By Kamran Reza Chowdhury on Jan 17, 2023 Benar News
A senior U.S. official highlighted “tremendous progress” made by Bangladesh in reducing alleged extrajudicial killings by its elite RAB security force, which Washington had sanctioned in December 2021 over gross human rights abuses.
Donald Lu, the United States assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, noted the progress as he wrapped a weekend visit to Bangladesh. Bilateral tensions arose in the wake of the U.S. sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and comments by the Biden administration about upcoming national elections in the South Asian country.
In commenting on the reduction of extrajudicial killings, Lu cited information from a newly published annual report by international watchdog Human Rights Watch.
“If you have seen the statement this week by Human Rights Watch, they recognize, and we recognize, tremendous progress in the area of reducing extrajudicial killings by the RAB,” Lu told a press briefing in Dhaka on Sunday.
“This is amazing work. It shows that the RAB is able to carry out its important counter terrorism and law enforcement function while respecting human rights.”
At the end of 2022, the United States announced it was imposing targeted sanctions against several commanders of RAB. It accused the unit of more than 600 enforced disappearances in the past 12 years, a similar number of extrajudicial killings, and the use of torture.
In the Bangladesh chapter of its World Report 2023 published last week, Human Rights Watch opened it by saying that the government had been able to rein in RAB following the U.S. sanctions.
“Following the US Global Magnitsky human rights sanctions against Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and some of its top commanders in December 2021, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances dropped dramatically, indicating that authorities have the ability to bring security force abuses under control,” the report said.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the New York-based watchdog group said that another Bangladesh security unit, the Armed Police Battalion (APBn), was committing “rampant” abuse against Rohingya refugees, including extortion, arbitrary arrests, and harassment of refugees who were already facing violence from criminal gangs and armed groups.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said that he had an “excellent meeting” with Lu on Sunday.
“He emphasized protection of human rights, political freedom, and other issues,” the minister told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“I made it clear that the government is serious about the protection of human rights and political freedom of all parties.”
The home minister said he also talked with Lu about Washington lifting the sanctions on RAB.
“Donald Lu told me that lifting of the sanctions is a complex procedure. He told me that we were on the right track for lifting of the sanctions and hoped that it would be lifted with the completion of the procedures,” Khan said.
According to Khan, the U.S. official told him that Washington had considered further sanctions in December, but held off because RAB had shown improvement in its duties.
“As we are on the right track, they decided to hold off on further sanctions,” the minister said.
No time-frame for sanctions’ removal
On Tuesday, BenarNews sought comments from the U.S. embassy in Dhaka about the procedures for lifting of the sanctions, but did not immediately hear back.
For his part, Lu said he had honest and open discussions with Bangladesh officials.
“The U.S. has made a commitment on democracy and human rights that we will speak when we see problems and where we can offer suggestions, we will stand up for freedom speech, freedom expression and we look forward to working very closely with our partners here in Bangladesh,” Lu said at the press briefing on Sunday.
During his meetings in Dhaka, Lu did not indicate a time frame for the removal of RAB sanctions, the U.S. embassy said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We applaud the Government of Bangladesh’s efforts in these continued reforms and encourage the Bangladesh government to conduct independent investigations of alleged extrajudicial killings,” the statement said.
During his meeting, according to the Bangladesh home minister, he told Lu that the government had “not been obstructing the opposition parties from holding peaceful political programs.”
“But the government would not tolerate any attempt to destroy public property and cause anarchy in the guise of political freedom,” Khan said about their conversation.
The minister was referring to recent U.S. statements calling on Dhaka to ensure that upcoming elections be free, fair and transparent. Last week the Bangladesh foreign minister had responded to these comments by saying that Dhaka did not need lessons on democracy from other countries.
Sanctions ‘saved many lives’
Human rights activists, meanwhile, said the U.S. sanctions on RAB did have a positive effect on extrajudicial killings but that the unit as well as the police were now using a new tactic for detention.
“Frankly speaking, the U.S. sanctions on RAB saved many lives that would have been lost on the pretext of the recovery of illegal arms and narcotics. The stereotypical narrative of crossfire with criminals has almost disappeared,” Nur Khan, executive director of the rights body Ain-O-Salish Kendra, told BenarNews.
“Many people are whisked away, and they are presented before court weeks after their unlawful arrests. In most of the cases, the law enforcers brand those arrested as suspected of militant activity,” he said.
“This type of practice is another form of human rights violation.”
Nevertheless, Lu’s visit had smoothed relations between Dhaka and Washington, said Munshi Fayaz Ahmad, former chair of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
“Before the visit … the public perception was that Bangladesh-U.S. relations were not going in a smooth way. But after the visit, the two sides talked in a very amicable way on common issues. The tone has changed now,” Ahmad told BenarNews.
“From now on, I think, both sides will engage in constructive ways to maintain friendly relations.”