Since it was established in April 2004, Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – a paramilitary force – has been accused of serious human rights violations and abuse of power.
The elite law enforcement body was formed during the government of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who came to power in 2001 on the promise to address deteriorating security situation in the South Asian nation of 160 million.
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In its initial days, RAB enjoyed strong popular support as it began to crack down on gangsters and thugs.
In their distinctive black uniforms, black headscarves and wraparound sunglasses, the force are as intimidating as they are clearly identifiable.
But it was not long before allegations of extrajudicial killings became common – and in more recent times RAB came to be linked to politically motivated arrests, killings and enforced disappearances.
It has also been alleged that powerful businessmen or politicians sub-contract RAB for their own personal interests.
RAB is organised into 15 battalions with as many as 12,000 personnel in total distributed throughout the country, with its officers coming from both the Bangladesh police and the country’s armed forces – army, navy and air force.
The head of RAB is a senior police officer and the organisation is legally accountable to the Home Ministry, but the military has significant influence and control over its activities, with military officers taking many of the most senior positions within it.
By the end of the BNP-led government in October 2007, RAB was accused in a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of being “implicated in the unlawful killings of at least 350 people in custody, and the alleged torture of hundreds more”.
“Many of the deaths for which RAB is responsible resulted from summary executions. Others came after extreme physical abuse. RAB’s torture methods include beatings with batons on the soles of the feet and other parts of the body, boring holes with electric drills, and applying electric shock,” the HRW report said.
RAB claimed that these deaths were the result of so-called “cross-fires” – not summary executions – the “criminal” being killed when he got caught in the crossfire between RAB and his criminal gang.
The government justified the killings.
End to extrajudicial killings
Six months after RAB was founded, then-Prime Minister Zia stated: “RAB is conducting a courageous and non-partisan campaign for curbing terrorism. The people are breathing a sigh of relief because of the successes they already achieved. Fear is now lurking in the minds of the criminals. Many of the top terrors have now fled to other countries”.
In 2006, then-Law Minister Moudud Ahmed stated: “Although technically you may call it extrajudicial, I will not say killing, but extrajudicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead in encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it. People are happy.”
Two years later, the Awami League party of Sheikh Hasina returned to government, promising to bring an end to extrajudicial killings, though insisting that RAB should remain.
In February 2009, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told a United Nations committee that Bangladesh had a policy of “zero tolerance” for extrajudicial killings, torture, and deaths in custody, stating: “We do not condone any such incident and will bring the responsible officials to justice.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also promised at the time that legal action would be taken against those responsible for extrajudicial killings.
Although there was a short hiatus of a few months when the number of killings dropped, the situation soon reverted to the numbers reported during BNP rule and, within a two-year period, nearly 200 people were killed in RAB operations.
Despite this, in May 2010, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed claimed there were no more crossfire incidents.
Under the Hasina government, RAB also became involved in enforced disappearances, particularly of individuals involved in opposition politics.
In a two-week period at the end of 2013, a month before the general elections, 18 people, all linked to the political opposition, were picked up and disappeared, with many of the disappearances attributed to RAB.
On December 4 of that year, multiple witnesses saw RAB officials in their official vehicles pick up six BNP activists from a tea stall in the Bashundhara City area of the capital, Dhaka, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Sanjida Islam, whose brother Sajedul Islam Sumon was one of the six men who disappeared that day, has been campaigning to find out what happened to her brother and the other men.
“No doubt RAB was involved in their disappearances and, while I hope they are still alive, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that they are. There are so many witnesses who saw RAB pick these men up. But while we fight for information and accountability, we get nowhere,” Islam told Al Jazeera.
In May 2014, with the Awami League having won national elections boycotted by the opposition, RAB was involved in the abduction and murder of another seven men, this time including a local Awami League ruling party politician and his lawyer in Narayanganj.
Their bodies were found in the Shitalakkhya River three days later. The killings, involving members of the ruling party, caused a national outcry, forcing the government to initiate an investigation into RAB killings.
At least 25 officers were convicted, the only time RAB personnel have been held accountable for involvement in murders or disappearances.
However, this incident and its repercussions failed to result in any change of policy within RAB.
In 2015, Benazir Ahmed was appointed its director-general and the killings continued, with human rights organisations reporting 237 incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings in 2018 and 2019, his final two years in the post.
Al Jazeera has reported on the RAB’s alleged role in the abduction in 2019 of three staff members of a UK-based businessman, retired Colonel Shahid Khan, who was in a business dispute with the prime minister’s security adviser, Major General Tarique Ahmed Siddique.
In an Al Jazeera documentary, All the Prime Minister’s Men, Haris Ahmed, the brother of the chief of army staff is recorded as saying that he uses RAB – and Benazir Ahmed – to do his dirty work “Benazir is there… RAB is there, others are there. We are making them do all our work,” he states.
RAB has also been involved in the enforcement of the Digital Security Act, a new law enacted in 2018 which has resulted in arrests of many who speak critically of the government.
In 2020, Benazir was promoted to become inspector general of police, the most senior post in the country’s police service.
Al Jazeera reached out to RAB spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ashique Billah, but he declined to comment.