Justice, Bangladesh style
In an in-depth investigative report, Tasneem Khalil uncovers the shocking truth about RAB operations that have tortured and killed more than 900 to date
To enjoy the protection of the law, and to be treated in accordance with law, and only in accordance with law, is the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be, and of every other person for the time being within Bangladesh, and in particular no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law
-- Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Article 31.
No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.
-- Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Article 35 (5).
Although technically you may call it extra-judicial -- I will not say killing -- but extra-judicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead on encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it -- people are happy.
-- Barrister Moudud Ahmed, Former Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, in an interview with NPR.
It was a question from a sister to the person who ordered her brother's killing: "My brother, before you murdered him, did he have any last wish, any last word?" Jahanara Begum Rubi caught Lieutenant Colonel Emdad off-guard. The commander of RAB-7 in Chittagong was visibly shaken and kept mum for a minute before breaking the silence: "Our politicians, for them, we have to kill our children."
Weeks after their brother was killed in "crossfire" Rubi and Giashuddin visited the RAB-7 headquarters in Steel Mill, North Potenga. Belongings of Mohammad Mohimuddin Mohim, killed in RAB custody on November 29, 2004 were returned to his family with an unofficial and off-record apology from the RAB boss. "They have a license to abduct anyone, brutally torture, kill and throw the dead body right beside the highway. That's justice, Bangladesh style," Giashuddin told me as his weeping mother sat next to a portrait of her dead son.
Mohim -- a central leader of BCL -- is one of the 900 plus victims of an extra-judicial killing frenzy that is going on strong in Bangladesh, with absolute impunity.***
A merciless death squad -- clad in black: paramilitary uniform, bandana, wraparound sunglasses -- was the Independence Day gift of Khaleda Zia and her 4-party alliance government to Bangladesh in 2004. March 26, 2004, Rapid Action Battalion was formed, weeks later, on the eve of the Bengali New Year, April 14, 2004, RAB started operating on the streets.
Earlier, in 2002, the 4-party alliance's gift to the nation was a joint anti-crime operation: "Operation Clean Heart." In three months, at least 58 people died of "heart attacks" in army custody. 11,000 people were detained in make-shift torture cells around the country.
According to a finding by the Asian Human Rights Commission, at least 8,000 victims of "Operation Clean Heart" were innocent citizens without any criminal record. In 2003, the government, through an ordinance, indemnified all army, police, and paramilitary personnel from any legal action for abuses arising out of this operation.
The "success" of "Operation Clean Heart" encouraged the establishment of RAB that is yet another joint-force comprising military, paramilitary, and police personnel: an "elite police force." To go with the title of a Hollywood blockbuster, our own version of "Men in Black" with an ingenious script that turns a cold-blooded murder into "crossfire":
Acting on a tip-off, RAB arrested criminal "X" while he was planning to carry out criminal activities. Upon interrogation X confessed that he is in possession of illegal firearms. Later, RAB took X along to recover illegal firearms from place "Y" and at around 2:30 am came under fire from X's cohorts that prompted them to return fire. RAB shot "Z" number of bullets during the shootout. X was caught in crossfire and died on the spot. A revolver, two pipe guns, and three revolver bullets were recovered from the scene.
"Crossfire stories are lies and everybody involved knows it. The authorities are so brazen about telling these lies that they don't even bother to change any version of it knowing fully well that they sound increasingly unbelievable as they recycle the same story over and over again. When official government bodies, such as the police or RAB, brazenly lie in full public glare, and repeatedly so, it reveals a level of disrespect for the public intelligence that can only be compared to a Goebbelsian mindset which subscribed to the view that repeating a lie many times makes the public accept it as true," wrote Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, on July 21, 2005, nearly a year after "crossfire" made its entry into our vocabulary as a synonym for "murder." While "crossfire" remains a euphemism for "extra-judicial killings," this is not a story of cold-blooded murders only, extra-judicial executions only, point-blank shoots and kills only. Add impunity, abduction, inhuman torture, arrogance, intimidation, and absolute terror. The worst nightmare Bangladesh is suffering for 3 years.
Sheik Abubakkar Sultan Bitan is a businessman and a loving father of a three-year old daughter. While I was interviewing him at his Uttara residence, she was trying to persuade him into playing with her. Bitan took the kid on his lap and with a choking voice described his night in a RAB torture cell.
