Bangladesh Summons US Envoy Over Sanctions on Elite Police Unit

Jesmin Papri
2021.12.11
Dhaka
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Bangladesh Summons US Envoy Over Sanctions on Elite Police Unit Black-clad Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel patrol the street at a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Oct. 7, 2020.
[AFP]

Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET on 2021-12-11

Bangladesh on Saturday summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest Washington’s financial sanctions on its elite police unit accused of human rights abuses, saying the superpower was undermining a government agency, according to a foreign ministry statement.

A spokesman for the unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), also claimed Saturday that the force does not violate human rights but protects the rights of people and maintains law and order in the country.

The United States Treasury department on Friday sanctioned RAB itself as well as six of its current and former officers. In addition, Benazir Ahmed, a former director general of the force, was barred from entering the United States “due to his involvement in gross violations of human rights.”

The notorious black-clad commando unit has been under the scanner of rights groups for years over allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.

In response to the U.S. sanctions, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen called in United States envoy Earl R. Miller to convey the government's displeasure.

“The U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R. Miller was summoned by Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen today [Saturday] to convey Dhaka’s discontent over the designated sanctions imposed yesterday by the U.S. departments of Treasury and of State on some of the present and former officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB),” the Bangladesh foreign ministry statement said.

Momen expressed regret that the U.S. decided “to undermine an agency of the government that had been on the forefront of combating terrorism, drug trafficking and other heinous transnational crimes that were considered to be shared priorities with successive U.S. administrations,” according to the statement.

The Bangladesh foreign secretary also said Bangladesh was disappointed that the decision “was taken unilaterally" by the U.S. government and “without any prior consultation” with Dhaka.

He claimed that the allegations made against RAB over some specific incidents had been explained to the United States. Dhaka had also informed the U.S. and United Nations human rights bodies “on multiple occasions” about the justice and accountability measures undertaken to do with those incidents, Momen said.

According to Bangladesh’s statement, the U.S. envoy “took note of the concerns” raised by Dhaka and assured that they would be conveyed to Washington.

On Friday, Miller had indicated it was time to “recall U.S.-Bangladesh founding principles and pledges….”

“[A]s the Bangladesh Constitution states, ‘The rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens,’ " Miller posted on Twitter.

RAB was set up in 2004 by then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to combat rising Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. The unit comprises personnel from the army, navy, air force, police and border guard. Other original duties included internal security, intelligence gathering related to criminal activities, and government-directed investigations.

Alleged extrajudicial killings by RAB increased in late 2018 when the government launched a “war on drugs,” according to a 2018 letter by United Nations Special Rapporteurs to Bangladesh’s government.

On Friday, a press statement by the U.S. Department of the Treasury cited NGOs’ and rights activists’ as alleging that RAB and other Bangladeshi law enforcement were responsible for torture, more than 600 disappearances since 2009, and nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.

Threaten US national security interests’

RAB denied it is responsible for torture, disappearances and killings.

At a press conference Saturday, Commander Khandaker Al Moin, a RAB spokesman, trotted out the same explanation the Home and Foreign ministers have offered for years to explain the killings. He said sometimes suspects are killed when personnel act in self-defense during “gunfights” that ensue when the alleged criminals fire at RAB officers.

Washington does not buy that explanation.

“Widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse in Bangladesh by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – as part of the Bangladeshi government’s war on drugs – threaten U.S. national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh,” the Treasury department statement said.

But Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on Saturday said the relevant agencies investigate every incident of human rights violations and take legal action when necessary.

“Members of law enforcement agencies cannot just fire at a person. There is a judicial inquiry into all incidents of gunfights,” he told reporters after attending an event in Dhaka.

“The U.S. has not been neutral in imposing sanctions,” he said.

“Maintaining law and order is a challenging task in Bangladesh.”

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