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20 January, 2022 05:59:49 PM

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RAB: Reforms, not sanctions, should take precedence

RAB's vigilance as the 'lead agency' has been a major contributor to the unprecedented calm and stability in the South-western Sundarbans region. Owing to the difficulties of the terrain, it was much difficult to conduct surveillance and operations in this region
Philip Sarker
RAB: Reforms, not sanctions, should take precedence

It was the May of 2020, Md. Syed Khan, a youth in his late 20s, short, slender and hailing from the southernmost corner of Bangladesh, found himself held captive with 40 others of his fellow countrymen in an abandoned building in the middle of the desert city of Mizdah, Libya.

Syed was one of the 90,000 hapless people that would dare to leave the comfort of home and cross the Mediterranean waters in 2020, hoping for a change of fortune in Europe. He, however, was not prepared for what awaited him on his odyssey. As the members of a local militia took the migrants hostage for ransom, clashes broke out at one point and a top trafficker was killed by some hostages of Sudanese origin. The family of the murdered trafficker's retaliated, mercilessly, by killing 26 Bangladeshis in indiscriminate gunshots. Mr. Syed, fortunately, managed to survive.

Kamal Hossain alias Haji Kamal (55), a ringleader of human trafficking, Khabiruddin, Helaluddin and other trafficker involved in the incident was later arrested by Bangladeshi elite paramilitary unit - RAB. Detecting and dismantling human trafficking rackets are one of the areas of concentration for RAB. The elite force has conducted 333 operations in various human trafficking cases, arrested 1,238 people and rescued a total of 1,280 individuals since 2004.

Geographically, Bangladesh is positioned at the crossroads of three drug-producing regions: The Golden Triangle to the East, the Golden Wedge to the North, and the Golden Crescent to the West, across India and hence used as the primary transit location for Southeast Asian drug trafficking to Europe. Bangladesh perceives the heightening of the security threats regarding drug-trafficking as one of the major Transnational Organized Crimes (TOC). In response, therefore, Bangladesh initiated the 'war on drugs' campaign in 2018 to desecrate surging trade of "Yaba". Notably, it is estimated from government sources that more than 1.5 lac drug traffickers were brought to book in these operations. In this regard, RAB's crackdowns on narcotics ring cartels also played a significant part for Bangladesh to operationalize its 'war on drugs'.

RAB's vigilance as the 'lead agency' has been a major contributor to the unprecedented calm and stability in the South-western Sundarbans region. Owing to the difficulties of the terrain, it was much difficult to conduct surveillance and operations in this region. Hence, a number of pirate gangs had historically been enjoying a free-pass in this region. In 2018, the last remaining pirate gangs finally surrendered at Bagerhat Stadium and the government proclaimed the Sundarbans as 'pirate-free' zone. On account of RAB’s endless efforts, 328 members and 32 bandits with 462 weapons surrendered from 31 May 2016 to 1 November 2018 in Sundarbans. Besides, more than four hundred members of at least 50 illegal gangs have been rehabilitated into normal lives in the riverine and Bay of Bengal coastal areas.

After 9/11, when the world faced staggering challenges stemming from extremism, the US government built out a massive security administration infrastructure, including creation of the Department of Homeland Security and ratification of the patriotic act. Thousands of miles apart, Bangladesh also experienced an unprecedented uptick in terrorist activities including 2001 Bagerhat bombing, Tangail shrine bombing, 2004 Dhaka grenade attack, to name a few. Similar to US response, Bangladesh also introduced the Armed Police Battalion (Amendment) Act, 2003 by amending the Armed Forces Battalion Ordinance 1979, which subsequently, brought into fore RAB as began in 2004.

As RAB expanded, Bangladesh's counter-terrorism strengths expanded with it. In Bangladesh, RAB has been striving to enforce the government's "zero-tolerance policy" against terrorism, which precisely aligns with the United States' war on terror' campaign. RAB has been proved to be highly effective in combating extremism by apprehending innumerable high-profile terrorists including Bangla Bhai (the military commander of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh), Mufti Hannan (the leader of a radical Islamist organization called Harkat-ul-Jihad), and others. The elite force has conducted 333 operations in various human trafficking cases, arrested 1,238 people and rescued a total of 1,280 individuals. RAB also besieged Atia Mahal, a militant shelter in Sylhet which helped to earn success in a nerve-racking mission called ‘Operation Twilight’. The elite force also fought with courage to end Bangladesh's worst hostage crisis; the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. Notably, former RAB Intelligence Wing commander Lt Col. Abul Kalam Azad was killed in a bomb blast while raiding an extremist stronghold in Sylhet. That is how RAB works side by side with other security services in Bangladesh, even if it means risking the lives of its officers.

The Country Reports on Terrorism 2020 (CRT) of the United States has highly lauded Bangladesh as it has strengthened its law-and-order situation and diminished the threat of terrorism through the active backing of security services. On top of that, in recent Global Terrorism Index, Bangladesh ranked well ahead of the United States and many of its strategic allies.

The recent US sanctions on RAB and seven of its current and former officials on the grounds of human rights violations has come as a major setback to the reputation of this paramilitary force. Despite being a partner of US in the movement against both violent terrorism and narcotics trafficking in Bangladesh, RAB receives a bolt from the blue setback in its operation. However, a deep insight reveals that reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch graphically depicts stances of human rights breaches by security officials of several nations each year which has recently more deteriorating records than RAB. But all of these countries have not been sanctioned by the US. Then, the question arises - what are the motifs of this indiscriminate sanction to its previous partner on War on Terror? More recently, experts, therefore, opines that US sanctions were motivated by geopolitical interests to keep Dhaka under pressure to avoid its tilt towards China.

As this elite force actions deals with hardcore criminals, who could not be dealt with normal legal process some executions took place when RAB is in the line of duty or engaged in gunfights during a raid. But the prevailing myth among foreign counterparts that in Bangladesh there is only impunity for security forces is absolutely absurd. They might have not looked at the Narayanganj 7 murder case where in 2017 the High Court gave death penalty of 15, including three top ex-RAB officials, expelled an Awami League leader and other involved ex-RAB members were sentenced to different terms in the verdict for their involvement in conspiracy, abduction and killing. They also may be unaware of the fact that in Bangladesh to ensure transparency, discipline, accountability of the activities of the RAB members, Internal Enquiry Cell (IEC) was formed with the initiative of the United states-based organization under section 14 of the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance, 1979. Since its inception, 182 people have been dismissed from service of severe crimes out of 18 sentenced to jail. A total of 416 people have been given major penalties, including 43 for dismissal and compulsory retirement for various offences. Therefore, it seems practice of accountability still prevails.

Undeniably, unlike other paramilitary organizations of many countries, RAB is not above controversy. But, on the basis of few sporadic occurrences the US should not label RAB a human rights offender. If individuals of an organization do anything wrong, the culpability should not fall on the shoulders of the organization or necessarily not imply that the organization itself supports or defends wrongdoings. Imposing sanctions never could be a solution rather it would intensifies the crimes arising out of Rohingya issue, as well as threats of other internal and foreign crimes, could no longer be controlled, and the region's security would be disrupted and fragile. If the US truly cares about the RAB's human rights transgressions, instead of implementing sanctions, the US should engage more closely with RAB to reform it, guiding and equipping them to take the route that the US believe can preserve human rights and simultaneously fight extremism.

The writer is a Bangladesh-based journalist and an independent observer of Southeast Asian politics.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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