It’s Time to Impose Sanctions on Bangladesh: Stop Extrajudicial Killings, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture


US Senators Seek Sanctions on Bangladesh's Elite Police Unit for 'Extrajudicial Killings'

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel gather in a Dhaka street before raiding a home to arrest a suspect, Oct. 26, 2020.


by Hashmi          28 October 2020

It is heartening that ten US Congressmen under the leadership of Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Todd Young (R-Ind) have written a bi-partisan letter, addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin in calling the Trump administration to impose sanctions on senior commanders of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has reportedly killed more than 400 people extrajudicially since 2015. It is noteworthy, the letter has specified: “Extrajudicial killings by the RAB have reportedly spiked since the Government of Bangladesh began its ‘war on drugs’ in the months ahead of the December 2018 elections”. It further adds: “UN experts including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary execution wrote that the ‘war on drugs’ ‘appears to be a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings’ and urged the Government [of Bangladesh] to end it and respect the rule of law and human rights. However, the Government has failed to end these abuses and the RAB continues to commit extrajudicial killings with impunity.” In addition to extrajudicial killings, the letter reveals, RAB commits human rights abuses beyond these killings, such as enforced disappearances and widespread torture. A total of ten Senators have signed the letter,  seven Democrats and three Republican [“Bipartisan Letter Calls for Sanctions on Bangladeshi Battalion for Extrajudicial Killings Enforced Disappearances, Torture”, October 27, 2020 –].

Extrajudicial killings of dissidents and outlaws by states are as old as civilization. Recent world history is replete with such killings. As Hitler had his Waffen-SS and Gestapo, so had Mussolini his Blackshirts to do the job. In the recent past, the last Shah of Iran had his Savak, and the Pakistani occupation Army in Bangladesh had its al-Badr, al-Shams, and Razakars to abduct, torture, and kill their respective opponents. Various countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Cambodia in the recent past, and the Philippines under Marcos and the incumbent President Duterte – have had their death-squads, some state-sponsored, and some totally under non-state actors.

The main premise of this article goes beyond explaining the evil of state-sponsored extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. This piece is about pointing out the inherent dangers lurking behind the so-called “effective” and “desirable” state-sponsored extrajudicial killing of people, including hardcore criminals. The whole thing invariably backfires, and the states that promote and nurture this barbaric method for the sake of restoring law and order become more disorderly than before, and even turn into failing states. Examples abound! Thanks to their nurturing state-sponsored terror, multiple countries have remained dysfunctional for decades. Extrajudicial killing by law-enforcers in the long-run turns members of the killing squads into the Frankenstein’s Monsters of the state, that promoted and nurtured them.

There is nothing new about state-sponsored death-squads in Bangladesh, especially since the Khaleda Zia Government formally introduced the dreaded Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in 2004, presumably to kill hardcore criminals; in violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Bangladesh Constitution. Since then, Bangladesh governments – elected and unelected ones – have never “looked back”! Although it is difficult to ascertain how many Bangladeshis – political activists, criminals, and innocent victims of personal vendetta – got killed in “crossfire” since the emergence of the RAB, one may estimate multiple thousands of people fell victim to extrajudicial, known, and unknown killings. We must not impute the killings exclusively to RAB and police, but also to extortionists, drug dealers, and criminals having links with law-enforcers, local criminal gangs, and politicians (sometimes difficult to distinguish), international Mafia, and Islamist terrorist groups.

There is a slight difference between state-sponsored killing in Bangladesh and elsewhere. While the Filipino President Duterte, for example, publicly mentions his employing death-squads to kill drug-dealers – he even brags about his own role in killing drug-dealers by throwing them off flying helicopters – the Bangladesh Government has never confessed law-enforcers have ever done any extrajudicial killing since the inception of the RAB, and ever before. It has invented a laughable expression called “crossfire” or “gunfight”, as its fig leaf to hide its crime against humanity. It is similar to the Indian government’s use of “encounter”, to narrate the unbelievable stories about law-enforcers’ armed encounters with criminals, which invariably result only in the deaths of criminals, not any law-enforcer. In short, “crossfire” has become a cruel joke in Bangladesh. So much so, that people and media use the expression in parentheses.

