United States Sanctions Bangladesh’s RAB for ‘Serious Human Rights Abuse’

Kate Beddall and Kamran Chowdhury
Washington and Dhaka
2021-12-10
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United States Sanctions Bangladesh’s RAB for ‘Serious Human Rights Abuse’ A Bangladeshi protester begs for mercy from a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) member during a demonstration in Savar, outside Dhaka, April 30, 2013.
Reuters

Updated at 2:28 p.m. ET on 2021-12-10

The United States on Friday imposed financial sanctions on the notorious Bangladeshi police unit RAB and six of its current and former officers, saying they were responsible for serious human rights abuses.

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.”

Washington announced the move on International Human Rights Day, unveiling sanctions against “15 individuals and 10 entities” around the globe.

“Widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse in Bangladesh by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) … 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 U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The force, which comprises members of the police, army, navy, air force, and border guard, is accused of more than 600 enforced disappearances in the past 12 years, a similar number of extrajudicial killings, and use of torture, the statement noted.

RAB was founded in 2004, and charged with internal security, intelligence gathering related to criminal activities, and government-directed investigations, according to the U.S. treasury.

In Dhaka, prior to the announcement, about 100 relatives of disappeared people marked International Human Rights Day with a protest outside the National Press Club with tears and chants of “Give them back!”  

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch had lodged its strongest call yet for action against RAB, saying that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres should immediately ban RAB officers from participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions. HRW also called on the world body to ramp up screening of those officers deployed under its blue-and-white flag to ensure that its human rights screening policy was being effectively applied in Bangladesh.

“Nobody believes the Bangladesh government’s lies about enforced disappearances by its security forces,” said Brad Adams. Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The question now is what donors and the U.N. are going to do about it.”

The six officers named by the Treasury Department are Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun, the current director general of RAB; Benazir Ahmed, its former director general; Khan Mohammad Azad, an additional director general of the force; and Tofayel Mustafa Sorwar, Mohammad Jahangir Alam, and Mohammad Anwar Latif Khan, all former additional director generals at RAB.  

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctions bar U.S. citizens from conducting business with or making contributions to the sanctioned individuals and block access to any property they hold in the United States.

Pantheon

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken named two Bangladeshis on a list of 12 foreign government officials barred from entering the United States.

He cited a 2021 U.S. law enabling the move against individuals and their immediate family members when “there is credible information that officials of foreign governments have been involved in a gross violation of human rights or significant corruption.”

The statement named Benazir Ahmed – the former RAB director-general who is currently Bangladesh’s police chief – and Miftah Uddin Ahmed, a current lieutenant colonel and former commanding officer of RAB Unit 7, for the May 2018 killing of Teknaf City Municipal Councilor Ekramul Haque in Cox’s Bazar, in southeastern Bangladesh. 

“We are determined to put human rights at the center of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occur,” Blinken said.

Benazir.jpg
Benazir Ahmed (center), Bangladesh’s police-inspector general and the former head of the Rapid Action Battalion, visits a police checkpoint in Cox’s Bazar where a retired army major was gunned down, Aug. 5, 2020. [Sunil Barua/BenarNews]

The U.S. moves placed RAB in a pantheon of the worst rights abusers in the world, including those involved in the racial profiling and mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs in China, the slaughter of civilians in post-coup Myanmar, and the exploitation of North Korean workers abroad.

BenarNews tried to contact RAB authorities for a response to the U.S. sanctions, but phone calls and messages were not answered.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal rejected the U.S. sanctions, saying they were “in no way justified.”

“The basis on which the action has been taken does not reflect the ground reality,” Khan told BenarNews Friday night.

“Ours is a country of 170 million people. Policing here is not as easy as in other countries. The police officials in Bangladesh discharge their duties with much patience,” he said.

“While discharging their duties, they must confront many security situations; sometimes they are forced to fire for self-defense. They are entitled to defend themselves,” Khan said, referring to allegations of extrajudicial killings.

“In case any members of the law enforcement agencies are found to have violated laws, we punish them accordingly,” he added.

In August, while responding to a Human Rights Watch report on enforced disappearances, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said they were “fabricated.”

“Some people dissociate themselves from their families and then they come back home after some days,” he told BenarNews. He said incidents of killings and disappearances happened everywhere.

 “When people were killed in America by law enforcement agencies they called it in the line of duty, but when it happens in our country you people [journalists] call it extrajudicial killing,” he said. “This mentality has to be changed.”

‘National shame’

Activist Sanjida Islam, whose group “Mother is Calling” (Mayer Daak) represents relatives of disappeared people, welcomed news of the U.S. sanctions.

Her brother, Sajedul Islam Sumon – a leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) – went missing in December 2013 after RAB officers whisked him away from a residential neighborhood in Dhaka, she said. He has not been seen since.

“We are glad. This is the first time the state law enforcement agency RAB comes under question from anyone. No domestic institution could [raise] any question about their unlawful activities in Bangladesh,” Islam told BenarNews.

“The family members of the victims of enforced disappearances have gone to every institution of Bangladesh to get their sons or brothers back, but in vain,” she said.

Nur Khan Liton, a human rights activist and former executive director of the rights advocacy NGO Ain o Salish Kendra, said the U.S. action against RAB was correct.

“We, the human rights activists in Bangladesh, have been clamoring for years that the law enforcement agencies such as RAB have been carrying out extrajudicial killings in the pretext of ‘crossfire’ and are responsible for enforced disappearances,” he told BenarNews.

“But the state did not heed our concerns. They did not attach importance to our observations. The state repeatedly shrugged off the responsibility for the gross human rights violations,” he said.

“I think this is a matter of national shame when we see a foreign country adopts a resolution of sanction on a state agency of Bangladesh for the violation of human rights,” Khan said.

“The sanction would not have come had they taken our concerns and observations seriously.”

Ashif Entaz Rabi in Washington contributed to this report.

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