By the AIUSA Cogroup Writers
August 30 is observed globally as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. You may wonder why. You may wonder what is meant by an “enforced disappearance”? Read on, and we’ll tell you. We’ll also tell you how you can join the fight to get justice for the disappeared. Those who committed these horrific acts would like the world to forget the disappeared. We cannot and must not let that happen.
An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is detained against their will by government agents or people acting with the government’s consent, and then the perpetrators deny all knowledge of the victim’s status or location. It’s a global phenomenon occurring in countries in all regions of the world, from Argentina to Laos and from Bangladesh to Spain. Enforced disappearances are used to spread terror in a society. They often occur in the context of internal armed conflicts, by governments trying to repress political opponents or by armed opposition groups. Victims are frequently tortured and many are killed. Often, they are never released and their status remains unknown, with their families continuing to live, to this day, with the agony of uncertainty about their loved ones’ fate.
In this blog post, we’ll highlight just a few cases of enforced disappearance — in China, Algeria, Libya, Republic of the Congo, Syria and Sri Lanka. We’ll provide actions you can take action for the disappeared. Please read on and take action. The families of the disappeared are counting on us for our help.
We start with China. Since 2017, massive numbers of predominantly Muslim people — perhaps 1 million or more — have disappeared into detention centers or prisons in Xinjiang, China. Their families and friends have often been unable to obtain any information about their whereabouts, the reasons for their detention, their sentences, or their conditions.
Amnesty International has conducted interviews to document over 120 such cases in the Free Xinjiang Detainees campaign, although this is only a small percentage of the total number of detainees. Ahmetjan Juma was a high school teacher who was taken from his home near the city of Kashgar in May 2017. His brother, Mahmatjan Juma, who is Deputy Director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, was told that he was initially held in a detention camp near their home and sentenced to fourteen years merely for communicating with a person living abroad but has been moved since then. His brother says, “I believe that he’s still in jail in Kashgar somewhere. But I don’t know which jail and how he is doing.”
Abdukadir Jalalidin, a poet and a professor at Xinjiang Normal University, was taken away from his home on January 29, 2018, according to his son. He has not been seen or heard from since. Abdukadir’s daughter, Bulbulnaz who lives in Japan and advocates on her father’s behalf, says: “Sometimes I feel like no one is actually hearing our voice. I feel like we are all alone here.”
The last time Akida Pulat heard from her mother was in December 2017. Rahile Dawut is a prominent Uyghur scholar specializing in the study and preservation of Uyghur culture who worked at Xinjiang University. In 2021, former colleagues confirmed that she had been sentenced and imprisoned but the charges and her whereabouts are unknown. Akida told Amnesty International, “I am scared for my mom. I am really concerned about her health and safety.”
Join their families and call on the Chinese government to immediately release Ahmetjan Juma, Abdukadir Jalalidin, Rahile Dawut and all persons detained in Xinjiang merely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association and religion.
We now turn to Algeria. From 1993 to 1999, Amnesty International compiled approximately 3,000 dossiers on the cases of people who had “disappeared” during an internal armed conflict in the country. Families of thousands of the disappeared formed an Algerian association, SOS Disparus, in 1998 and have been seeking truth and justice for their family members. Using every mechanism known to pressure the national authorities, SOS Disparus reached out to the international mechanisms available: more than 4,000 cases were submitted to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and dozens to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They continued to call for justice and had been peacefully protesting in the streets until these protests were strictly banned in recent years. They have faced it all: violent dispersal, arrests, and harassment by the authorities who, to this day, deny any responsibility. In 2018, Nassera Dutour, spokesperson for the association whose son disappeared in 1997, told Amnesty International: “Twenty years after the establishment of the association, many of our members, mothers of disappeared who lived in hope, died in despair without knowing. So long as we have a breath of air, we will fight for truth and for justice to be done for the disappeared. We will keep moving forward even if the Algerian authorities ignore us because we know that the world has seen us, sees us, and hears us.” Today, she continues to resist and continues to gather the precious testimony of surviving family members.
Enforced disappearances continue to occur in Algeria. One recent emblematic case of an enforced disappearance (although fortunately a temporary one) is that of the Algerian activist Slimane Bouhafs. On August 25, 2021, he disappeared from Tunis after neighbors saw three men in plainclothes force him into a black car. Four days later, his family learned through informal connections that he was in custody at a police station in Algiers. On September 1, 2021, he finally appeared before a judge, but the charges were not disclosed. Slimane Bouhafs is a human rights defender who has remained in prison on trumped-up charges and was recently sentenced to 3 more years on July 4, 2023. Please call on the Algerian government to immediately release Slimane Bouhafs and ensure his freedom to leave the country.
