On March 23, 2011, a member of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) shot sixteen year old Limon Hossain in the leg in a field near his village in southern Bangladesh. The shooter and his squad had apparently mistaken Hossain for a criminal they were seeking. Four days later, Hossain’s leg was amputated to save his life. In the immediate aftermath, authorities said that Hossain had been accidentally caught in the crossfire between the RAB and criminal gangs; later, police filed criminal charges against Hossain himself, allegedly to shield the RAB from accountability. Those charges were finally dropped in October, but no one has been held responsible for Hossain’s injuries. Because the government recognized Hossain’s innocence by dropping charges but has not prosecuted his attackers, longtime critics of the RAB have called again for the government to hold the organization accountable.
The RAB is a police-military hybrid force founded in 2004 to fight crime. Observers like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have long documented extrajudicial killings and other “serious human rights violations” carried out by the RAB, but no member has ever been successfully prosecuted. In May of 2014, following the execution of seven people in Narayanganj, three officers were arrested. However, most observers believe that this was because the victims’ families are well-connected, and because there was extensive media coverage, not because it represented a “break [in] the cycle of impunity.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a signatory, recognizes that “every human being has the inherent right to life” (Art. 6.1) and requires states parties to “ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms . . . are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity” (Art. 2.3(a)).
Observers have called for such measures as monthly exams of the RAB members for mental fitness and independent investigations of member actions. Some observers have gone so far as to advocate for a complete demobilization of the RAB in favor of an entirely civilian force: while Bangladesh certainly needs strong law enforcement agencies, says Human Rights Watch, the RAB has “run amok” and is “beyond reform.”
If proven, the RAB’s activities could indicate breaches of Bangladesh’s duties under international law. According to HRW, the infractions are so longstanding and so extensive that the force should simply be disbanded. One representative said that “[d]eath squads have no place in a democracy.” Human Rights Watch and other observers will be watching to see if Bangladesh disbands the RAB.