Who will end impunity for the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh?
By Abbas Faiz, Bangladesh researcher at Amnesty International
Last Friday, Rahima Khatun, a 35-year-old woman, was shot in the head during a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) operation in a slum near the central Bangladesh district of Narsingdi.
As the RAB were arresting her husband, Rahima objected. Seconds later, she was severely injured by a bullet fired from a RAB weapon.
Hardly a week goes by without civilians being shot during RAB operations. These incidents are rarely investigated by an independent and impartial body.
Since it was created in 2004, the RAB has been implicated in the extrajudicial execution of around 700 people. There have also been reports of torture and the excessive use of force.
Despite these persistent allegations, none of the RAB's personnel are known to have been brought to justice.
Now in intensive care at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Rahima Khatun is under constant guard by the RAB.
The only official explanation of the incident so far is from the RAB who told me that Rahima had tried to snatch the gun from RAB personnel when it fired accidentally. So far, the government has not ordered an inquiry into the shooting.
On 23 March, college student Limon Hossain was shot in the leg by the RAB in Jhalakathi. His injuries were so severe that four days later his leg had to be amputated.
Limon Hossain’s family, like the families of many other victims, said that the RAB had no reason to shoot at him, and that they must be brought to justice.
At a press conference immediately after the shooting the RAB Director General admitted that "Limon Hossain was not a notorious criminal but rather a victim of a shoot-out between the RAB and criminals."
This statement seemed to indicate that the RAB had realized that a blanket denial of its human rights violations was no longer convincing lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders. However, this hope was short lived.
Later, RAB officials said that the shooting had been justified and that Limon was a member of a criminal gang, which had opened fire on the RAB first. They said the RAB had responded and in the process Limon was hit. They said he was shot during an "encounter".
Government officials, including the Home Minister, endorsed the findings of the RAB even though a separate government inquiry was still underway.
The government's inquiry, which was submitted to the Home Ministry yesterday, concluded that neither Limon, nor his family were involved in criminal activity.
Will the government now accept the findings of their own inquiry and retract the government’s endorsement of the RAB claim?
The RAB has frequently portrayed hundreds of victims such as Limon Hossain, to have been shot at in an “encounter” or from a “crossfire” bullet or in a “shootout”. They have used these phrases to shield themselves from being held accountable for their conduct. But evidence gathered by human rights defenders shows that in most cases, victims had actually been detained by the RAB and then reported to have “died” in “crossfire”.
In Limon's case, police bias in favour of the RAB was clear from the start. While they accepted the RAB claim and began an investigation against Limon’s alleged terrorist activities, they persistently rejected to file the complaint made to the police by Limon’s mother.
She complained that the RAB personnel who shot Limon deliberately ignored her plea to take him to hospital immediately. Had they done so, his leg might not have needed amputation.
Limon's mother said that her son was not a criminal and that the RAB had shot at him without reason when he had simply gone to the fields to bring the family’s’ cattle back home.
With police firmly refusing to accept her complaint, Limon’s mother sought and received a court order on 26 April, which obliged the police to register her complaint.
There has been no news that police has begun this investigation, and whether the RAB officers involved have been questioned.
Bangladeshi human rights defenders believe the investigation is not likely to begin and if it does, police conclusion will simply back the RAB claim, and Limon Hossain is not likely to get justice.
It is high time the government of Bangladesh brings an end to the climate of impunity that allows the RAB to shoot at people whom it later portrays as criminals.
RAB personnel must be held accountable for the hundreds of killings, and for the injuries they have inflicted on hundreds more victims, like Limon Hossain and Rahima Khatun.
Only a thorough, independent and impartial investigation can ensure that the victims and their families receive justice.