“If you find him – shoot and kill him, wherever he is. And then plant a weapon beside him.” This is often the order, says a high-ranking officer. In the conversation he explains how the elite police force in Bangladesh selects which people to kill.
The Rapid Action Battalion, RAB, is a special unit within the police, made up of both military and police officers. Formed in 2004, it aims to fight serious crimes, like terrorism and drug trafficking in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries.
The Rapid Action Battalion is a paramilitary elite force that became operational in mid-2004 with a mission to “prevent crime and apprehend criminals.” It has a total strength of roughly 9,000 personnel and is made up of staff seconded mainly from the armed forces and the police, but also from other services. While the force is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs and has civilian law enforcement duties, its legal foundation is partly military in nature and most of its senior officers come from the army.
By the end of 2008, more than 6,222 persons had reportedly been extra-judicially killed by the force since it was established. Of these, 1,733 had been killed in 2007 and 2008 during the emergency.
A Bangladeshi MP who has been been behind bars for more than two months after allegedly being detained and tortured by a paramilitary unit trained by the British government has given a harrowing account of his mistreatment in a letter from prison.
Disappearance of Critics of Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina
This can be a way of getting rid of political opponents and there are forces that want to remove a large number of people, according to the RAB officer.
He expresses the opinion that this may be a way of controlling population growth. There are so many horrible details in the recording that our translator needs to go out several times, during the translation, for a breath of fresh air.
“Disappearances have skyrocketed since 2009, it is a very widespread problem. Very often, those who are killed or who disappear are activists, or people belonging to the political opposition. No one in the country is safe”, says Olof Blomqvist, at Amnesty International.
“It is something that absolutely has to be looked into more. Quite often, in other cases, we see how authorities are able to use the judiciary to target political opponents or other critics. Unfortunately, the judiciary in Bangladesh has in some ways become a tool of oppression of the authorities”, he says.
Killing of Nazrul Islam
Nine Rab men have been sued for murder by the family of a businessman who died in a hospital after being allegedly tortured in the custody of the elite force in Brahmanbaria. The accused Rab men include Maj AZM Shakib Siddiqui, commander of crime prevention company (CPC)-3 of Rab-14.
The case was filed with a Brahmanbaria court yesterday.
Senior Judicial Magistrate Nazmun Nahar fixed Wednesday for next hearing, after advocate Khairul Anam moved the case on behalf of the victim’s family. The victim is Shahnur Alam, 43. In the case statement, his brother Mehedi Hasan alleged some Rab-14 members tortured Shahnur at the battalion’s Bhairab camp in Kishoreganj. He died at a hospital in Comilla on May 6 after being admitted there following a reference from the Brahmanbaria prison authorities.
Assistant Sub-inspector Enamul Haq of Rab-14 led the team that picked up Shahnur from his home on April 29, the case statement reads.
Seven other unnamed Rab men and two civilians have also been made accused in the case. The case comes amid widespread criticism of the elite force over its alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, something the force has always denied.
Three of its dismissed officers are now facing abduction and murder charges in a Narayanganj court. The case involves the April 27 kidnap and the subsequent killing of seven people, including Narayanganj panel mayor Nazrul Islam and senior lawyer Chandan Sarker.
Family members alleged some Rab men killed Nazrul in exchange for Tk 6 crore from his political rival Nur Hossain and some others. The allegation led to the dismissal and then arrest of the trio.
In Brahmanbaria, Mehedi said nine plainclothes men came to their home at Bogdohor village under Nabinagar upazila around 12:30pm on April 29.
Three of them summoned Shahnur and asked for drinking water. Shahnur brought water for them but in the meantime the six others, who were a little behind, appeared on the scene and handcuffed him.
All the nine men then brought out Rab uniforms from their backpacks, put them on and then went away with Shahnur, Mehedi added. The next day, Shahnur was handed over to Nabinagar Police Station with injury marks on his body. A court sent him to jail on May 1, police said. As his condition worsened, the jail authorities admitted him to Brahmanbaria Sadar Hospital on May 4 and later shifted him to Comilla Modern Hospital. He died there on May 6.
