by Nuraldin Zia
This year started with a rude awakening for the elite Bangladeshi law enforcement agency, Rapid Action Battalion, popularly known as RAB. In an official letter to the inspector general of Bangladesh police, the United States authorities notified that individual members and units of the Rapid Action Battalion are ineligible for any further US training and assistance because of acts of gross violation of human rights committed by the members this elite force.
This allegation against RAB is not a new one. Since its inception as an elite force in March 2004, RAB has continuously been implicated in gross violation of basic human rights. Killing people with alleged criminal backgrounds in the name of crossfire became the ‘signature’ tactic of the force. Human rights groups so far tallied more than 2000 extrajudicial killings which were attributed to RAB.
Despite all the initial allegations against the battalion members, the government of Britain and United States continued their support for years. While the battalion continued to receive military training from Britain and the United States, despite all the allegation of extra judicial killing, the sudden change in heart of the major western backers of RAB is a clear indication that something went very wrong with the way RAB is perceived in the west. The embargo on any further US sponsored training, which was put on the members of RAB is a major blow to the credibility to a force which earned its name and fame fighting Islamic terrorism.
One possible reason the west might have continued supporting RAB despite allegations of extra judicial killing was its success in annihilating the home grown Islamic terrorism that rattled parts of Bangladesh during early part of this decade. Other factors that might weigh in the west’s decision to support RAB was it widespread popularity, professional work ethics as well as its politically blind modus operandi.
However RAB’s work ethics and professionalism started to take a turn towards the worse with ascent of Awami League as ruling party. Starting as early as 2008, RAB, previously criticized for extra-judicial killings of highly vetted criminals, allegedly started getting involved in abductions of businessmen and politicians. In 2009, three RAB men were arrested[i] on charges of abducting two businessmen and robbing them of gold and money.
On June 20 2011, two RAB men were captured by a crowd as they unsuccessfully try to abduct Chowdhury Alam, a local government leader and opposition leader, from Gulshan area of the capital. Later a patrol team of Police rushed to the spot and rescued them. One of the rescued was a RAB personnel identified by the meida as ASI Md Billal Hossain (ID No 314772 and Personnel No 4016801)[ii] belonging to RAB headquarters. Five days later, another group of people allegedly identifying themselves as RAB members kidnapped Mr. Chowdhury Alam. Mr. Alam has not been seen since then.
Apart from abductions, extortions and robbery, RAB continued with extra judicial killings through incidences knows as crossfires and shoot outs. In a recent development, Ain O Salish Kendra – ASK (Legal Aid and Human Rights Organization), Bangladesh cited 49 incidents of extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies mostly by RAB, only in the first the two months of 2014. The organization also confirmed 179 extrajudicial deaths in the year 2013. As a result of changing tactics of RAB, ASK could directly attribute 24 such deaths to RAB, 18 to police and for another 137 incidents, an agency could not clearly be linked.
On February 11, 2014 plain clothed armed men identifying themselves as RAB picked up Mridul Kumar Chowdhury in front of his house in Hazari Lane area of Chittagong. Prior to the incident, the gold trader lodged a case against some RAB personnel as they allegedly snatched a consignment of gold he sent to Dhaka. In an interview after being released from RAB custody, Mridul Kumar Chowdhury said that while being tortured by the abductors, he was asked time and again how he ‘dared’ file the case against RAB.
However, a probe committee consisting of law enforcement agency members surprisingly quashed the allegation[iii] clearing RAB of any involvement with the abduction.
The international human rights defender, Human Rights Watch, in all its recent communiques regarding Bangladesh, has recommended disbanding RAB. According to one of its’ recent reports titled ‘Democracy in Crossfire’ HRW unambiguously attributed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and unlawful destruction of private property on RAB personnel.
Human Rights Watch also repeated its call to the government to end the reign of impunity enjoyed by members of Bangladesh’s security forces working in RAB. They also urged to try the RAB members responsible for criminal offences.
Although RAB has been involved in such crimes for the last several years, the recent murder of seven people in Narayanganj has put RAB back into intense public scrutiny. As one followed the series of events leading to the discovery of seven corpses in Shitalakhya, it seemed that the RAB had turned into a mercenary force, a ruthless group of professional killers, who instead of working against the criminal godfathers had started working for the criminal godfathers in exchange of a hefty sum of money. Under intense publicity of the incident and as a result of loud public hue and cry, three seniors officers of RAB perceived to be responsible for the Narayanganj killings have been forced to go into retirement.
Data received from the RAB Headquarters says that almost two thousand RAB men[iv] faced departmental actions for committing criminal offences since 2004. That means, on an average, 16 members of the battalion had to be disciplined every month. These numbers draw an alarming picture of the current state of RAB. First, when 2000 members of a force with total membership of approximately 11000 are convicted of criminal offense, meaning nearly 1 in 5 RAB personnel are convicted of some form of crime and secondly when totally mind-blowing and credible allegations of acting as professional killers on behalf of notorious criminals surfaces against the whole senior leadership of a battalion; it becomes a very legitimate question whether this agency should exist as a guardian of rule of law. One of the most serious allegations about RAB is that the government has lost its control over the force.
There are clear indications that the force is totally demoralized and has lost its way. It is high time to take the sternest decision regarding this rogue force and disband it if needed. The sooner, the better.