Then again, this does not mean that the so-called “crossfire” was always unpopular among large sections of the population when it was first introduced, with much fanfare in 2004. A large number of Bangladeshis – surprisingly many educated ones – welcomed the killing of hardcore criminals and extortionists like Kala Jahangir and Murgi Milon. So far so good! However, people’s acceptance of “crossfire” as legitimate means of eliminating hardcore criminals also indicates their lack of faith in politicians, judiciary, police, and bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the dire consequences of extrajudicial killings hardly ever dawn on the supporters of “crossfire”, until their own people fall victims to such killings.
The brouhaha following the latest killing of Akramul Haque, a local ruling party activist at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar District, by RAB on 27th May 2018 is noteworthy. The widow of the victim publicized the audiotape of her telephone conversation with her late husband moments before his killing (recorded by a device on her phone) [“Murder it was”, Daily Star, June 1, 2018]. I cite another example of coldblooded murder of an alleged drug dealer by police just to underscore one thing: the ongoing “anti-drug operation” is a fabrication, nothing more than red herrings to divert people’s attention from multiple real issues, socio-economic and political. According to a media report, the police killed the wrong person, while the actual criminal had been in prison on multiple charges, including drug trafficking and murder [“Cops took my husband from home the day before”, Daily Star, June 3, 2018]. International media and human rights activists also consider the whole operation and extrajudicial killings unwarranted and politically motivated.
One can go on citing scores of examples of extrajudicial killings in the country since its formal introduction by the BNP Government in 2004, and its “informal” introduction by the Mujib Government in 1972 through his infamous paramilitary Rakkhi Bahini outfit in 1972. The brutal killing of Siraj Sikdar – a radical Leftist leader – in police custody by Mujib’s police on 2nd January 1975 is widely known within and beyond Bangladesh. Mujib’s public bragging about the killing: “Aj Kothay Siraj Sikdar?” (Where is Siraj Sikdar today?) in the Parliament, days after the killing, is still in public memory. It is widely believed across Bangladesh that during the authoritarian rule of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (January 1972- August 1975), the police, Rakkhi Bahini, and Mujib’s various vigilante groups of party activists, mainly belonging to the Lal Bahini (The Red Militia), Jubo League (Youth League), and Chhatro League (Student League) killed more than 30,000 opposition activists, supporters, and suspects harbouring anti-Mujib ideologies, mainly from the Left. It was sort of comparable with the reign of terror unleashed by Hitler’s Gestapo (Secret State Police), and various pro-Natsi vigilante groups in Germany during 1933 and 1945. Since 2009, Bangladesh under Hasina has become a safe haven for various police, military (especially the notorious DGFI or the Forces’ Intelligence outfit), the RAB, and vigilante Chhatro League and Jubo League death squads. Several ruling Awami League party’s so-called MPs run their personal fiefdoms across the country, having their own special security forces armed with unlicensed firearms. They engage in all sorts of extortion, drug trafficking, land grabbing, embezzling money from development projects in their constituencies, and abducting and killing political rivals and rival drug lords. Interestingly, none of these so-called MPs are ever elected during the three terms of rigged parliamentary elections (2008-2018). Their family members and cronies rape, rob, kill and make people disappear, with impunity. Since 2009, thousands of people got killed by Hasnia’s Gestapo forces, and civil and military death squads. Hundreds have simply “disappeared”. Among the “disappeared” are opposition leaders, activists, intellectuals, journalists, students, and rival extortionists and drug traffickers.   
The latest killing of a retired Major of Bangladesh Army on 31st July 2020 has stirred up the whole country because the victim was a retired army officer. Local drug lords got Sinha killed as he had been an active anti-drug operator in the country. While three police officers of  Teknaf police station in Cox’s Bazar, Inspector Liaqat Ali,  Officer-in-Charge Pradip Kumar Das, and Sub-Inspector Nanda Dulal Raxit were directly involved in the killing, the police chief of Cox’s Bazar district, local drug lords, including the notorious ruling party MP Abdur Rahman Bodi and the Hasina Administration (by default) were responsible for the killing of the retired major. Local sources reveal that scores of people are regularly “cross-fired” (or killed in made-up “encounters”) by police at Teknaf alone, every month. According to a senior RAB officer: “Major Sinha’s killing took only one and a half minutes”. [“Major Sinha’s killing took only one and a half minutes: RAB”]. It is noteworthy that the RAB itself has been the main “killing machine” since its inception in 2004. What is most startling that the British police were directly involved in the training of Bangladeshi death squads. Of late some US human rights groups

Interestingly, only after a ruling party activist got killed in “crossfire”, party leaders, including the Home Minister, and Awami League General Secretary, have started registering their concern at the methods of the killing process. However, they did not question the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing. The Home Minister said a magistrate would investigate the killing to take necessary action against the killers, and the General Secretary felt “one or two mistakes might take place in big operations like the anti-drug drive”. Meanwhile, in two weeks since the Government started its war against drug-lords and peddlers on 15th May 2018 the RAB, police, and presumably their civilian associates have killed 130 people in the most controversial and unacceptable manner.

By 2nd June 2018, the RAB and police have arrested more than 15,000 people in their so-called anti-drug operation. While very well-known, politically influential drug lords have remained unscathed, or have managed to flee the country, ordinary people are being “crossfired” in the most unacceptable manner. It is noteworthy that some leading media outlets and the Transparency International of Bangladesh (TIB) have demanded a judicial probe into the killings, and some lawmakers have also asked for caution in drives against drug-dealers in the country [New Age, June 1 & 2, 2018]. Meanwhile, cross-sections of Bangladeshis, including human rights activists, pro-Government intellectuals, and ruling party leaders have started questioning the methods of such killings. Some of them have even questioned the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing. However, too little, too late!

