Rights Activists Welcome US Sanctions on Bangladesh’s Elite Paramilitary Forces

Activists and human rights groups who have long campaigned against the alleged human rights violations committed by Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary forces have welcomed the U.S. sanctions on the forces imposed on December 10.

The U.S. action, which also levied sanctions and visa bans on dozens of former and current government officials and entities in a number of countries including China, Myanmar, North Korea and Russia as part of International Human Rights Day observance, targeted Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion. The RAB, the country’s paramilitary force, has been accused of involvement in hundreds of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings. The sanctions also target the country’s national police chief.

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the sanctions may have been triggered by some “exaggerated information,” but several global rights groups said the U.S. action against the force is justified.

“RAB deserved to be sanctioned years ago because it has been a de facto death squad, operating with impunity for years in Bangladesh,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of the international rights group Human Rights Watch.

Hong Kong-based Bangladeshi rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman said the U.S. sanctions were needed in response to “crimes against humanity” that span more than a decade.

Established in 2004, the RAB was created primarily to counter terrorism and other serious crimes. Known as an elite force, its personnel are drawn from the army, air force, navy and police. But soon after its creation the force began earning notoriety for alleged abuses, including detention, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Beginning in 2009, after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) came to power, the RAB was accused of involvement in the disappearance of opposition political activists.

According to the Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar, between 2009 and September 2021, RAB killed at least 1,255 people in extrajudicial shootouts. During the same period, at least 605 people vanished through enforced disappearance in the country and RAB was allegedly involved in 190 of those cases, the rights group reported. 

Among the disappeared, 81 were found dead while 154 people still remain missing, according to the Odhikar report. 

Cases of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings rose dramatically in the months ahead of the last two national elections, noted exiled Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader AKM Wahiduzzaman. 

“This trend clearly showed that the disappearances and killings were committed in the interest of the ruling party and that a big number of the victims were opposition party activists,” said Wahiduzzaman, a former university teacher in Bangladesh who told VOA he fled to Malaysia in 2016 out of fear for his life. “Security forces, including RAB, also shot dead many opposition activists during the violent anti-drug campaign and falsely tagged them as drug peddlers.” 

Hasina said in 2009 that her government would act strictly to bring an end to extrajudicial killings in the country. But two years later Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams alleged that her government was not acting against RAB’s “murderous practice.” 

“A death squad is roaming the streets of Bangladesh and the government does not appear to be doing anything to stop it,” Adams said. 

Authorities in Bangladesh have consistently denied that the country’s security forces participated in enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. But, in 2017, a court in Bangladesh handed out death sentences to 16 RAB members for abducting and murdering seven people in Narayanganj city.

After the U.S. imposed the sanctions last week, VOA reached out to RAB’s legal and media wing director Khandaker al-Moin, but he said he would not issue comments to foreign media. 

Home Minister Kamal asserted Saturday that judicial inquiries were conducted in the cases of all killings by all security forces. 

“None can kill a person just on his own. In our inquiries in the past, we found all the incidents [of killings] were justified. Such incidents happen in all countries,” Kamal said to the reporters. 

Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said the United States had imposed the sanctions on the basis of exaggerated allegations from some NGOs and human rights groups. 

“It is very unfortunate that a developed country like America takes many actions [against other countries] that appear to be not very mature,” Momen said to local reporters adding that hundreds of thousands of people disappear in the United States each year.

In 2017, Swedish Radio broadcast a secretly recorded interview of one senior RAB officer who admitted that his force routinely picked up people, killed them and disposed of their bodies. 

Earlier this year, in a documentary, “All the Prime Minister’s Men,” the Doha-based news channel Al Jazeera secretly filmed Haris Ahmed, a brother of the then-Bangladesh Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed, boasting that he could use RAB to extort money from businessmen and other purposes. 

“My gangsters are RAB. I don’t need thugs. These [RAB] are my thugs,” Haris, a former convicted murderer, said in the recording. 

Human Rights Watch has for years called for RAB to be disbanded, and the U.S. sanctions showed again why the Bangladesh government should act on its recommendation and end the reign of terror perpetrated by this unit, Robertson said. 

“Just whispering the name ‘RAB’ is enough to bring chills down the spines of opposition political cadre, civil society activists and ordinary people, and the fact that ‘cross-fires’ became synonymous with extra-judicial killings, tells you all you need to know about this murderous force,” Robertson told VOA. “Now, the designation means the U.S. is finally putting their words of condemnation into action by sanctioning some of the key, top officers of RAB both present and past.” 

Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Asian Legal Resource Centre, said the sanctions should go even farther. 

“The sanctions have been imposed only on some former and present RAB officers. Actions should be taken also against the perpetrators from police, military intelligence and other agencies who committed identical crimes,” Ashrafuzzaman told VOA. 

He urged the United Nations to review its position about Bangladesh’s participation in global peacekeeping operations. 

“The offenders of crime at home cannot be peacekeepers abroad,” he said.

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