Sunday, June 19, 2011

Has Bangladesh's Elite Police Force Gone Too Far?

CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Photo STR / AFP / Getty Images: A Bangladeshi elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) clashes with a garment worker during a protest in Dhaka in 2010
ON MARCH 27, Bangladeshi doctors amputated the leg of Limon Hossain, a 16-year-old student, four days after he was shot during a raid by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh's elite security force. Almost everyday since, Hossain's name has made headlines in Bangladesh, becoming a symbol of accusations that the governments paramilitary force acts as judge, jury and executioner in its official mission to clean up this south Asian nation of crime and corruption. "RAB is misusing their power," Hossain says. "They are killing people."
On March 23, Hossain says he was taking his family's calf back home from the fields to his village of Jhalakati in southwest Bangladesh. Out of nowhere, he says, members of RAB arrived on motorbikes. One grabbed Hossain's collar and accused him of being a criminal. Another pulled out a gun and put it against Hossain's head. Weeping, the boy fell to the ground, pleading for his life. After dragging him to another spot in the village, a RAB member pulled out a revolver and shot him point blank in his left leg. Days later, doctors had cut it off to save his life.

RAB, of course, has a very different story. According to RAB's Commander Mohammad Sohail, the village of Jhalakati is the hub of a powerful syndicate headed by Morshed Jamaddar. Everyone there, says Sohail, is in the pocket of Morshed's gang. He says law enforcement agencies have filed 19 cases against Jamaddar, including rape, murder and abduction, and that the Morshed gang has bought "everyone except RAB" — including some local politicians.

Sohail says RAB, headquartered in Dhaka, had heard information that Jamaddar was in the village on March 27, and dispatched a team to capture him. When RAB approached, gang members shot at them, and RAB returned fire. Hossain, Sohail says, was a Morshed lackey caught in the crossfire. "The other story," he says, "is made up by bad people." RAB filed cases against Hossain for illegal arms possession, obstructing law enforcement agents and attempted murder the same day as the shooting.

Dressed in all-black uniforms with black bandanas and wraparound sunglasses, RAB cuts an imposing presence on the streets of Bangladesh. The group was founded in 2004 during a time of "huge deterioration of law and order in the country," according to Sohail. Drug lords, extremists and arms traffickers worked with impunity. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says when RAB was created, "rich people implicated in serious crime could buy their way out."

By selecting the best from the military and police and loaning them to RAB in two-year rotations, the force was supposed to be above corruption and put an end to the crime wave. By that measure, even the groups harshest critics — and there are many outside of Bangladesh — admit it has been successful. Since 2004, the force of about 8,500 has captured more than 95,000 criminals and confiscated 10,000 illegal firearms, 5,000 bombs and grenades and 400 kilos of heroin, according to RAB statistics.

The problems with RAB began, says Adams, when its members began taking justice into their own hands. "They started targeting criminals, because they had no faith in the criminal justice system," he says. RAB admits that their team members have killed some 600 criminals in firefights since 2004, though Odhikhar, a Bangladeshi human rights group, says the real number is over 730. Human rights organizations say many of those deaths have been intentional extrajudicial killings, sometimes targeting the wrong individual, and that RAB employs violent methods in questioning their suspects.

In May, Human Rights Watch released a report cataloging some of RAB's alleged torture incidents and killings, including a case in which they say RAB mistakenly murdered a man because he had the same nickname as a criminal. According to the report, no one has ever been punished in connection to any of the 600-plus deaths. Sohail says Human Rights Watch didn't approach RAB for information and relied on family members of those who had been shot for information. The result, he says, is that the report is "a one-sided complaint book of the criminals and their families."

And despite human rights groups' objections, RAB still enjoys wide grassroots support. In a 2009 cable released by Wikileaks, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh called RAB the country's "most respected police unit." Interviews in Bangladesh bear this out. In a typical comment, Anthony Sarker, a hotel manager, said "RAB are real heroes to the poor. They are like black pirates." He not only acknowledged that RAB oversteps its mandate; he said it was necessary. "The normal judicial processes dont work, so sometimes its best to control a criminal RAB's way," said Sarker.

This kind of attitude may be changing. Recently, Bangladeshi newspapers have been more openly critical of RAB's alleged extra-judicial killings. Adams says that for the first time, significant segments of public opinion are being critical of RAB's ethics. How the upcoming Hossain court cases play out in public will be a telling barometer of RAB's support.

Recovering at a hospital in Dhaka, Hossain and his family fear the lives that await them back in their village. Hossain's mother has sued six members of RAB, but there has yet to be a hearing on their case. "I don't think there's any hope," says Tofazzal Hossain, Limon's father. He says RAB has powerful allies who have physically threatened his family. "We sued them," he says, "because we didn't want any another boy like Limon to lose his leg. We didn't want any more mothers to cry or fathers to live in agony."

First published in TIME magazine, June 19, 2011