by David Bergman
WHO said this about RAB?
‘These forces have been given so much power and authority that they have blatantly disregarded constitutional provisions, human rights laws as well as court law. Almost every day they are catching people on different false charges, and are brutally murdering them, covering it by calling it “crossfire deaths”. The victims are not tried or given any opportunity for self defence. So there is a widespread saying, “How can a man be certain that his death is imminent?” The answer is, “When he is caught by RAB or other special forces of the ruling party?”’
This may surprise you. It was the Awami League in a party newsletter published in March 2005 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in power and when as the opposition party it was convenient for them to say these things.
RAB in the BNP era
OF COURSE, what the Awami League said then was right since RAB, established in 2004 by the BNP, was by then known to be committing a high number of extrajudicial killings.
As Human Rights Watch detailed in its 2006 report, the paramilitary force ‘has been implicated in the unlawful killings of at least 350 people in custody and the alleged torture of hundreds more’ with many of the deaths being ‘summary executions’.
One such example that the report detailed was the killing of Abul Kalam Suman.
On May 31, 2005, RAB issued a statement saying it had shot dead the notorious criminal Goilaya Suman in a fierce gun battle at 3:30am THAT MORNING when he tried to escape.
However, the truth was very different.
Twenty-two-year-old Suman, who worked as an accountant at a local cable operator, was an active member of the Awami League’s student wing. At 9:00pm on May 30, he went to his office to close the books, which he did every night.
Three men in civilian clothes came to the office, revealed that they had guns, and asked those present in the office to identify themselves. The men then put on RAB vests and handcuffed Suman and two other employees and took them away.
Suman’s parents heard about their son’s arrest and went to their local police station at Khilgaon where officers suggested that they should go to the RAB-3 office. There, they saw their son sitting in the back of a white minibus, looking semi-conscious. A RAB officer first tried to deny Suman was present but then said Suman would be transferred to the police station in the morning.
After a short while, the parents saw the RAB vehicle leave the office. At 5:00am Suman’s father went to the police station where he saw a police van with the body of his dead son lying in the back.
‘RAB has just cooked up a reason for killing him,’ Suman’s mother said at the time. ‘They arrested him at 9:30pm and I saw him in the jeep at 2:30am, so how could he commit a robbery the same night at 3:00am?’ The two other men abducted with Suman were released 30 days later.
AL comes to power
WITH the Awami League having condemned RAB so resolutely, one might have expected that when the party won the election in 2008 it would make dramatic changes to how the force operated.
However, this was not to be even though very soon after coming to power, foreign minister Dipu Moni told the United Nations Human Rights Council that the government had ‘zero tolerance’ for extrajudicial killing.
Two years into the new AL government, when Human Rights Watch came back to do its next report on RAB, it found there had been a further 200 deaths at the hands of RAB. The rate of killing may have been slightly less than that during the BNP times, but there was no significant reduction.
Two of those who died were Azad Hussain Pappu and Abdus Sattar who were killed in February 2010 in circumstances which provide more than a passing resemblance to the murder of Suman five years earlier.
On February 28, RAB issued a statement that it had killed two men at around 3:00am that morning when its officers came under fire during a raid in Dhaka following a tipoff that two criminal groups were confronting each other.
However, the actual story goes like this. The two men were arrested on the night of February 27 when they were leaving the house of Pappu’s mother. Armed men in civilian dress took the two men to a microbus parked at a street corner, where they put on vests with ‘RAB’ written on it. The arrest was witnessed by many family members and other people living in the area.
Pappu’s relatives then started looking for the two men at different RAB offices and police stations in the area but were told that no one knew about the arrest. They were able to speak to Pappu four times on his mobile phone that night, when he told them he was blindfolded but did not know where he was.
Early next morning the dead bodies of both men were found in an open field at South Keraniganj in Dhaka.
By this time, RAB had introduced an innovation. The paramilitary organisation started to abduct people who then just disappeared.
