New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh government to reform Rapid Action Battalion within the next six months or disband it altogether.

Accusing the force of extrajudicial killings, other abuses as well as for making people disappear, the watchdog said it will call on donor countries to suspend all sorts of assistance and cooperation to the government if Bangladesh failed to take major steps for Rab accountability and reform.

The organisation released a 53-page report, “Crossfire: Continued Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion”, at a press conference held at the Brac Centre Inn in Mohakhali yesterday.

Brad Adams, Asia Director of HRW, at the press conference said Rab has committed over 700 extrajudicial killings since its inception in March, 2004, and of them 200 crossfire killings took place during the rule of the present Awami League government.

However, Home Minister Sahara Khatun ruled out the HRW report and said Rab opened fire only for self defence.

She made the comment after Adams along with his colleague Pema Abrahams handed the HRW report to her at her office yesterday afternoon.

Rab chief Mukhlesur Rahman refused to make any comment in this regard reasoning he has not seen the report.

Rab headquarters, however, told news agency UNB that the report was baseless and one-sided.

Rab Director (Legal and Media Wing) Commander Sohail went on record to say that the force has been working under the laws of the land and within the legal framework. “We are not above the law,” he said.

Adams said, “A death squad [Rab] is roaming the streets of Bangladesh and the government does not appear to be doing anything to stop it.”

Despite commitment made by the government to end the killings and to punish perpetrators, no Rab official has ever been prosecuted for a “crossfire” killing or other human rights abuses so far.

The report said Rab often sends standardised press statements in which the Rab unit concerned claims that criminals were shot and killed in “crossfire” after they or their accomplices opened fire on Rab.

It said many victims have been executed in Rab custody and bodies of those killed often carried marks indicating torture.

The report blamed the government for the impunity culture which Rab enjoys in committing crimes.

It referred to a statement made by Home Minister Sahara Khatun in January, 2011. In the statement she had said, “What will the law enforces do, save themselves or die, when criminals open fire on them?”

The report mentioned Port and Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan’s comment that crossfire killings are not human rights violations and such killings have helped bring extortion and other crimes under control.

HRW also said Rab has recently begun carrying out enforced disappearances, which is the worst form of human rights violations and it also started killing people without acknowledging any role in the deaths.

Brad Adams said the inclusion of army personnel in the composite force has worsened the situation as the training of army and law enforces are different.

The army is trained to deal with enemies and consequently they are accustomed to using arms, said Adams, adding that the army should be called in only during emergency or any calamity.

The report made recommendation to the government and the international community to put an end to extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations by the force.

It said Rab or its replacement should be an entirely civilian institution. Its officers and rank and file members should no longer be drawn from the military, which has a different culture, ethos and training from police.

The government should create a new unit with police or a new institution with a different operating culture that will uphold rights and lead the fight against crime, it said.

In the event Rab is retained, establish an independent commission to assess Rab’s performance and to identify all those involved in extrajudicial killings or any human rights violations, it mentioned.

It also pleaded for international cooperation for UN special mechanism to visit Bangladesh and conduct investigation into crossfire killings and make recommendation, imposing a ban on Rab personnel involved in crossfire killings from taking part in UN peacekeeping missions.

Source: The Daily Star – 11.05.2011