The New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Bangladesh Government to immediately stop widespread practice of enforced disappearances and secret detentions.
Bangladesh law enforcement authorities have illegally detained hundreds of people since 2013, including scores of opposition activists and held them in secret detention, HRW said in a report released on Thursday.
The HRW has asked the government to order prompt, impartial and independent investigations into these allegations, provide answers to families, and prosecute security forces responsible for such egregious rights violations.
The 82-page report, 'We Don't Have Him: Secret Detentions and Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh,' found that at least 90 people were victims of enforced disappearance in 2016 alone.
While most were produced in court after weeks or months of secret detention, HRW documented 21 cases of detainees who were later killed, and nine others whose whereabouts remain unknown.
The 90 cases include three sons of prominent opposition politicians, who were picked up over several weeks in August 2016, one was released after six months of secret detention, while the other two remain disappeared.
According to the report, in the first five months of 2017, 48 disappearances were reported and there are allegations of severe torture and ill-treatment while in secret custody.
"The disappearances are well-documented and reported, yet the government persists in this abhorrent practice with no regard for the rule of law," said Brad Adams, Asia director.
"Bangladesh security forces appear to have a free hand in detaining people, deciding on their guilt or innocence, and determining their punishment, including whether they have the right to be alive," he added.
The report also documents the continuing disappearance of 19 opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists. The 19 men were picked up by law enforcement authorities in eight separate incidents over a two-week period in or around Dhaka in the weeks before the January 2014 elections.
The HRW interviewed more than 100 people, including family members and witnesses, to document these cases. Details of police complaints and other legal documents are included in the report. The Bangladesh authorities failed to respond to letters seeking their views on these cases.
Witnesses and family members told the HRW that most of the abuses were carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) or the Detective Branch of the police (DB), both of which have long-recorded histories of abuse.
In the case of the 19 opposition party members, witnesses said that eight were taken by RAB, six by DB, and the rest by unknown security forces.
Ruhul Amin Chowdhury, who saw RAB take away his son, Adnan Chowdhury, on December 5, 2013, said he had trusted RAB to release his son the next day. "They said, 'We are taking him. We will bring him back," he said, adding that they have betrayed them.
Law enforcement authorities repeatedly deny the arrests, with government officials backing these claims, often by suggesting that the men are voluntarily hiding.
The police do not allow families to file complaints alleging that their relatives have been picked up by law enforcement authorities.
The report noted that in addition to enforced disappearances, there is an alarming trend of deaths occurring in secret detention of state authorities.
In one such case, last year on June 13, Shahid Al Mahmud, a student activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was dragged outside his house and taken into a black microbus, his father, Rajab Ali, told HRW.
Rajab Ali said that police officers were present during the arrest, although they later denied they were holding his son. Two weeks later, on July 1, police said they found Shahid's body after a gunfight with criminals.
"The police abducted my son and staged a 'gunfight' drama to justify the killing," Shahid's father told HRW.
Although the ruling Awami League party came to power in 2009 with a promise of "zero tolerance" for human rights violations, the practice of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances has persisted, with human rights organizations reporting at least 320 cases of disappearances since 2009.
These include people suspected of criminal activities and militancy, as well as political opposition members.
The HRW has asked the Bangladesh government to invite the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate these allegations and make appropriate recommendations to ensure justice, accountability, and security force reform.
It also asked Bangladesh government to invite UN experts, including the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the special rapporteur on torture, for an official country visit, allowing them full, unimpeded access to the places and people they seek to visit.