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Are Bangladesh's “Men In Black” Fighting Crime or Killing for Money

Law enforcers take former Rab official Lt. Col. Tareque Sayeed the Senior Judicial Magistrate court in Narayanganj. Image by Indrajit Ghosh. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Law enforcers take former RAB official Lt. Col. Tareque Sayeed to the Senior Judicial Magistrate's court in Narayanganj, Bangladesh. Image by Indrajit Ghosh. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Bangladesh's controversial, elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB),have been accused of extortion, extra-judicial killings and even assassination against payment. Are the country's ‘men in black’ essentially an effective, super group of law enforcers or have they metamorphosed into an elite force of mercenaries?

Drawing personnel from the police and the military, the RAB was formed in 2004 to combat the rising crime graph in the country. It was soon dubbed the elite force of Bangladesh. However, over the years, it has become controversial, being stalked by allegations of human rights violations. In a recent high profile abduction and killing of seven men, RAB members were accused [bn] and three RAB officials, officers from the armed forces of Bangladesh, were sacked and detained in this connection. In a separate incident nine RAB members were sued for torture and killing of a businessman. In another recent case, a court in Brahmanbaria, a district in east-central Bangladesh, has ordered the police to accept a case of murder against RAB personnel.

On April 27, 2014, a group of unidentified men abducted Nazrul Islam, a businessman and ward councilor, a few kilometers from the Narayanganj district court in central Bangladesh. An accused in many criminal cases, the councillor was travelling along with four associates all of whom were abducted along with him. Chandan Sarker, a senior lawyer, whose car was trailing that of the councillor, was also abducted along with his driver. The RAB came under scrutiny when eye-witnesses said that the abductors were clad in RAB uniform. However, RAB officials denied the accusations.

After a widespread search, the bodies of the seven men were found floating in the nearby Shitalakkhya river. Their stomachs had been slit, eyes blindfolded, bodies tied with rope, and weighed down with bricks. The family of Nazrul Islam claimed that the RAB officers had taken 60 million Bangladeshi taka (around US $770,000) in bribes for the assassination under their custody.

The RAB had been accused of human rights violation even earlier when they shot an innocent college student and caused permanent disability.

Journalist Anis Alamgir shared an experience  in his column in the online newspaper Bangla Tribune. He wrote [bn]:

র‌্যাবের বিরুদ্ধে যখন হত্যা এবং ভাড়ায় খাটার অভিযোগ নিয়ে তোলপাড় সারা দেশ তখন পুরনো এক গল্প শেয়ার করি পাঠকদের সঙ্গে। তখন বিএনপি তার শেষ দিনগুলো গুণছে। ২০০৬ সাল। ঢাকার এক তরুণকে রাজপথ থেকে তুলে নিয়ে যায় সাদা পোষাকের লোক। তাকে পরিচিত এক ব্যক্তি দিয়ে ফোনে বাসা থেকে ডেকে নিয়ে যাওয়ার সূত্রে আবিস্কৃত হয়েছিল এটা র‌্যাবের কাজ। কিন্তু র‌্যাবের অস্বীকার। কিংবা বলা যায় র‌্যাব কাউকে ধরে নিয়ে যেভাবে কোথায় রেখেছে হদিস পাওয়া যায় না- সে রকম পরিস্থিতি চলাকালে একরাতে তাকে নিয়ে তার বাসায় আসে কয়েকজন র‌্যাব সদস্য। খবর পেয়ে আমি ছুটে গেলাম। কারণ তরুণটি আমার পরিচিত। গিয়ে দেখি তরুণটি র‌্যাব সদস্যদের জেরায় বলছে, অস্ত্রটা এই ড্রয়ারে ছিল। আর র‌্যাব বার বার এটা সেটা বলে হুংকার দিচ্ছে। বাসায় স্বজনদের কান্নাকাটি, র‌্যাবের হুংকার- সবকিছুতে মনে হচ্ছিল কেয়ামত নেমে এসেছে। ছেলেটির মা আড়ালে ডেকে নিয়ে আমাকে বললেন, ৫ লাখ টাকা চাচ্ছে, নতুবা আজ রাতেই মেরে ফেলবে বলছে ওরা।

