Global human rights groups that have long campaigned against the alleged human rights violations by the security agencies in Bangladesh, and they have criticized its government for offering “promotions” and “rewards” to officers who were slapped with sanctions by the U.S. government last year.
In December of 2021, the U.S. imposed human rights-related sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite force of the Bangladesh security apparatus, along with six former and current officers, linking them to thousands of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the country.
Although the RAB commanders remain “implicated in grave human rights abuses including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has offered them promotions and rewards instead of ensuring accountability,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.
Since 2010, human rights groups have published dozens of reports alleging the RAB, police, army and other security agencies in Bangladesh were involved in serious human rights violations, mostly of political activists and dissidents opposed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led regime.
VOA reached out to RAB’s legal and media wing director Khandaker al-Moin, but he said he would not issue comments for a foreign media report. He directed the VOA to contact the home ministry. Bangladesh's home ministry did not respond to email carrying a VOA request for comment on the issue.
Between 2009 and June 2022, at least 2,658 people were killed extrajudicially, and 623 became victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, or AHRC, said in a statement.
The AHRC statement also noted that enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings by the security forces continued in Bangladesh even after the U.S. sanctions were imposed.
After the sanctions, through June 2022, at least 25 people were killed extrajudicially, and 11 became victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh, the AHRC statement added.
Bangladeshi ministers and high security officials have all along denied that the government forces were behind the rights abuses.
Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun, a former RAB commander, is one of the six sanctioned officers. On September 30, Al-Mamun was promoted to the position of police chief of Bangladesh.
HRW’s Ganguly noted in her statement that Al-Mamun commanded the “notoriously abusive” force from April 2020 to September “during a period when the RAB committed grave human rights abuses.”
Benazir Ahmed, another sanctioned officer was the commander of RAB between 2015 and 2019, when “officers under his command allegedly committed 136 reported extrajudicial executions and 10 enforced disappearances. While Ahmed faces travel restrictions to the U.S., the Bangladesh government made him part of an official delegation to a meeting at the United Nations, in New York, to bypass the ban,” Ganguly said.
After the sanctions were imposed, Colonel Khan Mohammad Azad, the RAB deputy chief, said his force never violated human rights. "If bringing down a criminal under the law is a violation of human rights, then we have no objection to violating these human rights in the interest of the country," he said.
Earlier this year, PM Hasina awarded Col Azad and Al-Mamun with prestigious police medals for their “boundless courage and heroic service to the country.”
‘Government ignores abuses’
HRW’s Ganguly said: “These actions [of the Hasina-led government] send the message to Bangladesh security forces that not only will the government ignore abuses, but it will reward them.”
Security analyst and former Bangladesh Army officer Lt. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy (retired) said the Sheikh Hasina-led government has long used the country’s security agencies as a tool to suppress the opposition and stay in power.
“The security agencies in Bangladesh have allowed themselves to be used by the current regime as a tool of oppression, in its interest. The agencies crack down on the political opposition and dissidents and end up committing serious human rights abuses,” Sarwardy told VOA.
“While keeping the government satisfied, they have become completely oblivious of the fundamental duties they are supposed to discharge and have turned their institutions into monsters. This phenomenon is ubiquitous with all law enforcement agencies in the country.”
For years, U.S. human rights agencies and other global rights groups have alerted the Bangladesh government of the rights abuses being committed by the security forces, he noted.
“But the government never bothered to investigate the charges. The government’s inaction on this serious issue gives a clear signal that it did not take the U.S. sanctions seriously,” he said.
‘Sanctions are still in place’
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Center, said that instead of investigating the allegations of abuses, the government promoted the accused and sanctioned officers to higher posts, and some of them were even awarded gallantry medals.
"As the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings continue, the security agencies have increased coercing and intimidating the victims’ families. The human rights defenders monitoring the abuses in the country are being hounded and being threatened with dire consequences,” Ashrafuzzaman told VOA.
"All the rule of law institutions have been systematically used to curb the rights of the people and deny the victims access to justice."
Meanwhile, in response to requests from Bangladesh government to withdraw the sanctions, Peter Haas, U.S. Ambassador in Bangladesh said that the U.S. policy on RAB has not changed.
"The sanctions are still in place. They will remain in place until there is accountability and reform. We said this privately, we said this publicly," he said.
Despite the criticism the force faced for the abuses, the just-appointed commander of RAB M Khurshid Hossain said on October 1 that it does not need any reform.
"We are not doing anything for which we need to reform our organization. We are performing our duties following the rule of law. So, there is no question of reform of this force,” Hossain said.