Features | Society | South Asia

Bangladesh’s Troubling Death Squad

The Rapid Action Battalion has enjoyed strong public support for routinely killing alleged criminals. But is it always acting within the law?

By Sebastian Strangio for
Bangladesh’s Troubling Death Squad
Credit: WikiCommons

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.

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.

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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.’

Khan from Odhikar says RAB’s popularity was due to the endemic corruption of the Bangladeshi police and court systems. ‘It’s a failure of the criminal justice system,’ he says. ‘The grassroots support is there because they are addressing petty criminals, mid-ranking criminals.’ The problem, he adds, is that they often don’t go any higher.

After Limon’s shooting, RAB accused the teenager of involvement with a criminal gang run by local kingpin Morshed Jommader, and have charged him with carrying illegal weapons. RAB Commander Mohammad Sohail has dismissed Limon’s version of the story as ‘absolutely fake,’ saying he was shot during a shoot-out with Morshed’s gang. ‘I say very strongly, that he is a member of this Morshed group,’ he told the AFP news agency, attributing all contrary accounts to those with ‘ill motives.’

But Nur Khan Liton of the local rights group ASK says his organization conducted its own investigation of Limon’s shooting. According to witnesses who were in the vicinity at the time, he says, no shoot-out took place. ‘There was no crossfire or any other firing. There was only one shot,’ Liton says.

Those that question the official line can also find themselves in the RAB’s crosshairs. F.M. Masum, a staff reporter at the New Age daily newspaper,claims he was beaten up and tortured by plainclothes RAB officers in October 2009 after they arrived to search the empty flat of his landlord, recently arrested on drug charges. Masum asked why the men were trying to enter the property, and when he identified himself as a journalist they turned on him.

‘At this stage, some of them started punching me, and they dragged me towards the fifth floor where the landlord lived. They blindfolded me and they started beating me,’ he says. Masum, who had written articles about extrajudicial killings committed by the RAB under the army-backed caretaker regime that governed Bangladesh in 2007-08, says he was then taken to the battalion headquarters where RAB officers hit him with iron bars and interrogated him about his work. ‘I was in custody for more than nine hours…They interrogated me about my editor, and about his role during the military-controlled government.’

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The ordeal left Masum in critical condition. Though the head officer who attacked him was supposedly barred from promotion as punishment for the attack, the local police station refused to let him file charges. ‘They told me that they could not file the case, as RAB mounted extreme pressure on them,’ he says.

Despite concerns about rights abuses, the force continues to receive training from both the US and UK governments, who see it as a valuable partner on counterterrorism. Though they have taken some steps to address human rights issues with Hasina’s government, Faiz of Amnesty International says the two governments should pressure Bangladesh to launch an independent and impartial investigation into RAB. ‘Western governments might see RAB as creating a safer environment for foreign investment or reducing space for terrorism. They must not under this impression turn a blind eye to the human rights violations the force commits,’ he says.

But following the outcry over Limon’s shooting, it’s possible change could come from within. With this case, Liton says, people have begun to realize that not all of the RAB’s victims are criminals. ‘Now the public realizes the real situation,’ he says. ‘This is a good sign.’

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]