“The Rab men poured hot water on my head and in my mouth and pushed two boiled eggs through my rear. They also beat me up and kicked me with gumboots,” Mehedi quoted Shahnur as telling them at the hospital the day before he died. A three-member team headed by a Comilla magistrate in its inquest report said the victim’s body bore signs of severe torture, according to Mehedi.
Pay Ransom Or Get Shot
On the morning of February 28, 2013, the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party called a strike to protest the death penalty handed down against its leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who had been convicted by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). One of the protests took place near Dhaka’s International Islamic University. Fazal, an 18-year-old law student who resided in a nearby student dorm in the Kutubbagh area, said he did not participate in the protest but had just left his dorm to go to breakfast when he heard gunshots and saw people running. Fazal, who asked Human Rights Watch to use a pseudonym to limit the chances of police retribution, said he saw police beating three men, and that as he moved away a man grabbed him by his shirt collar from behind. Fazal said he was beaten and then brought to the Sher-e-Bangla Police Station.
A television crew happened to film the arrest, showing that he was healthy when taken into custody. Fazal said there were several other detainees at the police station, all with gunshot injuries. He heard the police sub-inspector (SI) ask about him:
I was sitting on the floor with the others. The SI said, “He has not been shot. Bring him out.” They grabbed me by my collar and pulled me to the back of the police station. It was an area where they bathe. In fact, it was early in the morning, and there were some policemen there, a little further away, brushing their teeth or shaving. Then the policemen started loading their rifles in front of me. I asked, “What is my fault?” I begged them to spare me. They said, “Keep quiet. Stand with your eyes shut. We are going to shoot. If you talk too much we will shoot you in the chest.” One of the men said, “Give us five lakh taka [US$6,300]. We will let you go.” I heard five lakhs and kept quiet. I knew my family couldn’t give five lakhs. They started hitting me with rifles. The SI who was supposed to shoot me said, “Blindfold him.” They tied my eyes. I knew they were shooting me. I heard the sound. Then I woke up I found myself in the verandah, bleeding. I realized I had been shot.
Torturing British Nationals In Bangladesh
In the letter, which appears to be addressed to the British government, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury describes how he was severely beaten and a man he believes to have been a doctor monitored his blood pressure while he was subjected to a series of electric shocks.
Human rights groups say torture is employed routinely by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The unit has also admitted responsibility for so many extra-judicial killings that it is condemned by Human Rights Watch as a “government death squad”.
Chowdhury, 63, was detained in Dhaka last December by RAB officers and a number of officials from a Bangladeshi intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. In the letter, Chowdhury says he lost consciousness while being beaten around the head and back. When he came to, he says, he had been strapped to a metal table.”My abductors were engaged in clamping on metal clips and clamps on various parts of my body – my toes, my knees, my genitals, my hernia incisions, my chest nipples and my armpits. A bearded doctor strapped a blood pressure measuring [device] on to my arm and started instructions to first insert needles under my toenails and switch on electric surges.”
According to human rights groups the number of extrajudicial killings admitted by the RAB is rising. Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar says the RAB was involved in at least 80 extrajudicial killings in 2010, compared with 63 the previous year.
Since the start of this year, a further 11 people have been shot dead by the unit. The latest killings took place on 18 February, when a 31-year-old man and a 33-year-old man were shot by the RAB and police on the banks of the Kali river, in Jhenidah, 110 miles southwest of Dhaka.
Trading Drugs and Arms
The high-ranking officer tells how the police take bribes from criminals. They use the money to buy weapons to plant next to the people they kill.
People seldom had weapons from the beginning. Planting evidence provides a motive for the killing, that the elite police force acted in self-defense, he explains.
This very sensitive recording is almost two hours long. The high-ranking elite police force officer is clearly repeating, over and over again, statements about killings and enforced disappearances conducted by RAB.
Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized and documented human rights violations committed by RAB.
Amnesty International is monitoring the developments closely in Bangladesh.
The organization also has close contacts with the families of those killed, abducted and tortured by the elite police force. We let experts assess the unique recording.
The Bangladesh expert Olof Blomqvist at Amnesty International in London says that it is shocking to listen to the recording.
“It is incredibly chilling to hear someone speak so casually and coldly about carrying out these very serious human rights violations. Having said that, we have not been able to confirm these ourselves, but this is something that definitely needs to be investigated”, Olof Blomqvist says.