While the whole nation is discussing the alleged mercenary killing by some members of the RAB force I would like to share an old story. It was 2006, towards the end of tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party government. Some people dressed in plain clothes, abducted a young man from the street. He had been lured out of his home by a phone call, made an acquaintance. It was later confirmed through him that the RAB was behind this, but the RAB officially denied this. Nobody knew where the young man was held. Then one night some RAB members accompanied him to his house. As the youth was known to me so I went to his house. I saw that he was confessing to them that a weapon was in his drawer. The RAB members were questioning and intimidating him and his family. The wails of the relatives and the shouts of the RAB — it seemed that all hell had broken loose. The mother of the youth came to me and whispered that they were asking for BDT 500,000. Otherwise they are threatening to kill him tonight.

Human Rights Watch has alleged that the RAB is behind a spate of torture and extra-judicial killings. The RAB have denied the accusations and have attributed some of the deaths to “crossfire”.

In the same column [bn], Anis Alamgir also pointed out that despite being under scrutiny for these kind of killings, the RAB had a positive image among citizens, who believed that the RAB was working for the greater good of the public by combating crime and terrorist activities in the country. He wrote:

২১ জুন ২০০৪ সাল থেকে র‌্যাব ফোর্সেস পূর্ণাঙ্গভাবে অপারেশনাল কার্যক্রম শুরু করে। জন্ম থেকে গত ১০ বছর ধরে র‌্যাব নামের এই এলিট বাহিনীটির বিরুদ্ধে বিচার বহির্ভূত হত্যার মতো অভিযোগ ছিল। তাদের বিচার বহির্ভূত হত্যাকাণ্ড অনেকটাই প্রকাশ্যই ছিল রাষ্ট্রের কাছে। সরকারের পাশাপাশি কিছু সাধারণ মানুষও তাদের এই বিচার বহির্ভূত হত্যাকাণ্ড মেনে নিয়েছিল কারণ তারা বিশ্বাস করতো র‌্যাব আসলেই জনগণের বৃহত্তর কল্যাণেই বেআইনি কাজ করছে।

RAB started its full-fledged operation on 21 June, 2004. In the past decade this elite force has been accused of a number of extra judicial killings, which was pretty much obvious to the nation. Besides the government, many ordinary citizens also accepted these activities of the RAB, believing that the RAB was stepping out of line (and acting outside the purview of law) for the greater good of the country.

Bangladesh has had over fifteen years of military rule. Many military officers then infiltrated government administration to maintain their political leadership. Sultan Mahmud Zakaria at Kathakata blog blamed RAB's audacity on the lack of democratic practices in the country. He pointed out [bn]

এরশাদ সরকারের [সামরিক শাসক] পতনের পর ১৯৯০-পরবর্তী গণতন্ত্রে আশা করা হয়েছিল যে রাষ্ট্রে বেসামরিক কর্তৃত্ব পুনঃপ্রতিষ্ঠিত হবে এবং বেসামরিক প্রশাসন ও নিয়মিত শৃঙ্খলা বাহিনীর মধ্যে থাকা সামরিক প্রভাব ধীরে ধীরে হ্রাস পাবে। […] কিন্তু দুর্ভাগ্যজনকভাবে বাংলাদেশে সম্ভবত এর উল্টোটি হয়েছে। এখানে সামরিক বাহিনী ক্ষমতায় না থাকলেও তাদের ক্ষমতায়ন প্রক্রিয়া বন্ধ হয়নি। বরং অনেক ক্ষেত্রে জোরদার হয়েছে। ক্ষমতার পালাবদল করা রাজনৈতিক দলগুলো স্বীয় ক্ষমতাকে কুক্ষিগত করতে নিজেদের সামরিক নির্ভরশীলতা বাড়িয়েছে এবং যার পরিণতিতে বেসামরিক প্রশাসন ও শৃঙ্খলা বাহিনীতে আরো বেশি করে সামরিকীকরণের দিকে ঝুঁকছে বলে প্রতীয়মান হচ্ছে।

After the fall of the Ershad government [military rule] in 1990, it was expected that in a democratic environment the civil rule will be reestablished and the influence of the armed forces in the civil administration will diminish. [..] But unfortunately the opposite happened in Bangladesh. The army is not in power but their power has not been reduced, rather it has got emboldened in some cases. In order to appropriate more and more power, the political parties have increased their dependency on the military, which in turn made way for more military personnel in the civil administration.

