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Dhaka Terror: Man Survives Islamist Terrorist Attack in Bangladesh, but then is Arrested as a Suspect

Tahmid Hasib Khan

When he was released with seven other hostages after a harrowing night of terrorist violence last Saturday, Tahmid Hasib Khan expected to be greeted with welcoming arms. Instead, Mr. Khan, a 22-year-old University of Toronto student, was grabbed by the Bangladeshi police, beaten and taken into custody. He has not been seen since.

Mr. Khan has been held largely incommunicado by law enforcement in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka for the past week, suspected by the police of being involved in the attack in which gunmen carrying explosives stormed a Dhaka restaurant. Mr. Khan’s family and friends say it is a case of mistaken identity, but as the days have passed, they have grown increasingly desperate to make contact with him, fearing for his life in a country where brutal interrogation practices are commonplace.

“We don’t want anything bad to happen to him,” said a cousin of Mr. Khan’s, Ali Faiyaz Shoumo. “We just want to know that he’s alive and want him to get proper medical attention and legal representation.” They said Mr. Khan has epilepsy, a condition that is aggravated by stress.

Human rights experts share their concerns. “The Bangladesh security forces have a long record of using beatings and other forms of torture to try to extract confessions from suspects,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh has been playing a desperate game of catch-up to try to figure out who is behind this attack, and the worry is that this will encourage use of extreme methods like torture against these suspects.”

Five young men who carried out the attack were killed when the army entered the restaurant on Saturday morning, law enforcement authorities have said.

Abdul Baten, joint commissioner of the detective branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, confirmed that Mr. Khan and two others were being held for questioning about the attack in which 20 hostages, most of them foreigners, were killed, along with two police officers. He said the authorities had not reached “any conclusion about them yet.”

Mr. Khan is the son of Fazle Khan, the chief executive of a large poultry company in Bangladesh. A second man being held, Hasnat Karim, is a British citizen who works for a family-owned civil engineering firm, Basic Engineering Ltd. in Dhaka, and who was also a hostage at the restaurant, along with his wife and children, ages 8 and 13.

Mr. Baten refused to release the name of the third man.

Mr. Khan was majoring in global health and heading into his senior year, his brother, Talha Khan, said in an interview, and was involved in the Bangladeshi student group on campus, where he also played sports, acted in plays and participated in the Model United Nations.

He had signed up for an internship working for Unicef in Nepal, where he was scheduled to start work in early July, a letter from the organization confirmed. He had bought a ticket to fly to Nepal a few days after the attack.

He arrived home in Bangladesh on July 1 after the long flight from Canada, and arranged what promised to be a happy reunion with some old friends at the Holey Artisan Bakery, a popular hangout in the city’s diplomatic enclave. But what started as a joyful occasion turned into a scene of horror.

Nevertheless, in the early hours of the morning, as the bloodletting gave way to a grinding hostage siege, the attackers told Mr. Khan and his friends that they would be spared because they were Bangladeshi Muslims, two people who were held hostage with him said in an interview. They spoke only anonymously for fear of upsetting the police, who had asked them not to speak to the news media.

They said that Mr. Khan and Mr. Karim were placed at a table of eight patrons, including Mr. Karim’s two children, all of whose lives were spared. They were instructed to put their heads down on the table, and spent much of the night in the dark.

But several times during the siege, the attackers ordered Mr. Khan and Mr. Karim to perform specific tasks for them, the two hostages said.

At one point, the attackers directed Mr. Khan to carry a gun and go with them to the roof of the restaurant, the hostages said. They said Mr. Khan resisted, and to persuade him to hold the weapon the attackers fired it to show him its magazine was empty. Mr. Khan broke down in tears at their insistence he take the gun, one of the hostages said, but reluctantly complied.

Mr. Karim was twice ordered to go outside the restaurant, once to lock the gate and then in the morning to open it, one of the hostages interviewed said.

They said the attackers appeared to grow anxious in the early morning about what to do with the group of Bangladeshi Muslims they had spared, and took Mr. Khan and Mr. Karim to the roof to discuss the matter.

They said Mr. Khan persuaded the attackers to spare the group, and soon after, at about 6 a.m., they were released.

When the police tackled Mr. Khan and began beating him, apparently believing he was allied with the attackers, the other hostages rushed to his defense.

“Why are you punching him, we were sitting at the same table all night, he was with us,” one of them said, prompting the police to stop. Mr. Khan’s brother said his family was confident of Tahmid’s innocence and yet understood that law enforcement needed time to check the evidence. However, he said, as the days have passed without any contact with him, “we are growing a little bit anxious.”

Mr. Khan’s father was allowed to speak with him a few days ago by telephone in the presence of a police officer. But they have heard nothing for the past three days, his brother said.

Hosne Ara Karim, Mr. Karim’s mother, said in an interview that her son was innocent and the family was “shocked” at the suggestion he might have been involved with the attackers.

In addition to being seen with the attackers during the siege of the restaurant, Mr. Karim had at one time been a member of the faculty of North South University, where several teachers were dismissed for alleged links to militant groups. Spokesmen for the university could not be reached for comment on Friday but Belal Ahmed, a spokesman, told The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi daily, that Mr. Karim was not among four teachers who were let go.


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field