Nick Cheesman, Projects Officer, Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong
There is an armed group in Bangladesh today which is beyond the reach of the law. It moves by night and makes its own rules. It kills and threatens with impunity. It robs and steals. It is responsible for escalating public anxiety about the level of crime and terrorism. It is the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.
The Rapid Action Battalion, which was inaugurated on 26 March 2004 and began its operations on June 21 of the same year, is depicted by the government of Bangladesh as an elite joint-operations crime-fighting force. In fact, RAB personnel operate as hired guns for whichever political party happens to have its hands on the reins of power. Through systemic violence and trademark "crossfire" killings, their great success has been the spreading of more panic and lawlessness throughout Bangladesh: the very things needed to justify the RAB's continued existence.
Where did the RAB come from, how does it get away with what it does, where is it going, and why?
The 86-Day Tragedy a.k.a. Operation Clean Heart
In late 2002 the government of Bangladesh issued an executive order that launched a drive to arrest "wanted criminals" and recover "illegal arms". The order was aimed at curtailing a rapid rise in cases of murder, extortion, kidnapping, and crimes against women by warring gangs that were allegedly linked to members of both the major political parties. Codenamed Operation Clean Heart, it comprised of army, police, village defence force, and border security personnel. It lasted for 86 days, from 16 October 2002 to 9 January 2003. During this time there were 58 deaths in custody, all "heart attacks" according to the concerned authorities. Over an estimated 11,000 people were arrested, held and brutalised at military camps. At least 8000 were persons against whom no case had ever been lodged. A few "wanted criminals" were captured, but most managed to hide elsewhere until the whole thing blew over. Undeterred, the government cooked up some statistics upon which to claim success. Countless ordinary citizens, meanwhile, had been traumatised and panicked out of their wits. Little wonder that at least a few of the heart attacks were genuine: during Clean Heart, the sound of a military vehicle or boots approaching the front door was enough for a few persons to literally die of fear. And so Clean Heart became synonymous with Heart Attack.
Some victims sought to lodge criminal complaints. The government, fearing that such complaints would multiply, threw a blanket of impunity over the 50,000 or so personnel involved in the operation. On 24 February 2003 it passed an indemnity law in accordance with section 46 of the constitution, which denied the possibility of justice for anyone whose rights had been violated during the period, including those killed (see further: Md. Ashrafuzzaman, "Laws without order & courts of no relief in Bangladesh", article 2, August 2006, vol. 5, no. 4). The Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance 2003 gave immunity from prosecution to all concerned personnel and officials for involvement in "any casualty, damage to life and property, violation of rights, physical or mental damage" throughout the 86-Day Tragedy. Although it was challenged in court, no state officer responsible for deaths, serious injuries or other offences during those 86 days is known to have ever been punished criminally.
Two independent UN human rights experts communicated their "serious concern" over the indemnity law. On January 21 the Special Rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions together called for the government to abide by international standards and "ensure that all allegations of torture and death in custody are promptly, independently and thoroughly investigated". The government communication in reply offered nothing to ally their concerns.
The indemnity law also flew in the face of a global trend away from such enactments. In his 2005 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers observed that
The granting of immunity by means of amnesty laws is being rejected by national and regional courts... Argentina, Chile and Poland have repealed the amnesty laws adopted by the authoritarian regimes or at the time of transition which infringed their international obligations... Several recent decisions have confirmed the incompatibility of amnesty measures with States' obligation to punish serious crimes covered by international law... The appeals chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone recently declared it to be a well-established rule of international law that a Government may not grant amnesty for serious crimes under international law. (E/CN.4/2005/60, para. 48)
Never let it be said that the government of Bangladesh did not do its best to run contrary to international trends in human rights (despite its best efforts to appear to be doing the opposite).
RAB, from heart attacks to confused minds
Operation Clean Heart and the Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance were the chronological and ideological mother and father of the Rapid Action Battalion. The government explained--in the broadest sense of the word--that there was a "felt necessity" due to the "unstable law and order situation" in the country to establish a permanent joint anti-crime force along the lines of that used during the 86-Day Tragedy. At first, policymakers dreamed of a Rapid Action Team, a "RAT", but somebody woke up in time and it was renamed RAB.
