Anti-Terror Force Stalks Bangladesh Capital

The Rapid Action Batallion fights crime and terrorism in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Human rights activists say 340 deaths attributed to the RAB are extra-judicial killings. But crime is down and ordinary citizens seem less concerned about a lack of due process.

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As in Lebanon, politics and bloodshed often go hand in hand in Bangladesh. That country is headed for an election in January and already dozens of people have been killed in fighting between rival factions. Three died just today. Adding to this volatile situation, a government paramilitary force has many human rights groups concerned.

NPR's Philip Reeves has more on the government's Rapid Action Battalion.

PHILIP REEVES: A vast crowd gathers for yet another political demonstration in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. It's being watched by a group of armed, macho looking men in black bandanas, wraparound sunglasses and black paramilitary uniforms. Meet the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB. Moudud Ahmed was law minister until the current caretaker government took over in the run up to Bangladesh's elections. He says the Battalion's made a big difference to the capital since it was set up two and a half years ago.

Mr. MOUDUD AHMED (Former Law Minister, Bangladesh): It's safe now. Very safe. And this is a success of RAB.

Mr. REEVES: If you look on the Internet, you'll find that the RAB has its own Web site. It shows a picture of a black clad, swashbuckling, gun toting officer. Next to him there's a familiar slogan in big red letters.

War Against Terrorism.

The site says the RAB's made thousands of arrests for things like kidnapping, drug, illegal weapons, but it also says 340 people have died in what it calls exchanges of fire. That's what worries Safil Bildar of the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission.

Mr. SAFIL BILDAR (Bangladesh Human Rights Commission): I would say 15 percent have something in their records, and 85 percent has been guilt or innocent, and it was violation of human rights.

REEVES: Bildar and others believe that the phrase exchange of fire is misleading and that many of these deaths are in fact extrajudicial killings, a way of bypassing a judicial system crippled by corrupt and ineffective police and courts. The U.S. won't give the RAB funding or training because of human rights of concerns.

Yet on the streets, the battalion's conduct doesn't appear to worry many Bangladeshis. For the poor, the struggle to get by is all that matters, and observers say many Bangladeshis were deeply frustrated by rampant crime, including regular killings on the streets of Dhaka. So when the RAB came along, no one wanted to ask too many questions about its methods.

Mr. HUSSEIN MOHAMMED ERSHAD (Bangladeshi politician): Yes, we're happy.

REEVES: That's Hussein Mohammed Ershad, Bangladesh's military ruler during the 1980s. He now leads a political party.

Mr. ERSHAD: After they have taken over, actually the terrorists, killers, extortionists, they have all disappeared or they have been eliminated, whether legally or illegally. You do not bother about it. They are living in peace.

REEVES: But not everyone's happy.

Mr. NARUL KABUL(ph) (New Age Newspaper): Well, I was the first editor to write against them. No rule of law can endorse killing without trial.

REEVES: Narul Kabul of Bangladesh's New Age newspaper.

Mr. KABUL: Over the last three or four years, more than 500 people have been killed by RAB and other law enforcement agencies, including police.

REEVES: And there's absolutely no comeback, no court cases?

Mr. KABUL: No, nothing.

Mr. MAHDOUD AHMED: Well, human rights issues can be raised, but the human rights of the 140 million people are more important than the human rights of some criminals.

REEVES: Mahdoud Ahmed, the government minister, was a moving force behind RAB's creation. He willingly fields questions about his performance.

But I have also heard about extrajudicial -

Mr. AHMED: Extrajudicial -

REEVES: And hundreds of them.

Mr. AHMED: Yes.

REEVES: Real concern about that.

Mr. AHMED: Right. I, you know, this is true, but first of all, for an extrajudicial police, admittedly there is an inquiry by a first class magistrate, and he submits the report to the government.

REEVES: He says the force is constantly monitored, and several hundred RAB personnel have been admonished or punished.

Mr. AHMED: Although technically you may call it extrajudicial - I will not say killing - but extrajudicial 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.

REEVES: Happy on the streets of Bangladesh, at least for now, but human rights activists warn that that may not last if such a force is not held fully accountable for its conduct.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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