court on the day he went to the court to give testimony he called me.’

The international crimes tribunal registrar, prosecutors and investigators all denied that such an event took place. The prosecutors in a statement stated that the allegation was an ‘unacceptable drama’ which was ‘part of [Jamaat-e-Islami] trying to dismiss the tribunal and to release their leader unlawfully.’ 
In response to a habeas corpus application, a week after the alleged abduction, the attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, told a High Court bench that the story was ‘absolutely ridiculous.… The petition is absolutely male fide.’

Now, as reported in New Age on 16 May, Bali has spoken from an Indian jail – and in his statement confirmed that he was indeed abducted from outside the tribunal as the defence lawyers had originally claimed.

According to Bali’s own statement, at the gate of the tribunal, the police – and it appears to have been the detective branch - kidnapped him and then detained him illegally for six weeks. He was then taken to the Indian border, handed over to the Border Security Force who beat him up badly enough that he had to receive medical treatment, and then he was arrested resulting in his detention in an Indian Jail.

Clearly, Bali’s statement is a significant development, providing further support to the allegation that the abduction happened as had earlier claimed.

The government continues to deny that any such abduction has taken place.

Since, the preponderance of evidence now points even further towards state abduction - and of course disappearances of this kind in which the detective branch are alleged to have been involved are not unusual - it is surely now reasonable to consider who within the Bangladesh establishment may have questions to answer about this incident.

The International Crimes Tribunal defence lawyers who were present when Bali was taken away by the police – and who were of course widely disbelieved at the time – stated that there were three plain clothes dressed men who identified themselves as being from the detective branch who took Bali on that day.

These men clearly have direct responsibility.

They obviously must have received orders – and the question is how high up in the chain of command of Bangladesh police were these orders given, and who gave the orders to them?

Bali was, according to his own statement, apparently kept in a small office within a detective branch building (perhaps the central office in Mintu road). Could the detective branch officer who is in charge of where Bali was kept be unaware of this detention?

Did the information about his detention in the detective branch office find its way into to the general police hierarchy – to for example the Inspector General of police? There is no evidence to suggest that the IG of police knew anything about this, but clearly questions need to be asked.

It is of course not just the police that have hard questions to answer. Remember, Bali was not just any old person minding his own business who happened to be abducted. One must assume he was picked up for a reason – to ensure that he would not testify on behalf of Delwar Hossain Sayedee.

Bali was a person whom the Sayedee investigators and prosecutors had originally wanted to testify against the accused for killing his brother. But Bali appears to have refused, and instead wanted to give evidence on behalf of the accused.

So, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that someone or some people within the tribunal’s investigation and/or prosecution agencies wanted to prevent the possibility of Bali testifying and so informed the police that action needed to be taken to ensure he did not come to court.

Without this happening, the plain cloths policemen would simply not have known that Bali needed to be their target. So questions need to be asked of relevant prosecutors and investigators.

What though would have been known within the Bangladesh government and particularly the home and law ministries? Is it possible for a man, an important witness in the country’s biggest trial ever in its 40 year history, to be apparently abducted and kept for six weeks in an office of the Metropolitan police’s detective branch without members of the government knowing about it?

If they were all kept in the dark, then what does this say about the failure of the government to have any level of control of the police?

And then of course there is the bureaucracy. What did the senior civil servants within the home and law ministries know about this?

And then there are questions for India.

It remains unclear how much, if anything, Indian authorities knew that Bali was going to be dumped on the Indian side of the border by the Bangladesh police. Perhaps the Bangladesh police dumped Bali at the border in the hope that he would be killed by the border security forces, as has happened to many Bangladeshis in the past, and as Human Rights Watch have suggested in their statement.

However, it is also possible that there was some agreement between the Bangladesh and the Indian authorities at some level – perhaps the Bangladesh police wanted to be make sure that Bali would not surface until Sayedee was convicted and preferably not before any sentence was confirmed by the Appellate Division. If this was the case, then the Bangladesh authorities would need to know that Bali would definitely be arrested and detained in India – and arguably they may have needed to have some direct contact with the Indian authorities to ensure that this would happen. 

These are the questions that need to be considered, and Bangladesh's media should start asking them.