The RAB was legalised through the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act 2003, which has its origins in the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance 1979. The amended law gives the RAB wide responsibilities, including "intelligence in respect of crime and criminal activities" and "investigation of any offence on the direction of the Government". And then there is section 6B (1): "The Government may, at any time, direct the Rapid Action Battalion to investigate any offence". Any offence, any time: this is what justifies the description of the RAB as hired guns. Translated, section 6B (1) reads as follows: "The Government may, on any whim, use the Rapid Action Battalion to harass and otherwise maltreat any person, without cause, for its own purposes."
The government of Bangladesh has told the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions that under the 2003 act the RAB is "guided strictly by the Code of Criminal Procedure" (E/CN.4/2004/7/Add.1, para. 26). In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Here is one small example. According to section 103 of the code, police who search a certain premises must first obtain two or more "respectable inhabitants" of the locality to witness the search and countersign any record of seized items. When RAB personnel take persons in their custody to search and retrieve weapons or other illegal objects from premises at 3am they completely ignore this obligation. It is under these circumstances that RAB personnel conveniently get into "crossfire" and the person in their custody dies. Perhaps the RAB members are not complying with the code out of concern for the safety of the respectable inhabitants. Anyhow, so far as Bangladesh is concerned the reference to the Code of Criminal Procedure is spurious for the reason that the code works primarily to block the possibility of any complaint against state officers (see Ashrafuzzaman, "Laws without order".)
The mingling of both personnel and law in the RAB has intentionally caused confusion. The majority of RAB personnel are soldiers. Out of the nine of its 12 regional battalion commanders listed on its website at time of writing, eight are army lieutenant colonels. Only one is a police officer. Informed observers in Bangladesh tell that the overwhelming majority of the RAB command is from the military. In this, RAB is a replica of the joint-force used for the 86-Day Tragedy. However, RAB is part of the Bangladesh Police and technically under command of the police chief. Police personnel are obligated to follow the Police Regulation of Bengal and Police Act 1861. Yet the 2003 amended act makes no mention about whose guidelines it is meant to follow, and at the same time gives authority for the making of orders to the Ministry of Home Affairs rather than the chief of police. The multiplicity of persons apparently or actually in charge of the RAB, and duplication of command hierarchies, frees the RAB from any particular responsibility to anyone. Whereas the control of behaviour in law enforcement depends upon a sequence of functioning posts and departments, when these are jumbled up, maintenance of internal order is lost. All that is left is a RAB on the loose.
The Policy to Confuse through the RAB can be understood by looking at the procedure for conducting and forwarding the results of a criminal investigation. Its 12 separate battalions are spread out across the country in perceived high-crime areas, and under them there are smaller units that are designated to various localities. They work independently of the police. Meanwhile, the police have a headquarters in each of the country's 64 districts, a number of stations under each headquarters, and a number of outposts again under each of those. Officers ranked sub inspector and above are entitled to conduct criminal investigations, unless directed otherwise by a court or the Ministry of Home Affairs. The investigation report is submitted to the officer in charge of the police station, who submits it to the district superintendent of police, who bumps it on to a court. But instead of taking responsibility for submitting its own reports to the courts through an established procedure, the RAB palms its work off to the regular police, to whom it owes nothing, who then have to do the job on its behalf. Section 6C (2) of the 2003 amended act states that a RAB investigator "shall file his report to the OC of the concerned police station; the OC shall, within 48 hours of receipt of such report, forward the same... to the competent court or tribunal". Any court receiving a report on a RAB investigation is getting it by way of a proxy. And that proxy has no responsibility to ensure the contents of the report are accurate or in any way reliable, or to seek clarifications where it is necessary and procedurally allowable, as could be done were the investigating officer a member of the regular police force.
Source: RAB WEBSITE
Another important aspect of the RAB is that its personnel are not permanently appointed. Rather, they are seconded to the battalion, and after a period return to their original units in the armed forces, border security force, police and the village defence units, often with promotions. So the lessons learned from RAB--i.e. that abducting, killing and robbing are permissible--get carried back into other parts of the security forces. The current police chief, for instance, is a RAB alumnus. This may be one of the reasons that since the battalion's inception the number of murders and other gross abuses committed by the regular police also appears to have increased: recent documentation by the Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights puts the (much larger) police force ahead in the killing contest for the first half of 2006, the police credited with an innings of 83 killings for 58 incidents, while the RAB had 78 for 73.
