Bangladesh rights activists say they face retaliation linked to RAB sanctions

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By Ahammad Foyez on Apr 08, 2022 Benar News

Bangladesh is retaliating against NGOs that have accused the elite security unit RAB of enforced disappearances and other abuses, human rights groups said in a statement Friday.

Among other measures, government offices have been tasked with monitoring foreign funding received by such groups, the statement said, citing a leaked government circular from January that discussed measures Dhaka was taking in response to U.S. sanctions slapped on RAB one month earlier.

The Jan. 25 circular stated that “foreign donations of some NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Odhikar, Ain-O-Salish Kendra and BLAST could be monitored strictly,” according to a copy obtained by BenarNews.

“Bangladesh authorities have responded to U.S. Treasury Department sanctions on the notoriously abusive Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) by retaliating against victims’ relatives, human rights defenders and their families, and human rights organizations,” said the statement posted on the Human Rights Watch website and signed by 11 other organizations.

Those organizations include Amnesty International, the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances, the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the World Organization against Torture.

On Dec. 10, U.S. officials issued sanctions against RAB and seven serving and former officials over allegations of violations of human rights, a move that angered Bangladeshi government officials.

“Since the sanctions, credible sources have confirmed that the RAB and National Security Intelligence have been making threatening phone calls to victims and human rights defenders, summoning them to their local offices, and visiting their workplaces and homes in the middle of the night,” the rights groups’ statement said.

The groups called on the government to cease efforts against the victims and instead “focus its efforts on ensuring full accountability for the serious human rights abuses that persist in the country.”

While visiting Washington this week, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen faced a question about those sanctions during an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Momen had traveled to the U.S. capital to meet with American officials as the two nations marked 50 years of diplomatic relations.

“One argument is that in Bangladesh, as per the U.N. High Commission report, 76 people have been victims of enforced disappearance,” Momen said, adding, “76 people in a country of 165 million.”

“Of those 76, we recently found out [that] seven reappeared and are living with their families,” he said, noting the figure covers a period of 12 years.

Responding to a BenarNews request for comment on whether the sanctions were discussed with Momen during his visit, a spokeswoman referred to a statement released on April 4 that Secretary of State Blinken reaffirmed the importance of protecting human rights.

The Friday rights group statement noted that RAB and intelligence officers harassed a relative of a human rights defender, beginning mid-February through early March, accusing that person of “anti-state activities” for supporting families of enforced disappearance victims.

“Another human rights defender said that RAB officers visited their home at midnight while their children were asleep to interrogate them about the sources of funding for their work with families of victims of enforced disappearances,” the statement said.

‘Not our policy to harass’

Responding to those allegations, Law Minister Anisul said he was not aware of any decision to monitor foreign funding linked to rights activists.

“This is not our policy to harass any victim or rights defender,” he told BenarNews. “For various reasons we have become a target of much local and international propaganda. I am not sure whether such a campaign is part of the propaganda or not,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alena Khan, chairwoman and CEO of the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation, called on the government to investigate RAB and its banned officers to make clear the government is not backing the people who violate human rights.

“This is very unfortunate that instead of taking actions against RAB officials who were banned, authorities are harassing family members of rights defenders and victims,” she told BenarNews. “Every incident of so-called crossfire and enforced disappearance should be investigated neutrally and steps must be taken against officials involved.”

Her comment followed a March 14 statement by U.N. human rights experts who expressed concern that reprisals against human rights defenders could discourage and deter their work.

In their statement, the experts said Bangladesh should “immediately cease reprisals against human rights defenders and relatives of forcibly disappeared persons for their activism and cooperation with international human rights bodies and U.N. mechanisms.”

The Bangladesh government has refused to acknowledge allegations of enforced disappearances and incidents of “crossfire” killings.

Nur Khan Liton of Ain-O-Salish Kendra, said his and other rights groups must follow the country’s regulations as they are under formal and informal surveillance.

“Even after that, the government is making a decision to monitor foreign funding,” he told BenarNews. “I consider it nothing but pressure.”