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Out of control

Arafatul Islam
May 29, 2014

The government of Bangladesh is facing pressure from home and abroad to disband the controversial special police unit which goes by the name of RAB, or Rapid Action Battalion.

Rapid Action Battalion RAB Spezialeinheit Militär Dhaka Bangladesh
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) have demanded that Bangladesh's elite security force, RAB, created just ten years ago to counter growing Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh, should be disbanded without delay.

Following the abduction and apparent contract killings of seven people by members of the RAB in the Narayanganj district of central Bangladesh on May 2, 2014, HRW reiterated its longstanding call for the group to be disbanded.

Fighting Islamist terror

The Rapid Action Battalion was formed by the government of the then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia in 2004 to battle increasing Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh. These Islamist groups reject secular government and seek instead to establish a religious state based on a strict interpretation of Islam.

Rapid Action Battalion
The Government of Bangladesh has no plans to disband RABImage: Getty Images/AFP

The elite force actually managed to arrest or kill a number of top terrorists in 2005 and 2006 and to seize their illegal weapons and equipment.

Extra judicial killings

But it did not take long for RAB's initially good reputation to be tarnished as the dark-clothed elite force slowly became a symbol of fear in the eyes of the Bangladeshi population. They are now seen as an all-powerful unit that acts on the fringes of the law and imposes its own brand of justice on suspected criminals. During so-called "crossfire" incidents involving possible suspects, people wanted by the police who should be brought before a court of law are often killed under unexplained circumstances.

Amnesty International claimed in a report published in August, 2011, that RAB has been implicated in the killing of at least 700 people since its inception in 2004.

Bangladeshi human rights organization ASK's recent report alleges that 24 people were slain by RAB in "crossfire" incidents in 2013.

Most recently, Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of 11 opposition activists before, during, and after the national elections in Bangladesh, which took place on January 5, 2014. In six of the cases documented by HRW, the authorities admitted that security forces had initially detained the victims and that the victims had been shot dead while in custody.

"Extra judicial killings, secret killings, forced disappearances, taking bribes, being biased and submitting to political clout, all of it ultimately leading to political killings which make RAB the most controversial security force in Bangladesh," was the way investigative journalist and the Bobs-winning Blogger Abu Sufian summarized the situation for DW.

Founder demands abolition

Even the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, who founded RAB while in office, has now called for the force to be disbanded. "This force is working against the people and is not needed anymore," Zia said.

Khaleda Zia made this comment on May 13, 2014 after meeting with the families of the victims of the multiple murders in Narayanganj.

Brad Adams of HRW has a similar opinion in this regard. Adams said, "RAB should be disbanded and replaced with a fully civilian force that operates under the rule of law and has external oversight. Death squads have no place in a democracy."

Abu Sufian claims the people of Bangladesh are also in favor of disbanding the elite force:

"The Bangladeshi people have been demanding that the RAB be disbanded immediately for its utter failure in acting in accordance with the laws of the land."

A family member of a victim of an apparent contract killings in Narayangunj believed to have been carried out by RAB members breaks down after seeing the body of the dead relative
A family member of a victim of an apparent contract killings in Narayangunj believed to have been carried out by RAB members breaks down after seeing the body of the dead relativeImage: DW

No plan to disband

But Hasanul Haq Inu, the Information Minister of Bangladesh, has dismissed any possibility of disbanding RAB. Inu said on May 14, that there was no question of disbanding the elite force as doing so at this moment would be tantamount to leaving the country in the hands of militants.

After criticism from so many quarters, police have now arrested three disgraced RAB officers for their alleged connection with the Narayanganj murders.

According to Inu, since its inception in 2004 close to 2,000 members of the Rapid Action Battalion have been punished on different charges, which shows that the group is "not above the law."

"The officers of the elite force will be brought to book for punishment if they commit crimes," the minister declared.

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