"Crossfire", the slogan, the storyline & the take
Wherever extrajudicial killing is made policy, a routine explanation is needed for each body sent to the morgue.
For instance, in three months of 2003 more than 2500 alleged drug traffickers were shot dead in Thailand during the first "war on drugs" launched by an executive order of the prime minister there. An unknown number were killed by the police and their accomplices: as almost no investigations have ever been conducted into the killings, it is also unlikely that it will ever be known. The number of victims who were actually involved in the drug trade as against innocent victims also is unknown. By contrast, what is well-known are the prefabricated stories told, with minor variations, to explain every new body. First there was the slogan, for advertising purposes: "killed to cut the link". The second feature, the storyline, kept the audience interested: the person's name was on the list of suspects; he was called to the police station for inquiries; he confessed to some wrongdoing; he was released after signing a statement; his drug-trafficking pals shot him on his way home/at home/a few days later "to cut the link"; they were not identified. Thirdly, there was the take, the stuff brought back as "evidence": those signed "confessions", and lots of little blue plastic bags neatly packed with an identical number of amphetamine pills in the back pockets of victims' pants. Actually, according to independent forensic scientists, it was a small number of little blue plastic bags being neatly reused after the victims were already shot dead. No matter, they were dead and the prime minister was happy. A few lawyers or human rights commissioners may stir up some trouble. No one else would care, or so the reasoning went.
Now let's look at Bangladesh. By the RAB's own admission, 283 persons have "died during exchange of fire"/ "in crossfire"/ "in the line of fire" from since it was established up to mid-2006. As in Thailand, the actual number remains unknown, although independent fact-finders and journalists estimate it to be several times higher. Again, what is well-known is how it works, thanks to the storyline: the person was arrested as a suspected violent criminal/terrorist/whatever; he confessed to having hidden some weapons outside of town; he was taken there (oddly, sometime between midnight and dawn) to recover the weapons; somehow his criminal buddies found out and ambushed; there was a crossfire/exchange of fire; he tried to escape; he died in crossfire/during exchange of fire/in the line of fire; the assailants got away; there were five to ten serious criminal cases against him, so good riddance. Part three, the take: an old pistol or two, a few rounds of ammunition "recovered" from the site of the killing. Sometimes some other stuff. RAB battalions list among their "successes" the recovery of toy revolvers; Viagra; fake dishwashing items, and black stone statues. Thanks to RAB Bangladesh has been freed from the scourge of toy revolvers, perhaps being wielded by stone statues on Viagra.
A victim of "crossfire"
Two people who were recently taken to see how this works in practice were Harun-ur-Rashid and Aslam Hossein, whose cases are documented in this report (Lawless law enforcement & the parody of judiciary in Bangladesh; story 3). Like many of the victims in Thailand, they earlier had criminal records but had come clean under a government programme. Like many in Thailand, they had had no further criminal records since that time, and had gone into legitimate business. But as in Thailand, their old files sat in the cabinet and could be pulled out whenever a few of the usual suspects were needed. In Rashid and Hossein's case, they had reportedly been pressured by politicians and old contacts to get back into crime, but had resisted and moved to another part of the country to avoid harassment. RAB found them anyway, and on 14 July 2006 sent them back to their hometown, Jessore. In the early hours of July 16 RAB-6 personnel took them in two different directions and both died in separate and yet virtually identical "crossfire" scenarios. The RAB lodged cases against both to the effect that they had murdered many persons each, an allegation contested by their families and doubted by villagers in the area.