On July 15, 2005, evening, it all started from a minor street brawl, an altercation Bitan had with a plain-clothed official of RAB-1, ASP Ashraf, near Jasimuddin Road in Uttara as he tried stopping the ASP from beating an elderly man. Minutes after the incident, Bitan was abducted from the street by gun-wielding members of RAB who blind-folded him and took him to the nearby headquarters of RAB-1.
Bitan was taken to a torture cell where he was hung upside down and RAB members started beating him on the soles of his feet with batons and metal bars.
"There are torture techniques, you know," Bitan told me with an aching look in his eyes: "They will hit the soles of your feet and unbearable pain will boil yours brains." He paused and sent his daughter inside. While the torture was on, he fell unconscious again and again ("I really lost count after three or four"). A RAB medical officer was present to bring him back to his senses. At one point, he was made to lie on the floor, face down, and his back was sprinkled with a layer of sand. Around 10-12 RAB members took turns in beating Bitan with batons ("Every cell under the skin gets damaged without any bruises visible"). "Till this day I can not walk properly or wear shoes. I am under pain medication. They would have crippled me for life," he told me, in tears, about a year after the incident.
Bitan believed he would have been shot dead (he was blind-folded and tied to a tree inside the RAB compound after the torture was over and there was blank gun-shot) if Lieutenant Colonel Gulzar -- then Director of Intelligence, RAB -- did not intervene in time and secure his release just before midnight. Gulzar, a long-time family friend, was contacted by Bitan's family after they came to know about his detention.
"To some extent, I feel lucky," Bitan told me, "That I suffered torture but unlike hundreds of others, escaped crossfire."***
Masudur Rahman Iman Ali -- a Jubo League leader in Savar -- was not as "lucky" as Bitan. On March 8, Iman was abducted by a group of plainclothes RAB members from the Dhaka Magistrate Court premises. Next morning (March 9), his mutilated dead body was found in a barren land near his home. Four days later, on March 11, The Daily Star reported:
Intact shirt saps crossfire claim
The Rapid Action Battalion's claim that Iman Ali, a Jubo League leader of Savar, died Wednesday in "crossfire" comes under question as locals and family members say they found the bullet-hit body in a shirt that had absolutely no bullet holes.
The family members suspect Iman was tortured to death and then the body was shot at and dumped near Panna Textile Mill in Khagan Village. Neighbours and family members allege a certain influential quarter used RAB-4 to kill Iman in reprisal for his leading role against its attempt to occupy 10 acres of land in Miton Village last month.
"There were three bullet hits in Iman's chest, but surprisingly none of the bullets went through the shirt he was wearing," remarks a security guard of a textile mill who is one of the people who first saw the body sprawling in Khagan. Seeking anonymity he says the body was lying straight and there was no scratch or sign of struggle on the ground, which indicates the killing took place somewhere else. "If someone takes a bullet, the body usually thrashes about, twitches and jerks, leaving scratches on the ground."
RAB arrested Iman, 35, a member of Dhaka District Jubo League, Tuesday afternoon on the Dhaka district magistrate's court premises, where he went to appear in a case. The next morning his body was found in an open space in Khagan. RAB claims he was killed in "crossfire" between his accomplices and RAB members. The shootout started as Iman's accomplices opened fire on the RAB-4 team that went to Khagan to recover his arms cache, describes the elite police force. In a press release on Thursday RAB termed Iman a terrorist, extortionist, killer and one involved in land grabbing.
But, many a local says Iman was very polite and popular in the locality. "If Iman was a criminal then why did some 10,000 people take part in his Namaj-e-janaza," questions Ali Ahmed Mian, a septuagenarian villager of Shamrai. He says Iman was planning to contest in the local Union Council election, which might also be a reason for his death.
A few days after Iman's murder at the hands of RAB-4, I met Nazrul Islam -- his brother -- at his home in Savar. Nazrul was furious and fuming: "I will see an end to it. How can they abduct someone from the court-house? How can a human being inflict so much pain on another person's body? Why on earth they chose to dump his body under the open sky for everyone to watch?"
A few weeks later, as I received a call from Nazrul wishing to see me, I went back to Savar. This time he was calm and composed but even more determined to expose the true nature of his brother's death. "I told you, I will get the proof that they tortured him to death," Nazrul greeted me with a glare. "They hammered in nails into his fingers and gave him electric shocks that burnt his back," he slipped his hand into his pocket and brought out a photograph that shows the back of Iman Ali's dead body: the whole layer of skin missing or peeled off. A photographer (name withheld on request) present at the morgue where Iman's body was taken for an autopsy had taken the photo, but fearing harassment he did not deliver it to the newspaper he worked for.