In Libya, the practice of enforced disappearances goes back decades. During Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, some 1,200 people were extrajudicially executed in Abu Salim prison in 1996; the authorities subsequently refused to provide information about their fate and their resting places to their distraught relatives. During the 2011 armed conflict, both pro-Gaddafi forces and their opponents forcibly disappeared civilians they alleged to be supporting their rivals. The practice of enforced disappearances has continued, with militias, armed groups and security forces arbitrarily detaining and forcibly disappearing thousands of people including internally displaced people and refugees and migrants forcibly returned to Libya following interceptions at sea.
A recent case in Libya is the military prosecutor, Farouq Alsqidig Abdulsalam Ben Saeed, who has been forcibly disappeared since armed men in plainclothes abducted him from a Tripoli street on June 26, 2023. He appears to have been taken to Mitiga prison, which is located inside the Mitiga International Airport complex and is under the control of the Al-Radaa militia. Please call on the Libyan government to ensure that Farouq Ben Saeed’s fate and whereabouts are immediately revealed, he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment, and immediately released.
Now we turn to the Republic of the Congo. Amnesty International has documented hundreds of enforced disappearances in the country. In 2007, the Congolese government signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearance but did not ratify it. The government has since delayed this ratification. Please call on the Congolese government to ratify the Convention as soon as possible.
In Syria, there have been thousands of enforced disappearances in recent decades. One such case is that of Rania Alabbasi, a Syrian dentist and famous chess player. On March 11, 2013, representatives from the Military Intelligence arrived at her residence and took Rania Al-Abbasi, her husband Abdul Rahman Yasin, and their six children (Dima, Entisar, Najah, Alaa, Ahmed, and Layan) into custody. At the time of their arrest, the children were 14, 13, 11, eight, six and two years old respectively. No one has had any contact with the entire family since then. One of their relatives expressed his anguish over the enforced disappearance of the family, saying, “We need them to inform us — are they still alive or have they passed? Should we persist in our search? We just need to know.”
An Amnesty activist who recently talked to Rania’s relatives reported the following: “The day I met Rania Alabbasi’s family, I felt useless, powerless. I shared words of hope, justice, accountability — all those words sounded emptier than ever in my mouth. The call ended. What can I do, thousands of miles away, that would ever mean anything for this family, for Rania?
Some other times, I think: I am a little bit useless, but you know what? I know about what happened to Rania. And I will bring it up. I will tell people and be loud about it, and I will show her photo, and say her name, and where, and how it happened, and I will keep repeating her name, and where, and how it happened, because that is all I have. Hopefully, Rania’s family would feel less alone, hearing whispers, or photos, or posts or anything really, with her name on it.”
In Sri Lanka, Amnesty International has estimated that there are 60,000–100,000 enforced disappearances in connection with internal armed conflicts over the past 40 years. In the vast majority of these cases, there has been no accountability. Families of the disappeared in the north of the country have been continuously protesting for the last six years, demanding truth and justice for their loved ones. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda. He went missing after leaving work on January 24, 2010. Two days earlier, he had published an article critical of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite years of police investigations, the Sri Lankan government has not accounted for his fate. Please call on the government to conduct an effective investigation and bring to justice those responsible for his disappearance.
Over the past several years, Amnesty activists around the world have participated in a photo action for Prageeth, holding a sign saying “#whereisprageeth?” and publicizing his case on social media. You can see some of the photos here. Please join our photo action and share your photos as widely as possible, including with Jim McDonald, the Sri Lanka Country Specialist for AIUSA (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The scale and immensity of enforced disappearances may seem daunting. It may seem hopeless. But the families of the disappeared have not given up hope, including the SOS Disparus in Algeria, the mothers in northern Sri Lanka, and all the other relatives who continue to protest and campaign for their disappeared family members. As the Amnesty activist who talked to Rania Allabasi’s family said, we know about the disappeared and we know if we keep raising their cases, the families will be less alone. There’s still hope for justice. Please join us in this fight.
The AIUSA Cogroup Writers include the following Amnesty International USA country specialists: Ken Mayers, Jim McDonald, Terrie Rodello and Selene Bonczok Sotelo.