Then there was Mohammad Masudur Rahman, also known as Iman Ali (story 17). The RAB allegedly killed Ali in Savar, Dhaka on 9 March 2006 after taking him from the front of the Dhaka Session Judge's Court the previous day. Security guards stationed nearby where he was killed have reportedly said that they witnessed RAB members "exchanging fire" by shooting their guns overhead. Perhaps the criminal gang with whom they were engaged had suddenly sprouted wings and flown away. For its part, the battalion claimed that Iman Ali was an accused in four murder cases. His family lodged a case against the RAB, home affairs minister and chief of police on March 22. The magistrate said it was outside of the court's jurisdiction. Iman's brother, Nazrul Islam, lodged a revised petition with the Metropolitan Session Judge's Court, alleging that his brother was murdered because he supported the inhabitants of Miton village against land-grabbing by a cousin of the home affairs minister. He also alleged that the officer in charge of the Savar police station, Haidar Ali, told him as much when he went to the premises shortly after Ali was abducted, saying that, "Your brother leads a movement against the home minister's cousin and you have come to learn about him. How dare you! He [Iman Ali] has been sent for 'crossfire'." Despite the case being lodged reportedly no investigation has been conducted into the family's allegations.
How about Abul Kalam Azad Sumon? The 23-year-old opposition party activist was taken into a field at Rampura Banosri residential area under the Khilgaon police station in Dhaka late at night on 31 May 2005 and brought out dead by RAB-3 personnel. Eyewitnesses in that case have said that they saw the RAB shoot Sumon at close range. Predictably, a RAB press release said that the victim had six cases listed against him in different police stations around Dhaka. Human rights defenders and journalists took the time to check. None of the stations named could produce a scrap of paper on Sumon. Again, a complaint with little hope of success was lodged in the metropolitan magistrate's court, with the help of opposition party leaders.
The policy of killing through crossfire has been reaffirmed by members of government. Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Maudud Ahmed, the overseer of Bangladesh's lower judiciary, made clear in a press briefing on 30 November 2004 that death in crossfire under RAB or police custody could not be considered custodial death. This, he reasoned, was so because the state officers would only be opening fire to save themselves. Since that time, no member of the RAB has ever been prosecuted for a killing. Most families of victims do not even bother to complain as they are aware that it will be a fruitless waste of money, time and energy, entailing risks to their own security. Only those with some personal involvement in a political party or other outside assistance and support try to raise their voices.
The policy is also protected by procedure and regulations. In keeping with the Clean Heart spirit of 2002-03, under the Armed Police Battalion Ordinance RAB members are indemnified from prosecution for any action done "in good faith" under the law. Where exactly does "good faith" come into the picture when detainees are marched into fields at 3am and shot on the pretext of an encounter? The question has not been answered, as the only known steps taken following the hundreds of almost identical deaths have been through routine executive inquiries. These require that after police have discharged firearms the reasons be ascertained and the shooting be found to be in compliance with regulations. The reports from these executive inquiries are useless. The investigating officers aim to find some justification for the shooting and get on with other things. Their reports are never made public, but a former police chief has been quoted as having said that the overwhelming number of them conclude that "crossfire" was justified.
A poster by the Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights depicts "crossfire" between the RAB and police
Why RAB & crossfire, not courts & due process?
Rather than attempt to address the deep institutional problems in Bangladeshi courts, including the non-independence of judges, political control of prosecutors and rampant corruption described elsewhere in this report, the government has found it easier--and more suitable for its own purposes--to mete out "justice" through the gun, no matter the consequences.
Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Legal Resource Centre, has described how this thinking was applied in his own country of Sri Lanka, and the consequences:
The situation of instability and insecurity prevailing in the country during the last three decades, particularly during the last decade, has given rise to a 'consensus' that order has to be maintained with or without law. The underlying assumption in this way of thinking is that the law itself could be an enemy of order. According to this way of thinking, certain provisions of law restrict the powers of law enforcement officers to deal with disorderly conduct by some persons or groups. It follows that the perceived restrictions need to be removed and that, once freed from such restrictions, the law enforcement officers may return order and stability to society.
This way of thinking is usually regarded as 'realistic'. The maintenance of order through legal means is considered unrealistic for the following reasons, among others:
- Financially speaking, the country cannot afford to have well-functioning law enforcement machinery and must therefore be resigned to defective machinery;
- Too much insistence on law may discourage law enforcement officers from carrying out their functions even to the extent that they are doing them;
- As corruption and abuse of power are facts of life in the country, it may not be a wise policy to fight too hard against them; and,
- As the insistence on law may lead to conflict, it may be necessary to restrict such agencies that insist on observing the rule of law, such as the judiciary.
