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Dying while in custody

Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion Licensed to kill!

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By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury —— Bio and Archives March 26, 2008

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This is not a new James Bond 007 movie. This is a true story about the most notorious terror organization in Bangladesh.  One that enjoys official status and termed as an ‘elite force’. Rapid Action Battalion [RAB] was established on March 26, 2004 and since its establishment,  a total of 472 alleged criminals have so far been killed in the name of “crossfire” or “encounter” between associates of the so-called criminals and RAB members.

Article 32 of the Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh provides that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law. However, legalization of extra judicial executions has reduced such constitutional guarantees to mere inscriptions. As many as 111 people were extra judicially executed by the law enforcement personnel in the country from 1 January to 30 September 2004 in comparison to 56 killings in 2003. at least 43 people have been killed by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) alone mostly in `crossfire’  since it launched operations.

Formed by an executive order of 1 March 2004, the RAB has the reported strength of 4,525 personnel,  drawn from five military and para-military forces - army, air force, navy, Bangladesh Rifles and Ansar and Bangladesh Police. The deployment of members of the armed forces in combat areas amounts to the imposition of undeclared emergency. The members of the armed forces, which are not disciplined in policing, have been responsible for blatant extra judicial executions of the alleged criminals.

Former adviser and Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra Sultana Kamal said, “Death in so-called crossfire is unconstitutional and whatever the number, it is a matter of grave concern to me as an activist.”

The US Department of State,  in its annual report “Human Rights Practices 2007” on Bangladesh,  also said security forces including Bangladesh Rifles, military and RAB committed numerous extra-judicial killings while the government did not take any action or initiate any public measure to investigate the cases.

Human rights lawyers in Bangladesh say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of suspects dying while in the custody of the elite anti-crime force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).

A recent press report said, Rapid Action Battalion has so far taken punitive measures against its 535 members for anti-disciplinary activities and around 200 of them either lost their jobs or suffered the indignity of jail.

But, despite such actions, it is now alleged that, RAB is gradually turning into a Frankenstein, which ignores human rights and continues various forms of extra judicial activities. There are hundreds of allegations against RAB officials for being involved in extortion, abduction, rape and even dealing in drugs and weapons. Some of the members of RAB use organized black mailing rackets to trap innocent people and finally extract money from the victims with various excuses.

Murder in RAB custody:

All that Sumon Ahmed Majumder’s parents have are memories of their son.
As they look at his photos,  tears pour down his mother Selima’s face.
The 30-year-old had witnessed the murder of opposition Awami League MP, Ahsanullah Master, in May 2004.

Soon after, he was arrested on allegations of being involved in extortion - which his parents have always denied.

They were told that he was then transferred to the custody of the RAB.
The next they heard of him, he was dead.

“I raised my child with great care,” says Selima, sobbing.
“Even if the world forgets him, I will never forget my Sumon. This is causing me terrible pain.”

Sultana Kamal is a prominent human rights lawyer with the group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra [an organization run by family members of eminent lawyer Dr. Kamal Hussain].

She took up Sumon Ahmed Majumder’s case, but says his parents were put under pressure from the start.

“First of all it was the police who were not very cooperative,” she says.
“Then, of course, they got threatening calls from different quarters that if they tried to do something they would also be dealt with. Even if people want to fight cases, at some point, it stops.

“When the court issues the rule to the government saying, ‘Why shouldn’t this act of the government be declared illegal?’ they are supposed to say something in return and they keep on taking time. So people get exasperated.”

The Majumders eventually gave up.

As they visited Sumon’s grave in the pouring rain,  Selima’s face was a mixture of grief and rage.

But in Bangladesh, they say, you just cannot fight the system.

They must now live with the fact that they will probably never get justice for their son.

Death of Majnu:

The body of Quamrul Islam Majnu, who was tortured to death by RAB personnel, was handed over to his family some 36 hours after his death in May 2007. Twenty-five-year-old Majnu was beaten to death as he was guarding his lichee orchard. Before handing over Manju’s dead body to members of his family, an autopsy was conducted in the presence of first class magistrate Jonendranath Sarkar and members of the victim’s family.

Innumerable marks of merciless torture were identified on Majnu’s body.

Officials present during the autopsy said: “There is nothing new in the case against RAB as there are ample examples of senior members of law enforcement agencies facing legal actions for gross violation of human rights and extreme torture in custody.”

Following the autopsy report, the government directed an immediate investigation into the murder of Manju in RAB custody. An investigation committee was formed and RAB officials were questioned. Police, also recorded a murder case against RAB personnel and started their own investigation.

Prior to lodging a complaint with police, family members of Manju were repeatedly requested by RAB officials to agree to a compromise and not lodge any case against them.  When family members of the victim declined such a request and insisted that they were looking for justice, RAB men threatened they would suffer dire consequence.

In an average week,  two or three people are killed in incidents involving the RAB.

The authorities say most deaths happen during shoot-outs between law enforcers and criminals.

These incidents have become so frequent that a new term has been coined in the country - “Death by crossfire”.

Because of the many innocent people, who died in RAB custody, people here are comparing RAB with any extremist Islamist or terror group. They are no different than Jamaatul Mujahedin [JMB], which are both killing innocent people for no obvious reason.

The Bangladesh High Court recommended the incorporation of the following provisions:

-  Police must disclose their identity to the relatives of the person before arrest from the residence or office;

-  Police must inform the relatives of the arrested person over telephone or by sending special messenger within three hours of arrest from out side the residence or office. Medical check up of the person must have to be done after arrest;

-  No detention after arrest under Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code;

-  No remand under police custody under section 167 of the Criminal Procedure Code;

-  Only the investigating officer to interrogate the alleged accused in the jail custody,  but no other agency;

-  Use of a separate glass covered room in the jail custody for interrogation and the relatives or lawyer of the accused can observe it;

-  Examination of medical report of the accused, special diary opened after arrest, hearing of the accused and his lawyers have to be taken into consideration if the magistrate wants to grant remand in other cases;

-  The magistrate must show the reasons to grant remand. The remand order passed by the magistrate has to be approved by the District and Sessions Judge or Metropolitan Sessions Judge;

-  The magistrate should take action against the investigating officer if there is any allegation of torture to the accused during the remand and the allegation proved through medical examination;

-  Enhance the punishment for illegal confinement under section 220 and for custodial torture under 248 of the Penal Code from two years to seven years and fine.

Unfortunately, the directions by the High court had little impact as the extrajudicial executions by the RAB continue to indicate.

Impunity accentuates illegal measures that the High Court sought to address. On 23 February 2003, the Bangladesh Sangshad (Parliament) passed the Joint Drive Indemnity Act barring people from seeking justice through the courts for the deaths and human rights violations that occurred during the “Operation Clean Heart” anti-crime drive, which ended in the custodial death of 51 persons and involved an unknown number of torture victims. Despite intervention of the High Court on 13 April 2003 by issuing a show cause notice to the government regarding the legality of the Indemnity Act, the law continues to be in force and therefore no action is maintainable before the courts of law. In the few instances where charges were levied, punishment of those found guilty was predominantly administrative. The RAB personnel enjoy similar impunity and the courts can do little. RAB has been openly resorting to blatant human rights violations including extra judicial executions.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor & publisher of The Weekly Blitz. He is a journalist, columnist, author and Peace activist. He is the recipient of PEN USA Freedom to Write Award 2005, Recipient of American Jewish Committee Moral Courage Award 2006.

Salah can be reached at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Guest Column Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury -- Bio and Archives | Comments

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