Wishing to verify Nazrul's claim -- that Iman Ali was given electric shocks that peeled off his skin -- I consulted a specialist (name withheld on request) from the burn and electrocution injuries unit at DMC for his assessment on what exactly happened to Iman. Not electric shocks, but a more alarming mode of torture: acid, he concluded, after studying a blown up version of the photograph. Apparently Iman had a large quantity of acid poured on his back while he was being tortured at the RAB-4 torture cell.
"They wanted to set an example," Nazrul told me. "Iman lead a movement that thwarted a bid to evict hundreds of Christian families from their homes spread around 10 acres of land in Miton. Babar's (Lutfuzzaman Babar, then state minister for home affairs) cousin wanted to grab that piece of land. In this country you don't raise your voice against the powerful."***
In Bangladesh, raising one's voice against the powerful invites danger. For Abul Kalam Azad Sumon, his activism against the changes in the design of Khilgaon flyover -- that made movement of the people of that area difficult -- invited death, on May 31, 2005. On June 1, 2005, The Daily Star reported:
RAB's "shootout" claim shrouded in questions
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) claimed that Jubo League leader Abul Kalam Azad Sumon was killed in a "shootout" in Rampura early yesterday but witnesses and other sources said he was killed in RAB custody for mistaken identity. The sources also said there were no proof of Sumon's involvement in criminal activities and his addresses mentioned in the charge-sheets of two cases were full of discrepancies that raise questions about the RAB allegation against him.
The RAB said Sumon was killed in a shootout on Road 4 in Block F of Bansree, Rampura at about 3:30 am yesterday. The gunfight occurred when a gang of criminals opened fire at a patrol team of RAB in the area. The RAB press release said the RAB members after the shootout found the body of Sumon lying on the spot. Later Khilgaon police identified him as "Goailya Sumon," a notorious criminal of Goran area, it claimed.
However, witnesses said some plainclothes RAB men had picked up Sumon and two others from the office of a cable operator in Goran where he worked as a cashier. They said a man first entered the office of Lorel International, the cable operator, in East Goran, at about 8:30 pm on Monday. A few others followed him and identified themselves as RAB members. "One of them loaded his pistol and pointed it to Sumon's abdomen. Another man blindfolded Sumon, Hanif and Bidyut. Then they left the place in a yellow taxicab," a shopkeeper in the area said, seeking anonymity. Hanif and Bidyut are the mechanics of the cable operator. "About 50 people witnessed the incident. The plainclothes RAB men later put on their uniform before pushing the three youths into the cab," he said. Asked about the alleged criminal activities, most locals said Sumon was polite and modest and he was not involved in crimes.
Sumon's father Abdul Hakim said he and his wife Amela Khatun rushed to Khilgaon Police Station after they heard that Sumon was arrested. As the duty officer confirmed that Khilgaon police had not arrested him, they went to the Detective Branch (DB) office on Mintoo Road, but did not find their son there. "At about 2:30 am we went to the RAB-3 office at Tikatuli and found Sumon sitting in a RAB jeep. Possibly, they were taking him out of the office," Hakim said. "We tried to meet Sumon, but the RAB members drove us out when we identified ourselves as Sumon's parents," he said. Sumon's mother was found shell-shocked, sitting on a chair, when The Daily Star correspondents visited their house. Hakim said at about 5:00 am yesterday he went to Khilgaon Police Station and found Sumon's body lying in a police van with blood oozing from his abdomen. Sumon's father said he would file a case against RAB for killing his only son.
Months later, Sumon's father, Abdul Hakim, told me, as was also reported in many newspapers at the time, that it was not a case of mistaken identity but a targeted murder engineered by a senior leader of the BNP who controls the locality and considers it his personal fiefdom. Khilgaon flyover was a "prestige issue" for him, and Sumon's activism invited his wrath, Hakim claimed.
