On May 3, 2020, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was found blindfolded with his limbs tied in Benapole town, close to the Bangladesh-India border. He had been missing for 53 days.
In the days to come, Kajol was detained on several charges under the country’s harsh Digital Security Act, which has been described by rights groups as an “attack on freedom of expression.” He has been denied bail.
Enforced disappearances like Kajol’s are a common occurrence in Bangladesh—more than 500 reported between 2009 and 2019 according to Odhikar, a Bangladesh-based rights group.
Out of these, more than 170 cases can be traced to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Since its inception, the elite paramilitary force has helped successive regimes maintain control through the use of force and intimidation.
RAB: The origin
The paramilitary unit is alleged to have carried out more than 1,200 extrajudicial killings in the last two decades.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government under former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia formed the RAB in 2004. Various estimates suggest that the 12,000-strong unit has members of the country’s armed forces and the police.
RAB’s inception came on the heels of Operation Clean Heart, a controversial months-long anti-crime operation that brought the Bangladeshi armed forces together with the paramilitary and the police. The stated aim of the mission was to arrest noted criminals, recover illegal weapons, and improve the law and order situation in the country.
“The law enforcement system had consistently failed for decades in curbing murders and extortions, and there was an indication that the police were associated with criminals,” Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, a liaison officer at the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Center, told VICE News.
The three-month operation resulted in 11,245 arrests and around 50 custodial deaths.
The Army had to eventually be pulled off the streets because of widespread backlash from concerned citizens. There was a growing sentiment among Bangladeshis that democracy was threatened by such brazen acts of the armed forces.
In terms of the impunity with which the RAB operates, Ashrafuzzaman described it as similar to the military.
Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who fled to Sweden after being detained and tortured in 2006 by the intelligence agency—the Directorate General Of Forces Intelligence (DGFI)— told VICE News that “RAB is the complete militarization of civilian policing.”
“It was formed to do the dirty job of whichever government is in power,” said Khalil, adding that the DGFI allegedly targeted him for his reporting on RAB.
The crossfire killings
The RAB quickly became popular in Bangladesh for eliminating criminals like Picchi Hannan. According to rights groups, the unit carried out extrajudicial killings under the guise of its war on crime.
A Human Rights Watch report defines “crossfires” as “killings in which the victim was allegedly a bystander in a shootout between the police and an armed group.”
The RAB hasn’t been shy about carrying out crossfire killings. In 2005, then Bangladeshi Army officer and former senior RAB officer Chowdhury Fazlul Bari told the US embassy officials that crossfire killings were “a necessary, short-term expedient,” as per WikiLeaks.
The leaked wires captured how Bari downplayed several casualties. “We are a poor, third-world nation of 140 million people,” he said. “What is 100 to 200 persons in that situation?”
According to Ashraffuzzaman, the RAB justified its crossfire executions as “killing people with a bad reputation”.
“The government found a shortcut to tackle increased crime, and it did so by bypassing the judicial system,” he told VICE News.
Odhikar estimates that between 2004 and 2020, the RAB allegedly was involved in 1,158 crossfire killings.
During its first phase of deployment during the Khaleda Zia-led government between 2004 and 2006, the RAB’s primary targets included criminals, underground communist movements, and leaders of the main opposition party, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League.
In 2009, the Awami League came to power and has since been re-elected twice – in 2014 and 2018.
BNP leader Chaudhury Alam was the first high-profile politically-motivated case of enforced disappearance in 2010. He remains missing to this day. The other case is of BNP’s Ilias Ali, a vocal critic of the Awami League-led government, who disappeared along with his driver in 2012.
In 2013, weeks before the country’s national elections, 22 activists from the BNP were picked up by law enforcement agencies including the RAB. According to Human Rights Watch, 19 remain missing to this day. The Awami League was up for re-election at the time.
Sajedul Islam Sumon was one of them. His sister, Sanjida Islam, is still searching for him.
“We visited RAB offices on a daily basis. On some days we were told that my brother is alive, and on others, we were told that he has been shot dead. Eyewitnesses had seen RAB officials pick him up along with other people. But nothing came of it,” Sanjida told VICE News.
Lack of accountability
In 2009, the High Court Division of the Bangladeshi Supreme Court issued a suo moto ruling in the alleged killings of brothers Lutfar Khalashi and Khairul Khalashi by the RAB.
According to Ashrafuzzaman, the case is “dead”.
In 2017, a Dhaka court sentenced three RAB officers to death for killing seven members of the ruling Awami League and dumping their bodies in a river in Narayanganj. In this case, the RAB had been accused of accepting money to facilitate a personal rivalry.
Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have repeatedly said that extrajudicial killings do not happen in Bangladesh. In 2017, Sheikh Hasina compared enforced disappearances in Bangladesh to that in the UK and US, reportedly saying that the situation in Bangladesh was “better” as compared to other countries.
RAB’s global connections
Cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010 indicated that RAB officials were trained by the UK police in “investigative interviewing techniques”, and “rules of engagement’.
According to Ashrafuzzaman, the RAB “also conducted proxy torture for the British Police.”
The RAB detained and tortured Bangladeshi-origin British citizens who had been interrogated in Britain, he said.
Rights groups have detailed Bangladesh’s excesses in trampling dissent and personal freedom via law enforcement agencies like the RAB.
However, other countries have fallen short of criticising Bangladesh for its rampant human rights abuse.
David Bergman, English Editor of Netra News, which has been banned in Bangladesh since 2019, told VICE News that Sheikh Hasina “is seen as a secular leader and Bangladesh is seen as a moderate Muslim country.”
He explained that the other alternatives in Bangladesh, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, are not considered as viable options by the West.
“Bangladesh has also done well on the development index. The growth of the country, both socially and economically, acts as a deterrent when it comes to taking it to task for human rights violations,” he said.
RAB at present
Today, the RAB is part of the government’s war on drugs.
According to Amnesty International, Bangladeshi authorities including the RAB were involved in the killings of 466 people in 2018.
This is the backdrop in which the RAB is undergoing modernization.
In 2019, authorities led a violent crackdown on dissent during national protests and general elections. In the same year, the RAB was “approved to travel to the United States to receive training in ‘Location-Based Social Network Monitoring System Software’”, according to a 2019 Freedom House report.
It was given 1.2 billion taka ($14 million) by the Bangladeshi government for “state-of-the-art equipment to monitor in real-time what it considers to be rumours and propaganda,” noted the report.
There have been reports of the RAB trying to acquire surveillance systems from various sources, including Switzerland-based Neosoft and even getting a demo from Milan-based Hacking Team. In 2018, the RAB’s procurement list for surveillance equipment included WiFi interceptors, mobile forensic labs, and laser listening devices.
Ashrafuzzaman told VICE News that agencies like the RAB don’t operate in isolation. “There is zero accountability within political governance, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the law enforcement system.”
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