There are several examples of law-enforcers’ and soldiers’ turning into indiscriminate killers in Bangladesh. Two heads of state, multiple politicians, thousands of civilians, hundreds of military officers and troops have already fell victims to organized or disorganized death squads since Liberation. Fifty-seven army officers, including a major-general, got killed at the hands of their own troops (of the now-defunct Bangladesh Rifles or BDR) on 25th/26th February of 2009 alone.

In the backdrop of the almost uninterrupted process of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh since 2004, I am afraid, the promoters and mentors of these killing squads are simply playing with fire. They do not know where they are pushing the country into! If the ongoing extrajudicial killing process of actual drug dealers, suspects, and totally innocent people goes on for an indefinite period, the country would definitely head toward disaster, possibly toward a long-drawn period of anarchy. Since the absence of law amounts to anarchy, the expression “extrajudicial killing” is self-explanatory indeed!

As terror begets terror, so individuals and groups in the fringe also make a foray out of ideological or purely criminal motivations. The upshot is the emergence of multiple autonomous and unrestrained non-state terror outfits or death-squads from among the disgruntled people to fight each other and extort and kill civilians. In the long-run, they even pose an existential threat to the state itself. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria fall in this category of states. Bangladesh has lessons to learn from the examples of countries that became dysfunctional due to extrajudicial killings by law-enforcers, which eventually led to the mushroom growth of privately run death-squads.

It is sad but true, sections of the state-sponsored killing squads in Bangladesh have already gone out of control and working as mercenaries of various underground groups linked with international terrorist groups, drug Mafia, and criminal networks. International and social media networks, from time to time, provide documentary evidence of the non-state killer gangs killing of unarmed civilians in Bangladesh with active support from RAB troops and officers. On several occasions, RAB officers are directly involved in the killing and extortion of civilians. The infamous Seven Murder Case at Narayanganj was one of them. In 2014, twenty-seven RAB troops, including three officers, were involved in the abduction and killing at Narayanganj [“Narayanganj seven-murder verdict due Jan 16” Dhaka Tribune, 30 November 2016].

Since the enfeebled opposition parties and the non-existent civil society (bi-partisan and honest) cannot go beyond making inaudible noise against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of people in Bangladesh, it is time for freedom-loving people across the world, especially human rights activists in the East and West, go beyond exposing and condemning human rights violations in the country! All democracies in the world must come forward to clamp down economic and military sanctions against the proto-fascist Hasina Regime in Bangladesh. The UN agencies must stop engaging any Bangladeshi law-enforcer and military personnel in peace-keeping operations anywhere in the world. Since the peace-keeping operations fetch rich dividends to the peacekeepers and the dictatorial Regime, withdrawing all Bangladeshi peace-keepers under the aegis of the United Nations would be an effective measure against extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh.

A senior leader of the main opposition party BNP has revealed recently, while around a hundred thousand supporters/activists of the party are languishing behind bars without any credible trial and allegations, yet another hundred thousand BNP activists have more than 3.5 million lawsuits against them [Daily Star (Bangladesh), October 22, 2020]. Last but not least, various indigenous and international human rights groups and media have published reports about at least one hundred extrajudicial killings by police in the wee hours of 6th May 2013 of unarmed members of an Islamic organization (Hefazat-e-Islam, Bangladesh) at Motijheel, in the heart of Dhaka City. Interestingly, the Hasina Regime not only denied any such killing by its law enforcers had ever happened at Motijheel on that fateful night, but it also came up with fabricated coverups, through “documentaries” of people feigning deaths by lying on sidewalks and streets by dousing red paints over themselves, so that – as the “documentaries” revealed – they appeared to be bloodstained bodies of victims! This writer recalls seeing the then Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on TV, telling foreign journalists the story about the so-called actors doused with red paint feigning dead and waking up after a soft nudge! It is unbelievable but true that the Hasina Regime seems to have learned the art of denying any extrajudicial killing in the country from the manuals of Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda of the Nazi Government in Germany.

The binary between state- and non-state actors in selective and indiscriminate killing is intricate. State-sponsored ones have the potential to become non-state death-squads or terrorist-insurgent outfits, which often vie for controlling or even capturing state machinery. The Afghan Taliban is a glaring example in this regard. Both state- and non-state death-squads or terror outfits have three-pronged agendas a) to intimidate their rivals (state machinery and people at large); b) to overpower them or neutralize them, and c) to extort and plunder from public and private sectors. Both of these killing squads could either be ideology-driven or extortion and plunder are their main motivations. While the state-actors are under the control of civil and military authorities of the state, non-state actors are autonomous and unrestrained, hence more dangerous and least predictable. Last but not least, as mentioned above, state-sponsored terror and extrajudicial killings lead to non-state death-squads, who often collaborate with local and international crime syndicates, drug Mafia, and terrorist networks. It’s time to remove this proto-fascist Hasina Regime. UN and international sanctions against the Regime would be a major step in this direction.

Dr. Taj Hashmi is a retired Professor of history and security studies. His publications include Global Jihad and America (SAGE 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); and Ouponibeshik Bangla (Papyrus, Kolkata 1985). Currently, he is writing a book, titled, “Post-Liberation Bangladesh: Culture, Identity, Myths, and Underdevelopment”.