Limon Hossein had just been accepted into college when he was shot by black-clad police from Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion. The 16-year-old was tending to his cows near his village of Jhalakati in southern Bangladesh when several members of the feared ‘RAB’ arrived on motorbikes and zeroed in on him.
‘When I was bringing in the third cow, I was grabbed by my collar by one of the RAB officers, who said “you are a criminal, you are a terrorist”,’ Limon said, recalling the March attack. Despite his protests he was dragged to another part of the village, where one officer put a gun against his left leg and pulled the trigger. ‘The RAB officer didn’t even ask for my name, or where I was from or what I was doing.’
The teenager’s case has triggered an outpouring of criticism of the RAB, which generally enjoys strong support in Bangladesh for its routine killing of those it accuses of being ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists.’ The force claims Limon was part of a local gang injured in a shoot-out with RAB commandos, but local journalists and rights activists have questioned the account, calling attention to the battalion’s brutal tactics.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Though he survived the attack, delays getting Limon to a hospital meant doctors were forced to amputate his left leg above the knee. He remains stranded at another hospital in the capital Dhaka, living off private donations and learning to walk using a new prosthetic leg. After so many months in the city, the family’s money is quickly running out and Limon’s father Mohammed Toffazel Hossein says he is worried for his son’s welfare if he is forced to return to Jhalakati. ‘I’m scared the RAB will try to hurt him,’ he says. ‘The state should take responsibility for their actions.’
The RAB, composed of elite members of the army and navy, was formed in March 2004 to target the armed criminal gangs and extortion rackets operating in many parts of Bangladesh. Its officers, clad in pitch-black uniforms with bandannas and mirror shades, soon became a common—and imposing—fixture on the streets of Dhaka, earning a reputation for ruthless efficiency. Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of the local human rights group Odhikar, says RAB committed its first extrajudicial killing on the fifth day of its operations in 2004. ‘Since then they are operating with impunity,’ he says.
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the force has been responsible for the unlawful killing of ‘at least’ 700 people since its inception. Despite promises by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to halt extrajudicial killings when she came to power in early 2009, Amnesty claims at least 200 deaths have occurred on her watch.
Earlier this month, five alleged muggers were shot dead in Dhaka’s Uttara district, but questions remain over the officers’ use of deadly force. The RAB routinely claims its victims were involved in criminal activity and were killed by crossfire or in ‘shoot-outs’ with the authorities, and rights activists say no RAB officer has ever been prosecuted or held to account for any killing.
‘RAB officers accused of human rights violations have remained outside the purview of law,’ says Abbas Faiz, a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International. ‘There’s a strong perception within Bangladesh that RAB, if not directly controlled by the army, is at least protected by it against any form of judicial punishment for human rights violations.’
But RAB’s take-no-prisoners approach to petty criminals has won it widespread popularity. A US diplomatic cable from August 2008 claims that alongside human rights concerns, ‘there’s a widespread belief within civil society that RAB has succeeded in reducing crime and fighting terrorism.’ It described the force as ‘in many ways Bangladesh’s most respected police unit.’