The use of enforced disappearance by governments to silence its critics and instill fear into targeted groups continues unabated in every region of the world, said Amnesty International as the world marks the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30.
Over the past five decades the organization has worked on the cases of more than 500 individuals who have been subjected to enforced disappearance, and is continuing to pressure governments to determine the fate and whereabouts of all those who have been disappeared.
“Governments in every region of the world, from Syria to Mexico and from Sri Lanka to Gambia may be holding hundreds or even thousands in secret detention. In many countries, the authorities continue harassing and intimidating those who are looking for their relatives. The struggle for justice must not cease,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“As we mark the International Day of the Disappeared, we offer our support to all the victims and families of those forcibly disappeared and illegally detained by state authorities across the world. Governments in countries where enforced disappearances are occurring must come under greater pressure to stamp out this abhorrent practice.”
Enforced disappearances are perpetrated by state agents or people acting on their behalf with a refusal to acknowledge this or conceal the person’s fate or whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.
Disappearances frequently follow a pattern: once arrested, the victims almost never appear before a court and there is almost never a record of their “crime” or their detention. Once out of the public eye, individuals subjected to enforced disappearance are at great risk of ill-treatment, torture and even death.
This year Amnesty International is urging dozens of governments who employ enforced disappearances against their opponents to stop using this tactic once and for all. On the International Day of the Disappeared the organization is highlighting cases from each of its global regions.
Middle East and North Africa – Syria
In Syria almost 85,000 people have been forcibly disappeared between 2011 and 2015 according to Amnesty International sources. Civilians continue to be disappeared at an alarming rate with those documented by the organisation now including new groups, not only political opponents, human rights defenders and activists, but people such as teachers and civilians who have merely crossed into government controlled territory to collect state salaries.
Rania Alabbasi and her six children aged between three and 15-years-old were arrested by the Syrian authorities in March 2013. None of the family has been heard from since. Despite requests from their relatives, the Syrian authorities have given no information about what has happened to them, where they are or why they were arrested.
Rania Alabbasi’s sister, Naila Alabbasi, told Amnesty International:
“When the uprising started, she did not want to leave. She thought she and her family were safe because they had not participated in any political activities or belonged to any opposition party. They did not go to any demonstrations. So she thought nothing would happen to them.”
“We do not know anything about them. All attempts to find out anything have been unsuccessful… we must not forget Rania, her family and the other prisoners in similar situations. Let us all raise our voices for their release.”
From August 30th Amnesty International supporters can petition the Syrian government to cease all enforced disappearances and allow UN officials into Syria to carry out independent investigations.
The Americas – Mexico
According to official figures, nearly 25,000 people have disappeared or gone missing in Mexico since 2007, almost half of them during the current administration of President Peña Nieto.
The issue hit international headlines in September 2014 after the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teacher-training college in Mexico’s Guerrero State.
The students were en-route to protests against government education reforms, when they were attacked by police and gunmen in Iguala. Three students were killed. Eyewitnesses saw police taking other students away. A day later the tortured body of student Julio César Mondragón was found and the families of the remaining 42 students were left to agonize about the fate of their loved ones.
At first, authorities claimed no knowledge of where they were, but then months later they gave an account that has since been contested by the families and their representatives.
Despite worldwide attention on the issue, the Mexican authorities have failed to properly investigate all lines of the case, especially the worrying allegations of complicity by armed forces. However they have uncovered collusion between local officials and gangs.
Mexican students, families, and citizens from all walks of life have courageously taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to call for action. Omar, a friend of one of the students told Amnesty International that they will continue in their struggle for truth, justice and reparations.
“The government's response has been nothing but disrespectful and insensitive. I'm alarmed about what happened but I'm not afraid. We will never give up our fight for justice,” he said.
Amnesty International has organized a letter campaign in Spanish urging Mexico’s president to properly investigate the thousands of disappearances.
Asia – Sri Lanka
Tens of thousands are presumed to have disappeared in the conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the military which ended in 2009, and in an earlier counter insurgency campaign by the security forces against leftists in 1989-90. Very few cases have been resolved and there has been blatant intimidation reported against families who have dared to ask questions about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Several commissions have been appointed by successive governments since 1990 implicating leading politicians and high ranking officers in the police and security forces. However, the authorities have mostly ignored recommendations that these figures, some of whom remain in their positions, should be prosecuted.
Now, even in peacetime, the disappearances continue: newspaper cartoonist Prageeth Egnalikoda was disappeared shortly before the 2010 presidential election.
His wife Sandya told Amnesty International that seeing justice done and the perpetrators convicted has become Sandya’s main struggle in life now. “The main breadwinner of our family is absent – it puts a huge financial strain on us. Also I have to be father and mother to our children. This is a common struggle for families of the disappeared,” she said.
Sri Lankans at home and abroad are encouraged to enter a poetry competition to mark the decades of disappearances titled “Silenced Shadows.” For more information email: [email protected]
Europe – Bosnia and Herzegovina
The fate of more than 8,000 people remains unknown after Bosnia and Herzegovina’s conflict in the 1990s. Even after two decades authorities across the country continue to fail the families of those who disappeared. The state has failed to fully implement the Law on Missing Persons which requires the authorities to search for all those missing and properly establish a fund to support victims and families.
"The law only exists on paper. Nobody respects it,” Zumra Sehomerovic, the vice-president of the Movement of Mothers of the Srebrenica and Žepa enclaves said.
“When we go to the authorities, for instance to register a missing person at the municipality to obtain a certificate, we are treated dismissively.”
Amnesty International is calling on the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure the authorities search for all victims of enforced disappearances from the war and to provide their relatives with reparations.
Supporters of this call to action can write a letter to the chairman here .
Africa – Gambia
Journalists in many African states face government intimidation and prosecution. One of the most restrictive regimes is Gambia. In April 2004, President Yahya Jammeh called on journalists to obey his government "or go to hell."
In July 2006, journalist Ebrima Manneh of The Daily Observer was reportedly arrested by state security after attempting to republish a BBC report criticizing President Jammeh shortly before an African Union meeting in Banjul. His arrest was witnessed by co-workers.
After repeated attempts by his father and fellow journalists to find him, the Government issued an official statement in February 2007 denying his arrest or any knowledge of his whereabouts. In 2008 the community court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States ruled that his arrest and detention was illegal and ordered the Gambian authorities to immediately release him. It also ordered that US $100,000 in damages be paid to him. The judgement has yet to be enforced.
The Gambian government insists it has searched all prisons and can find no trace of him. However, recent reports suggest that he is being held without charge at Fatoto Police Station in Eastern Gambia. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. His whereabouts remain unknown.