These and other similar considerations form the basis for encouraging practices such as killing under certain circumstances.
The country now has the lessons gained by the experience of testing the practices ruthlessly launched on the basis of such a social philosophy. Instead of bringing about order, these practices have confounded the situation a thousand-fold. Ironically, the worsening of the situation may reinforce this same philosophy. It is like the situation of a creditor who gives further credit to a debtor in the hope of regaining his earlier loans.
[WJ Basil Fernando, 'Disappearances of persons & the disappearance of a system', in The right to speak loudly, Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 41-42]
This is both a description of Sri Lanka and a prediction for Bangladesh.
While innocent people go to jail, real criminals in Bangladesh have many means at their disposal to be freed on bail. Legal loopholes and bribery are plentiful, political influence, normal. The members of local Union Councils whose alleged acts of rape are described in this document (stories 26 & 33) appear to have had no difficulty in obtaining their get-out-of-jail cards, one of them repeatedly. So have virtually all of the other alleged perpetrators with connections to the police whose cases have been studied by rights groups. Where the intervention is early enough, the matter may be dealt with even before it is fully recorded and lodged in court. Where a complaint is already made, the police officer is then apprised of the situation, with some harsh words and threats if necessary from the concerned politician or overlord, and the necessary arrangements are made to sort the matter out in court. Magistrate, prosecutor and any other persons involved will all be brought to understand that the case is not to proceed. If the accused is a political party member, the party may launch demonstrations for the person to obtain bail. Inevitably, enormous frustration wells up among the victims and general public, as well as among many police officers and other public officials who are daily made aware that they are engaged in a farce. So it comes as no surprise that many applaud when "bad guys" get shot dead rather than bothering with messy criminal procedures, rights and obligations.
A key related problem is the absence of witness protection. Where witnesses have no guarantees of security will they give testimony in an open court? This is a common and grave concern that is deeply undermining the criminal justice systems of many countries throughout Asia, particularly where state officers are among the accused. In the Philippines it has gone so far that families whose relatives are shot dead in the doors of their houses are not willing to lodge complaints and identify suspects. When a wife refuses to name the person who shot her husband dead in front of her it can only be for the reason that she knows that the same awaits her if she speaks. In Bangladesh, three and a half decades since independence the government has apparently shown no inkling about the notion of witness protection, nor any interest to do anything about it.
The death of Sumon Ahmed Mazumdar says it all. Mazumdar, a witness to the murder of Member of Parliament Ahsan Ullah Master, was pulled from his house in the Amtali area of Gazipur by RAB personnel at around 3:45pm on 15 July 2004. The arresting officers told others present that they needed to interrogate him as he was a witness in the murder case. Even before Mazumdar was in their vehicle they had assaulted and blindfolded him. He was taken back to the Dhaka headquarters at Uttara, where he was held incommunicado and severely tortured. Around midnight the Tongi police station called his family to say that the witness was in their custody. However, the family was also unable to see him there. That morning, they received an anonymous call to the effect that Mazumdar was dead. At around 8am Monir Ahmed Mazumdar located his son's body on the floor of a hospital, next to a staircase. The police record showed that the witness-turned-victim had been detained by the RAB for extorting money from a businessman on the afternoon of July 15, although the complaint was only recorded with the police station at 11pm that night. The police record and RAB media release gave different accounts of how the dead man obtained his injuries, which in either case absolved both of them from any wrongdoing. Independent fact-finders were unable to locate one businessman in the area who could support the allegation that the victim had been extorting money.
Attempts by members of the judiciary to address the frequency of killings by "crossfire" seem to have been negligible. As discussed elsewhere, magistrates and district judges are unreliable officials to call upon for redress in any case of abuse by state agents. As for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Mohammad Habibor Rahman was quoted as having said at a public gathering in January 2005 that, "We have belatedly decided to get a report on every death in crossfire. We ought to have asked for a report when the first incidents of death occurred. That would make the law and order men more cautious." (Daily Star, 19 January 2005) Whether or not the court ever received its reports, the killings have continued regardless. Clearly more is needed to make the "law and order men more cautious".