Abductions by RAB
The RAB is often criticized over abductions, involving people that are caught and later found dead, or who never return home.
The high-ranking officer describes three tricky components to enforced disappearances; to capture the target, to kill him and thirdly, the disposal of the body.
In the conversation, they talk about blocks of concrete being attached to bodies, before they are thrown into a river. The conversation using hard cold words is like a scene out of a horror film.
He describes how the police lie to their intended victims. They say they will drive them to a friend for safekeeping, but instead the police kill them.
Death Squad of Sajeeb Wazed, Son of Prime Sheikh Hasina
RAB has admitted to killing at least 6,222 people since its formation in 2004. Rights groups put the number closer to 10,000.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams has called RAB a “Latin American-style death squad dressed up as an anti-crime force.”
If that is the case, then they are now a US-trained Latin American-style death squad.
The extrajudicial deaths, which RAB usually presented as being the result of crossfire, eventually took its toll. Newspapers implicitly mocked the explanation put forward for deaths by always using quote marks around “crossfire.”
“No one believed they happened in shootouts or crossfire,” said Kamal, “everyone knew these were instances of direct killing. They believed this was the only way to deal with crime. But now there is quite a lot of opposition to it.”
In March 2010 photographer Shahidul Alam arranged an exhibition on the extrajudicial killings titled “Crossfire.”
“I got a phone call from RAB,” Alam recalled, “It was a Col. Sohail or something. He said that it would not be good to go through with the exhibition. He strongly recommended we don’t go through with it.”
The gallery was shut down before the exhibition was due to open, and protesting the clampdown became a popular cause. A further blow to RAB’s image was dealt with the shooting of Limon Hossain, a 16-year-old student Sohail says was the lackey of a local mobster.
Kamal says that extrajudicial deaths are rarer now, but that forced disappearances linked to crime and politics are on the rise.
RAB is in the strange situation of being a popular entity that is at the same time a stigmatized one. The result has been a new level of opening up to the media and a process of re-branding.
According to Sohail, the media acts as one of its biggest sources. RAB reciprocates, staging theatrical press conferences when it makes arrests where reporters get to confront those accused for the benefit of live television.
At one such press conference, following a narcotics bust, Sohail himself approached the detained man. “Do you deny that this is a drug?” he thundered, holding up a packet of Ya ba, a popular methamphetamine, to the face of the arrested man.
“I was really surprised, happily surprised to be inside RAB headquarters with crime correspondents questioning the RAB with the US and UK diplomats right there,” said Haque. “Before there were only one or two outlets to deal with, but now there’s so many broadcasters that RAB is more open to questioning.
UN Probe Into RAB
A U.N. human rights body urged Bangladesh’s government this year to launch an independent probe into the elite Rapid Action Battalion security force, as it expressed concern at “consistent reports of arbitrary arrests” and enforced disappearances allegedly involving Bangladeshi law enforcers.
The Committee Against Torture (CAT), a United Nations body composed of 10 independent experts, issued its call for an investigation after examining the human-rights record of Bangladesh, a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
“The Committee expressed concern at consistent reports alleging widespread and routine torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials for the purpose of obtaining confessions or to solicit the payment of bribes … and failure to ensure accountability for law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB),” the committee said in a statement.
The panel called on Bangladeshi authorities to form “an independent investigation into the RAB.”
It also recommended that the activities of the former RAB officers be vetted under procedures guided by the United Nations before they could be selected to serve in U.N. peacekeeping missions abroad, during which they are known to be paid generous salaries.
CAT monitors implementation of the international ban on torture, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1984 and came into force in 1987.
It was the first time that the committee had examined Bangladesh, which ratified the Convention against Torture in 1999 but had failed to submit the committee’s requirements until it sent out a 17-page report on July 23 2019.
The panel released its statement more than a week after Law Minister Anisul Huq defended Bangladesh’s rights records during a meeting of the panel in Switzerland.
In Geneva this year, panel member Felice Gaer told a news conference that Bangladesh had presented the committee “with no report for 20 years, came a week beforehand and gave us a report which was solely about the law.”
There is a great concern in the country about how RAB can continue with its practices and the situation is getting out of control, he says.
Only a few people from RAB have been brought to justice for serious human rights violations. Now Amnesty International is calling for a full investigation and those responsible to be held to account.
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