One example of this was the disappearance in February 2011 of Rafiqul Islam, a grocery store salesman in Dhaka who was also a member of the Islamist group Allah-r Dal. On February 15, 2011, shopkeepers saw plainclothesmen handcuff Rafiqul and take him to the main street where some armed men wearing RAB uniforms were standing. Human rights groups understand that Rafiqul has not been seen since and is presumed dead. RAB denies it was involved in his detention.
Politicisation of RAB
NOW fast forward to 2013 and 2014 — with the Awami League in power for a full five years.
In 2013 Human Rights Watch published a report looking at how state law enforcement agencies dealt with political protests that had resulted in dozens of protesters being killed and found that RAB was amongst the law enforcement agencies which used excessive force.
One particular incident mentioned was the death of 17-year-old Korban Ali in March 2013 in Silyet, Noakhali. Eyewitnesses described how members of RAB 11 shot Korban Ali near a mosque after Friday afternoon prayers. ‘RAB stopped the car, two RAB officers got out with guns…. We saw them draw. They fired 7 or 8 times but only one hit Korban Ali. I saw him on the ground with blood coming from his head … They continued to shoot … When RAB stopped shooting they dragged him like a carcass and flung him into the car,’ a witness told Human Rights Watch.
And then in 2014, just three days after the media reported on the abduction of seven people in Narayanganj, Human Rights Watch published its most recent report looking at political violence, of both the opposition and the state.
In relation to state violence, it found that in the period immediately before and after the January 2014 elections ‘crossfire’ killings had made a comeback with members of opposition parties their sole target. This is what happened to Golam Sarwar, a leader of the BNP’s youth wing in Feni.
Major Muhiuddin, officer-in-charge of RAB-7 in Feni, told the media that his RAB team had arrested Sarwar, wanted in connection with several criminal cases, at around 6:00pm on January 30 but that Sarwar’s associates attacked the RAB team as it returned to the headquarters and that Sarwar was caught in the line of fire and died on the spot.
Again RAB distorted the truth. Sarwar was having lunch at about 3:00pm on January 30, when about 18 men got out of motorised rickshaws and approached his house. Sarwar ran out the back door and hid inside somebody else’s house. Three people living in the same compound who witnessed the incident gave similar accounts. One of them said: ‘I heard a couple of gunshots then all of a sudden I saw him run into the compound. He went and hid behind the door. Then I saw the men running after him. They threatened me and said I was hiding a fugitive. They said they would shoot me.’
After a while, several uniformed policemen arrived, and after about 30 minutes they were joined by some RAB men, the witnesses said. They then heard further gunshots. One of Sarwar’s relatives said: ‘The police were there for half an hour before they brought his body out. Before that we heard two gunshots.’ Later they saw four men carry Sarwar’s body out of the building, wrapped in bed sheet taken from the house where he was killed, and place it in a black minibus that was driven by RAB.
In the three years since Human Right Watch’s report of the first two years of the AL rule, local human rights organisations estimate that RAB were involved in close to another 200 deaths (not including disappearances).
And then Narayanganj
THE killing of seven men in Narayanganj represent a new form of killing — ‘contract killing’, in which political and business interests hire RAB to do their dirty work.
Three RAB officers are now in detention — the first time that this has ever happened.
The question, of course, is why this is the only one that has resulted in any proper investigation when there is a history of close to 1,000 killings by RAB over the last ten years.
Do the families of other victims not deserve investigations and detention of RAB officers?
Just like the Awami League did in 2005, the BNP in 2014 is now saying the right things and is seeking a judicial enquiry into the spate of political killings under the AL government. The BNP is right of course, as the AL was earlier but the hypocrisy is for everyone to see.
However, it will never happen. An extraordinary coincidence of circumstances led to these arrests; in ordinary circumstances, RAB officers are protected both by the government and the armed forces.
Moreover, wider investigations would almost surely lead right into the heart of both BNP and AL governments, who were and are the political masters of RAB, who either gave them the orders or the green light to kill, and who simply turned a blind eye when they did.
The home ministry is responsible for RAB. And which minister is currently in charge of the home ministry. The prime minister.