Photo: Debu Prasad
RAB goes ROB
Apart from killing people, the RAB is also itself reported to be keen on a host of other criminal activities. Many of these have been widely reported in the local media.
RAB personnel and former personnel have in recent times earned a reputation for robbery. In July 2006, newspapers described an incident involving a covered van on its way from the port in Chittagong to Dhaka with a load of imported goods. It was still early morning on July 13 when the vehicle passed through the Shanir Akhra area of Narayanganj district. A minivan came from behind and pulled it over. Two persons in black uniforms introduced themselves as RAB officers; five others were with them. They claimed to have received information that the van was carrying contraband goods, before making off with it and its cargo. The driver and his assistant lodged a complaint with the Demra police station in Dhaka, but later found that the police had failed to respond and had anyhow recorded the robbery as a lesser offence of theft. The importer then complained directly to the chief of police, both about the incident and also the officers at Demra. Only then did a real investigation begin. Most goods were recovered and the culprits arrested. One was a RAB corporal on leave; the other a sergeant who had earlier been dismissed.
A few days later, on July 16, RAB officers were reported to have snatched money from two businessmen who had been travelling by bus to buy motorbikes for their shop. When the bus reached the Baipile area of Dhaka, a RAB team led by Deputy Assistant Director Humayan Kabir searched its passengers. The team found over two million Taka (USD 29,300) on the two men, which they were carrying in order to pay for the new bikes. The RAB seized the money on the allegation that it was for an illegal transaction. Back at base, the team recorded that only 1.8 million Taka was taken from the two passengers. Local police got wind of the theft and recovered the missing amount the next day.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that such incidents are common. This should come as no surprise. RAB personnel have been given the impression that they are beyond the law: If I can kill, detain and torture people, why can't I also rob a little? The relatively minor non-criminal penalties applied to personnel found to have committed offences that are not part of the battalion agenda do nothing to discourage further wrongdoing, particularly when most personnel may expect that the worst that will happen is for them to be sent back to their old jobs. Docking of wages, demotion or even forced retirement are small risks when there is big money to be made from lots of good opportunities.
The creation of the Rapid Action Battalion is an implied admission by the government that Bangladesh has descended into lawlessness. Despite the external appearance of some courts, police and administrators, most state institutions are today without public legitimacy. By choosing to fight lawlessness with lawlessness, the government has also admitted that these institutions cannot be relied upon, lending credence to the popular view.
Bangladesh is today a deeply frustrated nation. Its government's policy of extrajudicial killings is a symptom of that frustration; not its cure. On the contrary, the licence to kill handed out to RAB officers is only rapidly exacerbating problems and speeding the growth in a new generation of brutal state personnel who will carry the lessons learnt with the RAB throughout their professional lives. These men will be unable to ever perform their future tasks with a sense of integrity or decency, whether as police, soldiers or other government officers: once a RAB man, always a RAB man; once a killer, always a killer.
The systemic use of military personnel for policing has been the cause of repeated tragedies throughout Asia. The people of Bangladesh need only look to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma and Indonesia, among others, to obtain their lessons. Sri Lankan police were once relatively well-disciplined and law-abiding. Then they were told to hunt down insurgents and terrorists. The lessons learnt have carried on until today in horrendous forms of torture and killing for the most trivial reasons. In Burma, an army general is police commander. His men understand their duties only in terms of "security of the state". In Indonesia the police force under the Soeharto regime was a part of the military structure itself. Now the country faces the monumental task of teasing the two apart. And Nepal is just starting to come to terms with what was done by joint operation forces under the royal dictatorship there in recent years. Are any of these desirable models? Do any of them suggest to the people of Bangladesh how they would like to be?
The removal of controls on law-enforcing officers is easy. Its re-imposition is not. Even with the RAB gone, the rebuilding of orderly law enforcement will be formidable task. Nevertheless, every day that this task is delayed poses a greater threat to the people of Bangladesh and their society. It is a threat not only to the victims of abuses and their families, friends and colleagues, but a threat to everyone. It is a threat that is capable of completely destroying the entire society, its bureaucrats, government ministers, judges and functionaries included. It is therefore a threat that must be averted at all costs.
Posted on 2006-08-21