My interview with Bidyut, one of the two others arrested with Sumon, disproved the RAB claim that Sumon died in a "shootout" in Bansree, Rampura. Bidyut confirmed that the night Sumon died he was very much in custody of RAB-3 where he was severely tortured: his body bore six bullet holes, a half-inch cut above the nose, and a quarter-inch cut above the left eyebrow.***
Sumon Ahmed Majumder was the key witness to the May 2004 assassination of Ahsanullah Master, an Awami League MP in Tongi. He had to pay the price weeks later, on July 16, 2004. A few hours after plainclothes RAB members assisted by a local BNP leader picked him up from his residence along with two of his cousins, Sumon died in RAB custody by midnight.
Earlier this year, Lokman, one of Sumon's cousins detained by RAB spoke to me after his release from the prison (a criminal case against him was throw out by the court).
Lokman described their evening at the RAB headquarters in Uttara where Sumon was brutally tortured while two of his detained cousins were forced to watch. They used batons and metal bars to beat the three detainees mercilessly. "You have seen too much and we are going to tear your tongue out for life," Lokman quoted one of the RAB officers telling Sumon. "Bhai (Sumon) could not speak except to plead for water. I begged one of the constables to give my brother some water. 'Son of a bitch, you keep your mouth shut, or we are going to kill you, too.'" At one point, they were taken to an open space inside the RAB compound and with a drill machine, Sumon's knee was slit open. "They attached electric wires to the wound and started giving him shocks." Right after that Sumon fell unconscious, Lokman reckons, for the last time.***
Members of the outlawed communist parties in Bangladesh -- known as "sharbaharas" (proletariat) -- are at the top of RAB's hit list. Right out of the "crossfire" script, on December 17, 2004, BSS reported:
A faction chief of the banned Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), Mofakkhar Hussain Chowdhur, was killed in crossfire in Kushtia in the early hours of today. Chowdhury, known by different names like Shahid Hussain, Madhu Babu, was arrested by a joint team of RAB-3 and RAB-6 from Rupnagar under Mirpur in the capital on December 16 morning, RAB sources said.
After interrogation, he told the RAB that all the faction leaders of the party scheduled to meet in Kushtia on the night of December 16. Accordingly, a team of RAB-3 was going to Kushtia to arrest the other leaders. When the team reached near Kushtia town, armed cadres of Chowdhury's faction fired at the RAB members. The RAB team returned the fire and the gun battle lasted for half an hour. During the gunfight Chowdhury attempted to flee, but two bullets hit him, killing him on the spot. The RAB members recovered two pistols, two magazines, four bullets, and one LG. Two RAB members were also wounded in shootout and undergoing treatment in a hospital.
Mofakkhar Chowdhury aka Pravakar Master surely belonged to a different category of "criminals." A valiant freedom fighter during the war of liberation, Mofakkhar was best known as the think-tank of a two-decade-long underground "armed struggle" in Bangladesh's south-western and northern regions aimed at establishing communism.
Though many in the left-political camp in Bangladesh strongly disagreed with Mofakkhar's endorsement of "armed struggle," his authority on Marxist-Leninist literature was legendary. When RAB arrested him, sacks full of books, booklets, leaflets, posters, and party documents were found in his possession. His death was seen as a high-profile political killing.
Earlier this year, after many months of pursuit, I convinced one of Mofakkhar's deputies (name withheld on request) to allow me an interview. And his version of the story was simply shocking.
In 2001, in the run-up to the general elections, an influential BNP leader -- who later became a minister (the very person who allegedly sponsored Bangla Bhai and JMJB) -- approached PBCP to work as BNP's hired gun in the northern part of the country during the elections. Mofakkhar Chowdhury and his council turned down the proposal.
However, one of his deputies, Abdur Rashid Malitha aka Tapon Malitha, seized that opportunity and worked for the 4-party alliance during the elections, inviting serious annoyance of the PBCP high-command.
In 2002, Mofakkhar expelled Tapon Malitha from the party, who later formed PBCP-Janajuddha that became the largest and most feared outlawed communist party in Bangladesh within a year, with active support from the BNP minister already mentioned.
"The so-called anti-sharbahara operation by RAB is an eye-wash," I was told. "They just go after opponents of the Tapon Malitha faction. Once or twice, Tapon's own men, whoever he considers a threat, come under crossfire, but largely it's his enemies."
In 2003, the minister's nephew was killed by PBCP cadres. Mofakkhar Chowdhury was held personally responsible for the murder by the minister and Tapon Malitha was given an assignment to avenge the killing. As Malitha failed, the minister brought in Bangla Bhai. Under his sponsorship, Bangla Bhai and JMJB unleashed a cleansing operation against the Mofakkar-led faction of the PBCP in Rajshahi, Naogaon, and Natore, killing more than 36 sharbahara men, mostly followers of Mofakkhar, who, however, escaped the onslaught and fled to Dhaka.
