Bangladesh Officials Pledge to ‘Reform’ Sanctioned Elite Force 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu — who is visiting Bangladesh — said in Dhaka Sunday that the Rapid Action Battalion, commonly known by its acronym the RAB, has made “tremendous progress in the area of reducing extrajudicial killings” in the south Asian nation, citing a report by rights advocacy groups. 

After his meeting with Lu, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters that his government would certainly do its best to address the human rights-related allegations against RAB. 

“During our meeting, both sides expressed commitments to democracy and human rights. We will certainly reform RAB, as needed,” Momen said. 

In December 2021, the U.S. imposed human rights-related sanctions on the RAB, an elite force of the Bangladesh security apparatus, along with six of its former and then-serving officers, accusing them of being responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the country.

While senior Bangladeshi government officials had insisted all along that there were no cases of enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings in the country, on January 14, hours before Lu landed in Dhaka, Momen told reporters that his government would request the U.S. to revoke the sanctions imposed on RAB, considering the forces’ “positive role in the country.”

Lu met the foreign minister and other senior foreign ministry officials Sunday and discussed several issues, including the human rights situation in the country.

Soon after his meeting with the foreign minister, Lu told reporters Sunday that he had “quite good discussions” with Momen about the RAB.

“We had very honest and open discussions with the foreign minister and foreign secretary today. The United States has made a commitment on democracy and human rights. We will speak when we see problems, when we can offer suggestions,” Lu said. 

Noting that the U.S. would “stand up for freedom of speech, freedom of expression,” he said, “if you have seen the statement this week by Human Rights Watch, they recognize, and we recognize tremendous progress in the area of reducing extrajudicial killings by the RAB.”  

Last week, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said in a report that following U.S. sanctions on RAB, “extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances momentarily dropped” in Bangladesh. The report, however, added that “instead of taking steps toward reform, the government dismissed the allegations that led to sanctions, and the authorities began a campaign of threats and intimidation against human rights defenders and families of victims of enforced disappearances.”

Lu praised progress he said was made by the government and the force and calling it “amazing work.” He said he recognizes the reform efforts saying that the elite forces are “able to carry out its [the country’s] important counterterrorism and law enforcement functions while respecting human rights.”

Bangladesh’s foreign minister characterized the meeting with Lu as “very constructive” and that during the discussion, he was able to explain “how RAB has helped put an end to terrorism in Bangladesh.” Momen added that Lu is “very happy with the current performance of RAB.”

Although Lu did not say when or if sanctions on the RAB would be lifted, families of enforced disappearance victims said they are disappointed with how he praised the elite force. 

“The U.S. imposed sanctions on RAB and its senior officers 13 months ago. The government in Bangladesh has not investigated the cases (of serious human rights violations) in which RAB officers were involved,” said the wife of a man who said her husband became a victim of enforced disappearance. “The government has not taken any action against them for the crimes they had committed,” she said blaming the RAB and declined to be identified fearing retaliation from security agents. 

“When the U.S. sanctions were imposed on RAB, we began to hope that we would get justice and the guilty officials would be punished. Now we are sure we will not get justice. We cannot understand why the U.S. government is praising the RAB and Bangladesh government,” she added.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the south Asia director of Human Rights Watch said the U.S. government had provided training to RAB, and yet the abuses by the force persisted.

“The Bangladesh authorities failed to hold members of RAB and other security forces accountable for such egregious abuses as torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances. After repeatedly urging the Bangladesh government to conduct independent investigations and properly prosecute those responsible, the U.S. chose to issue sanctions,” Ganguly told VOA. “Until there is an end to impunity, there is every chance that foreign governments will issue sanctions and call on the U.N. to review peacekeeping deployment of the Bangladesh military.” 

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre said that abuses by the RAB continue.

“In Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances continue. Torture under arbitrary incommunicado detention continues. Coercion of statements from the victims with constant surveillance and intimidation continues. Families of victims are still denied access to justice. Even, the government continues rewarding the perpetrators of gross human rights violations with blanket impunity,” Ashrafuzzaman told VOA.

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