Dhaka, Bangladesh – Last month’s discovery of the strangled bodies of seven men, abducted just days earlier outside a court in a town near the country’s capital, Dhaka, has placed an unprecedented spotlight on the country’s paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and its role in extra-judicial killings.
Since the establishment of RAB in 2004, the elite counter-terrorist force, which is led by senior military officers but also comprises other law enforcement officers, has been accused by local and international organisations of serious human rights violations.
This incident however, marks the first time that an extra-judicial killing in Bangladesh has resulted in the arrest of senior RAB officers.
And with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) now calling for the paramilitary force, which it had itself established when it was in power, to be disbanded, questions are now being raised about the future of the RAB.
They should not be given any special privileges simply because they belong to military forces
In broad daylight on April 27, a group of unidentified men stopped the car of Nazrul Islam, a businessman and ward councillor, a few kilometres from the Naraynganj district court. Islam, who was also the accused in many criminal cases, had gone to court that morning to seek a bail extension.
Islam, along with four of his associates, were then snatched from the car and driven away. Chandan Sarker, a senior lawyer who happened to be in the car behind, was also abducted along with his driver.
Three days later, the bodies of the men were found floating in the nearby Shitalakkhya river. They had been blindfolded, their hands and feet tied up with some rope, their stomachs slit and their bodies weighted down with bricks.
The blame for the brutal murders was first quickly placed with Islam’s political and business rival, Nur Hossain, who is also a close associate of the city’s sitting Member of Parliament from the ruling Awami League.
But the case took a sensational turn when a few days later Islam’s father-in-law gave a press conference alleging that locally-based RAB personnel had been paid by Hossain to murder Islam.
The father-in-law claimed that he had been told that Hossain had offered the RAB commander Tk 60 million – an amount equivalent to about three quarters of a million US dollars.
RAB initially rejected the allegation, but within days Tareque Sayeed Mohammad, the lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the battalion in Narayanganj, along with two of his colleagues, Arif Hossain, the battalion’s major, and SM Masud Rana, the battalion’s lieutenant commander, were removed from RAB and retired from the armed forces.
Ordinarily that would have been the extent of RAB’s accountability. But following a petition filed by deceased’s family, the Bangladesh High Court ordered the immediate arrest of the RAB army officers. A few days later they were remanded in police custody for questioning.
“Since the army officers were given forced retirement which suggest prima facie their involvement in murder, there should be no way that they can evade criminal liability,” Mizanur Rahman told Al Jazeera, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission. “They should not be given any special privileges simply because they belong to military forces.”
The government’s position is that everything is being done by the book. “The investigation is going on according to law, and the law will take its own course,” Shafique Ahmed, the law adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told Al Jazeera.
In part, the reason for the unlikely turn of events was the large number of people who were abducted and killed in this incident. The direct public allegation made against RAB was also widely covered in the local media.
However, Adilur Rahman, the secretary of a Bangladesh-based human rights organisation, Odhikar, thinks the political identity of those killed was also a significant factor.
“[Islam] was a supporter of the government party, and so many of the demands for accountability have come from within the Awami League,” he said. “There have been many other similar abductions and killings, in which witnesses have said that RAB was involved, but the victims have generally belonged to the opposition political parties, and in those, no one was interested to investigate.”
For the Awami League government this is no doubt a sensitive time, but that is not all. One of the army officers arrested is a close relative of a minister and many Bangladeshi newspapers are reporting that the minister’s own son knew about the agreement between Hossain and RAB.
Though the incident is a vivid reflection of the increasing criminalisation of politics and business, the political fall-out is likely to be limited since the incident does not reach into the heart of government.
The Prime Minister is under scrutiny as her party leaders have been allegedly involved in the killings, and it remains to be seen whether she widens out the investigation to other allegations made against the RAB.
Just days after the abduction of Islam, rights body Human Rights Watch released a report “Democracy in the Crossfire” detailing evidence that showed in December 2013 and January 2014, RAB – usually in association with another law enforcement agency – was involved in incidents involving the detention and execution of seven political activists belonging to opposition parties.
This was a follow up to one of their earlier reports, “Crossfire: Continued human rights abused by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Batallion” published in May 2011 which found that in the first two years of the Awami League-led government, “nearly 200 people have been killed in RAB operations” citing data from Odhikar.
“It is difficult to know what is the government strategy, but it is certainly in its interest for the focus to be on the Narayanganj incident than the wider allegations against RAB,” Adilur said.
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The BNP has demanded that the government set up a wide inquiry looking at the extra-judicial killings and has alleged that some of the victims include its activists.
However, it was during the years of the last BNP government that the excesses of RAB became notorious, so while the party may well now have become a victim of RAB it does not have clean hands, the Odhikar secretary said.
“The BNP will have to admit that when it was in government, RAB was involved in killing many people. They will have to acknowledge this,” Adilur told Al Jazeera.
According to Mizanur, the National Human Rights Commission supports investigating the past allegations against the force.
“It has been a continuous demand that any allegation of extra-judicial killing should be investigated by third party and we have not been happy with the internal RAB investigation, or by the ministry of home affairs,” the chairman said.”So now it has been established [in the Narayanganj killings] that RAB is involved, so all past allegations against RAB should be properly investigated.”
The law adviser to the prime minister however, refused to answer Al Jazeera when asked why investigations should not be opened into previous allegations of extra-judicial killings.
“The law will take its own course, I have told you. I have nothing else to say,” Ahmed said.
Follow David Bergman on Twitter: @davidbangladesh