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Letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Re: Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion

Bangladesh on 21 July 2014
Location : Bangladesh | Source : HRW. Image Source: HRW

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to urge you to disband the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and, in the interim, to make it an entirely civilian force by withdrawing all military officers and soldiers from the force.

Over the last decade, Human Rights Watch and others have documented serious and systematic abuses by RAB, including large numbers of extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary and illegal arrests.[1] RAB has been allowed to operate with impunity by successive governments, including those presided over by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which created RAB in 2004, the subsequent military-backed caretaker regime, and since 2009, the Awami League (AL).

Independent organizations estimate that RAB has been responsible approximately 800 killings over the past 10 years.

Although RAB is officially led by a senior police officer, in practice RAB is run by the military officers who act as his deputies. Police officers within RAB privately complain that they are treated as subservient to the military, which is a much more powerful institution in Bangladesh. RAB’s structure means that through RAB the army is deployed in civilian law enforcement duties, but without proper training or civilian accountability and oversight – all points the Awami League made while in opposition.

RAB's image within Bangladesh is at an all-time low following allegations that its officers were involved in the contract killings of seven men in Naryanganj in April 2014, allegedly on behalf of a ruling party member. We welcome your government's commitment to investigate these allegations and bring to justice anyone involved, including RAB personnel. Three officers have already been arrested. But while this incident was particularly shocking, it was far from an isolated incident. RAB has enjoyed longstanding impunity with senior government officials even condoning extrajudicial killings as necessary for crime control. In 2009, then Law Minister Shafique Ahmed told Human Rights Watch that even though he did not condone “crossfire” killings, it should be remembered that RAB had only killed criminals. On March 9, 2014, Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, in response to criticism of the frequent deaths in crossfire, responded, “Of course, every human being has the right to live. But, I think a bit of crossfire is needed to uproot terrorism from the country.”

Recently, Human Rights Watch has investigated credible allegations that RAB members were involved in the unlawful killings or disappearance of many opposition activists, either acting alone, or as part of “Joint Forces,” with the police and Border Guard Bangladesh before, during, and after the January 5, 2014 parliamentary elections. In six of the cases we researched, the authorities admitted that security forces had initially detained the victims and that the victims had been shot dead while in custody. In three other cases the authorities claimed that the victims had died during gunfights they call “crossfire” between criminals and the security forces. In two cases, statements from witnesses and the circumstances of the killings indicate that the security forces executed the victims.[2]

Human Rights Watch also investigated 10 cases where individuals were illegally arrested by people who witnesses claim identified themselves as police or RAB. In some cases, witnesses said that victims were taken away in vehicles marked as RAB vehicles. In seven of the ten cases the victims’ bodies have been found, often by the roadside. The others have disappeared. These cases and others are the reason Human Rights Watch calls RAB a “death squad.”

While there is no doubt that Bangladesh needs strong law enforcement agencies, and it has often been argued that RAB played a key role in defeating extremist groups and criminal gangs which had become too powerful for the police to tackle alone, it has been involved in systematic killings for so long with so little accountability that it is clear that it cannot be reformed and should be disbanded.

The Human Rights Watch recommendation that RAB be disbanded has now been endorsed by the leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia. This is a watershed, as Zia established RAB during her last term in government.

Madam Prime Minister, while in opposition, you committed both publicly and privately to rein in RAB and convey zero tolerance for extrajudicial killings. Even after you took office in February 2011 you admitted that extrajudicial killings remained a problem saying: “We have been trying our best to stop extrajudicial killings, which started in 2004…. I have always been against extra-judicial killing, which are continuing a long time. They cannot be stopped overnight.” However, since then, your government has failed to take action to hold RAB accountable and prevent future killings. While RAB was started by a previous administration, the killings that have happened since 2009 are the responsibility of your government to prevent, investigate, and punish. Your government has failed to do so.

On May 14, 2014, following the Narayanganj contract killings, we wrote to you again, explaining that RAB should be disbanded to end the culture of custodial killing with impunity. However, you have apparently ruled out disbanding RAB and defended its record.

Although your government claims that almost 2,000 RAB members have been punished for various misdemeanors since its inception, not a single RAB member has been prosecuted for extrajudicial executions, torture, or arbitrary arrests before the Narayanganj incident. Even in this high profile case, investigations have stalled and it is feared that senior officials responsible will escape accountability.

We do not believe that RAB can be reformed. It has developed a culture of operating above the law without civilian accountability. It must be disbanded so that the killings come to an end.

Please see our key recommendations to the Bangladesh government below.

Yours sincerely,
Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia Division

Key Recommendations

Disband RAB and in its place create an entirely civilian institution which puts human rights at its core in leading the fight against organized crime and terrorism. The new agency’s officers and other members should no longer be drawn from the military, which is not properly trained in law enforcement.

Establish an independent commission to assess RAB’s performance, to identify all those plausibly deemed to be involved in serious violations such as extrajudicial killings who should be excluded from a reformed RAB and prosecuted, and to develop an action plan to transform RAB into an agency that operates within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms. The commission should be charged with receiving complaints from the public. The report of the commission should be made public.

Ensure that all those responsible for abuses are investigated and prosecuted in an independent, transparent, and credible manner. Investigate and prosecute commanding officers and others in a position of authority who knew of abuses and failed to take action to prevent or punish abuses.

Until RAB is disbanded:

Immediately remove all members of the armed forces presently deployed to RAB.

End the practice of seconding members of the armed forces to RAB and make necessary legal changes to prohibit the future use of serving soldiers for law enforcement duties.
 

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