According to a report by ASK (Ain O Salish Kendra), a human rights organization in Bangladesh, there have been 268 cases of abductions in the country between 2010 and 2014. Twenty-four among them were later released and bodies of 43 people were recovered. 14 had been handed over to police and there are no trace of 187 persons.

Journalist Masud Kamal thinks [bn] that there are political pressures behind the RAB going rogue. According to him:

রাজনৈতিক গুম-খুনগুলোর পেছনে যদি আসলেই র‌্যাবের হাত থেকে থাকে, তাহলে এরও পেছনে রয়েছে রাজনৈতিক কারণ, রাজনৈতিক নেতৃবৃন্দের হাত। তাদের প্রশ্রয়ে কিংবা চাপে পড়েই হয়ত এ ধরনের অপকর্ম করতে হয়েছে। রাজনীতিবিদদের হয়ে অন্যায় কাজ করতে করতে এক পর্যায়ে সশস্ত্র কোনো বাহিনীর সদস্যরা যদি নিজেদের ব্যক্তি বা গোষ্ঠী স্বার্থে একই ধরনের অপকর্ম করতে শুরু করে, সেটাকেও কিন্তু খুব বেশি অস্বাভাবিক বলা যাবে না। হয়ত নারায়ণগঞ্জের ঘটনাটি সে রকমই কিছু।

If RAB is really behind these political murders, then definitely pressure from political leaders is behind the killings.  They committed those crimes for money or under duress. If in the course of continuing to do so, the armed forces start rogue activities for their own vested interest, that would not be very unusual. Maybe the Narayanganj incident was something of that kind.

Professor Ali Riaz writes [bn] on the Kathakata blog about the close connection between RAB and some political leaders:

র‌্যাবের বিষয়ে এই ঘটনায় আমরা গণমাধ্যমের সূত্রে যা দেখতে পেয়েছি, তাতে মনে হচ্ছে যে প্রাতিষ্ঠানিকভাবেই স্থানীয় রাজনীতিবিদদের সঙ্গে তাঁদের সম্পর্ক ছিল। সেটা কেবল নারায়ণগঞ্জেই ছিল বা আছে, তা মনে করা কি ঠিক হবে? রাষ্ট্রীয় একটি বাহিনীর সঙ্গে স্থানীয় রাজনীতিবিদদের এই সম্পর্ক কি বাহিনীর কাঠামোগতভাবেই গ্রহণযোগ্য এবং কর্তৃপক্ষ অনুমোদিত আচরণ? এই বিষয়ে সুস্পষ্টভাবে জানা দরকার। এটা সরকারের পক্ষ থেকেই ব্যাখ্যা করতে হবে। কেননা যদি এটা প্রাতিষ্ঠানিক এবং অনুমোদিত না হয়, তবে তা আর কোথায় কোথায় ঘটেছে এবং ঘটছে, সেটা খুঁজে বের করার জন্যও তদন্ত হওয়া দরকার।

Based on what has been revealed in the media, it appears that RAB had close relationship with the local political ership. Will it be right to think that its true in the case of the Narayanganj incident only? Is this relationship have legitimate, have official sanction from within the administrative structure of the armed forces? If they are not legitimate, then it must be investigated where all this type of collusion is taking place.

Human rights groups and civil society have demanded disbanding of RAB because of the allegations against them. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch has requested in an open letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, to disband this elite force within six months. Earlier this year the US suspended its training program for RAB citing a gross violation of human rights by the battalion personnel.

The information Minister of Bangladesh has informed that so far 1949 members of RAB have either been punished or sacked for different criminal and unethical activities. However, instead of scrapping the RAB, the government has reiterated the usefulness of the RAB and has asked civil society to propose alternative solutions.


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