Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) can reveal that the United Kingdom was set to impose sanctions on Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in 2021 but held back for reasons that remain unexplained.
The US implemented sanctions against the RAB and seven high-ranking current and former members on December 10, 2021, for alleged human rights violations such as torture and forced disappearances. The RAB has been likened to a “death squad” by several human rights organisations.
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But the UK decided at the last minute to not implement sanctions that were to coincide with the restrictions by its closest ally. Al Jazeera was able to confirm with several sources who said they heard accounts of the plan being pulled at the eleventh hour.
UK barrister Toby Cadman, a member of the team that submitted requests for sanctions against the RAB to the US and UK governments, told Al Jazeera the fact the restrictions were not implemented came as a surprise for those involved.
“I filed the request for sanctions and whilst I am not in a position to discuss the substance, I can confirm that I discussed the request with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office [FCDO],” Cadman said, referring to the UK Foreign Office.
“Having worked on both the US and UK request for sanctions, I was strongly of the view that a coordinated response was necessary in the circumstances,” Cadman said. “Our filing in the UK targeted political officials and those in the security sector.”
“It was certainly my position that the UK would issue mirror sanctions in coordination with the US. I was extremely disappointed when they failed to do so.”
Cadman’s disappointment was shared by Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission who provided the evidence of human rights abuses by the RAB attached to the sanctions requests to the US and the UK.
“The expectation was that the UK and US, being strong allies, that they would be collaborating with each other by announcing back-to-back sanctions. The US did that on the 10th of December, the UK didn’t,” Ashrafuzzaman said.
“That was very surprising to us.”
Cadman conceded that requests for sanctions, such as the one he and his team submitted, do not always come to fruition, but that there is usually a reason presented.
“It generally relates to a lack of an evidential basis and, of course, if there was something lacking it would be normal for the FCDO to seek further information or clarification,” Cadman said.
But he added in this case no clarifications or explanations were provided by the Foreign Office.
Ashrafuzzaman noted the documentation collected by his team was used by the US as justification for sanctions against the RAB.
“The evidence was sent to the US state department and treasury, it was used by the US. That evidence was sent to the UK as well.”
Gross human rights abuses
The US used that evidence to sanction the RAB as an organisation and seven current and former high-ranking officials from the unit under the Global Magnitsky Act, citing evidence of alleged involvement in at least 600 forced disappearances since 2009 and more than 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.
The Bangladesh government has denied those accusations, saying the deaths were the result of so-called “crossfires” – not summary executions – with the “criminal” being killed when he got caught in the crossfire between his gang and the RAB.
Under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which was created to penalise human rights abusers by freezing their assets, American companies and individuals are prohibited from doing business with those sanctioned.
According to Amanda Strayer, supervising staff lawyer for accountability with human rights organisation Human Rights First, the fact that the British government did not go through with the sanctions was “surprising and disappointing”.
“A lot of times, when the US government is considering sanctioning someone or an entity like this, they may reach out to the UK, or Canada and the European Union to see if there’s interest in taking joint action together,” Strayer said.
“The fact that at that time and still now, a year later, these jurisdictions haven’t taken any action, it’s very disappointing.”
In response to questions by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, the UK Foreign Office did not dispute the claims, nor did it explain the reasons for the last-minute about-turn.
It stated that: “The UK is a leading advocate for human rights around the world and we regularly raise human rights issues directly with other governments, including Bangladesh”.