"By assassinating Comrade Pravakar, RAB carried out Tapon Malitha and Bangla Bhai's unfinished assignment," Mofakkhar's deputy told me, "If you go by their directions, you will rule like Tapon, if you don't you will be taken to the gallows."
"Political parties (BNP/AL) do use the sharbaharas during elections. And that Bangla Bhai was sponsored by a minister is true, according to my knowledge. But, the claim that RAB follows a hit-list prepared by Tapon Malitha is totally baseless, to some extent it's hilarious. How can you trust these people: extortionists and dacoits? There is no such hit-list. RAB is engaged in uprooting a tumor that has crippled the life of the region, not carrying out a political campaign," a former official of RAB-5 (name withheld on request) told me when I checked the claim with him. ***
"They kill criminals and spare the godfathers," a close associate of Mominullah David, a Jubo Dal leader from Narayanganj killed in a "shootout" in Dhaka on November 25, 2004, told me. "Dada (David) used to play cricket in the Narayanganj league. Who turned him into a top-terrorist from a cricketer? His photo, lying face down on the street, in a puddle of blood, was printed in newspapers but his godfathers were having fun-time in Hawa Bhaban," he told me in disgust.
Pichchi Hannan was one of the top 23 criminals in Bangladesh. On August 6, 2004, in yet another episode of "crossfire," he was killed in Diakhali, Savar. For seven days before he died, Hannan was in RAB custody where he was questioned on his involvement with organized crime in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. At one point during the interrogation, he started disclosing the names of his godfathers: a well-known BNP leader in the transportation sector, a state minister, and an ex-AL MP from Dhaka. With this disclosure, alarming and threatening for his masters, Hannan signed his own death warrant, according to an August 2004 report by Shaptahik 2000.
Ahmedul Haq Chowdhury Ahmudya was one of the most feared Jamaat-e-Islam cadres in Chitagong. For him, leaving the party and joining the BNP with 1,000 Jamaat members on July, 2004 signed his death warrant. On September 10, 2004, Ahmudya and his deputy, Minhaz, died in "crossfire" in Satkania, Chitagong.
"Jamaat is a one-way ticket, you may join but never leave," award-winning investigative reporter Sumi Khan, best known for her fearless reporting on Jamaat and Islamic militancy in Chittagong, told me. Sumi believed herself to be somewhat responsible for Ahmudya's death: he had given her an exclusive interview that disclosed the name of his godfather, Jamaat MP Shahjahan Chowdhury. "By disclosing sensitive information about Shahjahan Chowdhury and Jamaat's terror network in Chittagong, Ahmudya invited death," Sumi told me. "It is very interesting, how BNP and AL cadres get killed in crossfire while Jamaat cadres roam around free." According to one of Sumi's sources, Jamaat bribed a top RAB official 10 lakh taka to get rid of Ahmudya.
In August, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) appealed to Jean-Marie Guehenno, Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations, to expel Bangladeshi peacekeepers from UN peacekeeping missions until the Bangladesh government disbands RAB.
"We intend to begin a campaign on the role of Bangladesh in UN peacekeeping operations vis-a-vis atrocities committed by its security personnel at home, notably the RAB, until such a time as the RAB is disbanded and conditions in the country enable effective redress for victims of abuses there," read the AHRC appeal.
International pressure on Bangladesh to bring an end to extra-judicial executions has been mounting in the past few months. Back home, human rights advocates and the media are fiercely critical of the regime of terror the state has unleashed on its populace, but, to their chagrin, RAB to this day patrols the streets of Bangladesh with unchallenged and unabated impunity. We are yet to see a single case where a RAB member has faced trial for his involvement in extra-judicial murders, though time and again the government promised justice for any human rights violations by RAB.
More than 900 are dead, and their families still waiting for a proper investigation of their murders. Awaiting justice where the state itself has turned into a monster -- life, liberty, and fundamental human rights became the first casualties of "crossfire." To quote Jahanara Begum Rubi, sister of the slain BCL leader Mohimuddin: "I am still waiting for the answer that I never received."
Tasneem Khalil is a writer and editor, Forum. For more information on his investigation, please go to: www.tasneemkhalil.com