Five days after the US government expressed its concern over the involvement of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) in extralegal killings and forced disappearances, US Ambassador to Dhaka Dan Mozena Tuesday revealed the US plan to form an internal inquiry cell that may ensure accountability of the elite force.
The US envoy said, “We embedded an expert inside RAB for four months to set up internal inquiry cell and we hope to bring back that same expert again and have him re-embed to further strengthen the cell.” The cell is a mechanism to hold RAB members accountable for violating human rights.
On July 19, the US state department in a hearing said, “There continue to be credible reports that Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (or RAB), a paramilitary law enforcement group made up of policemen and Army soldiers, is involved with some extrajudicial killings and disappearances. Due to Leahy vetting requirements, we are barred from providing RAB with any form of training other than that related to human rights. To this end, the US Government embedded a retired U.S. marshal within RAB for four months last year to help stand up and operationalise an internal affairs unit that will provide a much-needed mechanism to hold accountable those who commit human rights violations.”
RAB was formed in March 2004 and it started operations on April 14, the same year. Concerns are on the rise over the growing number of killings by RAB, which the law enforcement agency always euphemistically claims to be deaths in “crossfires” or “encounters”. Even the High Court on several occasions expressed its worry over the situation. The government ministers and the force, however, deny RAB’s involvement in any crimes, but defend by saying that they have to shoot in self defense.The chairman of National Human Rights Commission is also in favour of reorganizing the elite force so that its approach changes.
Earlier the US-based Human Rights Watch urged the government to disband RAB or bring reforms within the force by dropping the members of armed forces. It had earlier requested the arms exporting countries not to sell arms to RAB. Members of the RAB received training from Britain on “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement”, according to a US embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks in December 2010. And because of some limitations, the US government only offers assistance on human rights training to RAB in view of its alleged human rights violations with impunity.
RAB AT A GLANCE
With the mission to “prevent crime and apprehend criminals”, the RAB members’ motto is: “Bangladesh is my pride”. Capabilities of the elite force are detaining armed gangs of criminals and recovery of unauthorised arms, gathering intelligence on crimes and assisting other law enforcing agencies.
However, provisions of ensuring internal security and carrying out government assignments have given the multi-disciplinary force almost supreme authority to conduct any sort of action, including on request of the government high-ups and ruling party leaders. Thus the force is alleged to have been misused, while in some cases, many personnel in the force have been indulged in crimes for personal benefits too. The RAB is also slammed by many people concerned for using excessive force while is praised by many others for its contribution in reducing the extent of militancy in the country. However, killing and torture of detained in its custody has been brought afore by the local and international media since those were “extrajudicial”.
Former US ambassador to Bangladesh James F Moriarty had said, according to the WikiLeaks cable, the RAB is the “enforcement organisation best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)”. After the creation of RAB with security personnel from three armed forces and police, BDR and Ansar, the government began equipping it with highly sophisticated small weapons outsmarting all other forces except the military. The 10 truckloads of automatic submachine guns, AK-47 rifles and other modern arms and ammunition seized in the largest ever arms haul in Chittagong in April 2004 were also handed over to RAB. Even a RAB constable can be seen carrying sophisticated arms like an Uzi but doing jobs as insignificant as checking motorcycle documents or busting brothels at city hotels — tasks usually vested with the police.
The RAB arms also include sniper rifles and sophisticated concealable mini pistols. The elite force has the only dog squad in the country besides having a bomb squad. They also have equipment to track phone calls and cellphones. Forty-four percent of the RAB personnel come from the police and another 44 percent from the three armed forces, while the rest come from Ansar and BDR. Members of the armed forces and police are at the helm of RAB.
HRW RENEWS CONCERN OVER RAB ACTIVITIES
On July 4, the US-based rights watchdog in a report claimed that the ongoing trial in 2009 BDR mutiny is fundamentally flawed and the accused are subjected to gross human rights violations including torture by RAB members. It called upon the government to immediately halt the trial and “disband RAB—the death squad”. But the group faced severe criticism in Bangladesh from different quarters for suggesting “termination” of the elite force. Meanwhile, on July 19, the group came up with a fresh report on the human rights situation of Bangladesh.
On RAB and extrajudicial killings, it said: “Although the government has publicly committed to ‘zero tolerance’ for human rights violations, Bangladesh has not shown a great amount of progress in key areas in the last few years. “We began reporting on RAB in 2005 during the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government. As we have previously documented, the BNP set RAB up to fight organised crime. BNP officials told Human Rights Watch that extrajudicial killings were part of its mandate from the outset because, they argued, corruption in the police and courts meant that powerful criminals could avoid arrest or buy their way out of prison. We continued reporting on RAB during the 2007-2009 military-backed government. We released another lengthy report on RAB in 2011. Earlier this month, we released a report on the government response to the 2009 mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles in which we documented RAB involvement in killings and torture.
“…the governing Awami League knows full well what RAB is capable of. It is notable that when it was in opposition, the Awami League often claimed that its members were killed, tortured and illegally detained by RAB… We have repeatedly asked the government for information on any case in which a RAB member has been prosecuted for a human rights violation, but to date, have never received a reply. This request was made again earlier this month to the home minister, who promised to send us details. It hasn’t happened.
The US government, through the Department of Justice, has provided training to RAB to set up an internal investigative unit, but it remains to be seen whether it will help chip away at the sense of impunity. While setting up such a unit may sound like a good idea, such a unit will not produce any results until RAB and the government are willing to admit that RAB does indeed commit abuses. At present, it is not clear that RAB has agreed to allow the US access to information that would enable it to monitor the unit’s progress, and it does not appear that there are measurable benchmarks of success. The US ambassador has indicated that RAB have asked for more assistance in the same vein, and further training to set up other such units, so we can expect ongoing engagement between the Department of Justice and RAB on this issue. The US, we believe, should use this leverage to monitor progress. Reportedly a handful of cases have been slated for prosecution, but mostly for disciplinary issues. There has been no action yet on serious human rights violations, said the HRW.