Submission calls on UK government to sanction “leading members of the Bangladesh government”

Bangladeshi politicians vulnerable to UK government travel and financial sanctions due to role in extrajudicial killings.

Submission calls on UK government to sanction “leading members of the Bangladesh government”
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion in 2018 during an anti-terrorist operation in Dhaka. Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Alamy Live News.

A group of international lawyers has made a formal submission to the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) recommending the imposition of sanctions on six leading members of the Bangladesh government as well as nine members of the elite police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, for alleged involvement in human rights abuses.

The submission has been made under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 which allows the UK government to impose sanctions — including asset freezes and travel bans —  against individuals or organisations for their involvement in certain serious human rights violations around the world including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

This submission by Guernica 37, a UK-based legal chambers specialising exclusively in international criminal and human rights law, is the first known formal request made to the UK government seeking sanctions against individuals in Bangladesh. The UK government has set up a process and published guidance allowing non-governmental organisations and civil society bodies to submit information on particular individuals they consider should be sanctioned.

Guernica 37 has not released a copy of its submission or details of the individuals whom they recommend should be sanctioned stating that the submission contains confidential information and the chambers needs to protect its sources. It is believed, however, to include names of senior members of the current Awami League government.

Toby Cadman, who co-heads the chambers and is known in Bangladesh for having represented the Jamaat-e-Islami at the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka, told Netra News that the submission was “not done with the backing of any political party and is entirely done pro-bono.” In recent years, Cadman has become better known for his work seeking the accountability of the Syrian government for crimes against humanity.

A press release issued by the firm notes that since 2015, the Rapid Action Battalion, which comprises both police and members of the armed forces, has “committed over 440 extrajudicial killings” and is engaged in “a pattern of serious human rights abuses, often targeting political opponents of the Awami League, journalists, human rights defenders, and others expressing dissent.”

It goes onto state that, “The named officials have served as senior RAB officers during the past five years and have commanded units directly involved in serious abuses or held positions of operational control for all RAB battalions. […] There is no evidence of credible investigations or actions taken by them to stop the abuses and ensure meaningful accountability.”

The press release does not detail the basis for the proposed sanctions against the six senior members of government, but the 2020 law does allow sanctions to be imposed for those who “facilitate, incite, promote or provide support for” human rights violations or who are “responsible for the investigation or prosecution of such conduct and intentionally or recklessly [fail] to fulfil that responsibility.” 

Guernica 37 points out that although in recent years the rates of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have dramatically escalated, RAB leadership “has been awarded with promotions, rather than punishment”, pointing to the the former RAB Director General Benazir Ahmed who was promoted in 2020 to Inspector General of Police.

So far 72 individuals have been sanctioned under the UK law from a number of countries including China, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

The United States government has similar powers to sanction individuals under a law called the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

At the time of publication, there has been no response to a request for comment from the Bangladesh High Commissioner to the UK, Saida Muna Tasneem. 

The FCDO has also not responded to a request for information about the process of dealing with the Guernica 37 submission.●