“One day I timed it with my watch during an operation I led. It takes at least 20 minutes, at least 20 minutes. For 20 minutes, the sound of groaning kept coming. Then it ended. The sound of groaning kept coming. As if the heart cannot pump any blood, that sound keeps coming. You will understand that the person is looking for oxygen but cannot find any.”
This is how a former commander with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), who was directly involved in the killing of several people in a number of staged crossfires in Bangladesh, was describing the last moments of a dying man to investigative journalists of Netra News and Deutsche Welle (DW).
A few years back, in a recording published by Swedish Radio, a high-ranking RAB officer was heard describing various crimes of the elite police unit. But that was recorded in secret; the officer did not know that he was being recorded. Apart from that, at least one former RAB official inadvertently acknowledged staging such crossfires prior to 2006.
Now, for the first time, two former RAB commanders, confirming their identities, have described the entire process of staging a crossfire or fake gunfight, the kind of which the elite police unit has orchestrated more than 700 times since 2009, according to data compiled by Bangladeshi human rights groups.
One of the officials who spoke to us was directly involved in extrajudicial killings, and the other witnessed those happening closely. Their testimonies allege how RAB targets the ruling party’s political opponents, implicating the highest level of the Bangladesh government.
The testimonies of these RAB commanders, and our joint investigation with German public broadcaster DW, depicted the inner workings of extrajudicial executions in Bangladesh.
Local and international human rights organisations and the media have been calling RAB a state-controlled death squad since 2004, due to its involvement in the killings of so-called terrorists or criminals in the guise of “crossfire”. In December 2021, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions against RAB for its involvement in extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
But the detailed modus operandi of extrajudicial executions by RAB has till now not been documented. That is because RAB always avoids paper trails in organising these killings. Besides, to obliterate all sorts of evidence, the whole process is kept unofficial and conducted in an informal manner. Hence, these testimonies of two RAB commanders bolster long-standing claims of RAB’s involvement in extrajudicial executions.
We have confirmed the identity of these two former RAB commanders by using official but classified lists of the officers of their parent organisations, from which they were seconded to serve in RAB, as has been the norm. They were interviewed only after we confirmed their names, service numbers and other relevant information. They served as commanders in different battalions of RAB.
Because of security concerns, we have agreed to grant them anonymity.
How a “crossfire” is staged
Before being killed, a victim is usually kept under surveillance for some time with the help of the RAB’s intelligence wing, according to both whistleblowers.
In RAB’s terminology, these individuals are referred to as “targets”.
In separate interviews, recorded on separate days, both RAB commanders have claimed that before picking up a “target”, a clearance needs to be obtained from the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Bangladesh government. Especially, if the “target” is associated with a political party (a “political target”), the decision to kill him — and it almost always is a “him” — comes directly from the Ministry of Home Affairs, both insiders claim.
One of the two former RAB commanders told us, “The decision to engage with a political target would come from the Ministry of Home Affairs, that is, the minister would give this order.”
And if the home minister has conveyed a decision, it is sanctioned by the prime minister herself, “if the Home minister has given an order, it is very unlikely that the prime minister of Bangladesh was not aware about it,” claimed one of the whistleblowers.
However, Netra News and DW could not independently verify this claim, and, in a written response to our queries, the Ministry of Home Affairs described it as “malafide and politically motivated”.
The two whistleblowers not only spoke about the chain of command but also about the playbook of an execution.
Initially, a RAB team picks “the target” up and takes him to a detention cell at the nearest RAB camp or battalion headquarters. After keeping him there for hours or days, the two whistleblowers explained, the victim is taken to a predetermined site of execution in a “civil” (non-official) vehicle with windows tinted in black. Meanwhile, another RAB team is sent in advance to put barricades on roads leading to the site and restrict access of common people through patrolling.
While selecting a site of execution, four things need to be considered: the site needs to be isolated; easy to patrol; free of camera and CCTV; and, inspected in advance several times.
In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, it is extremely difficult to find such a location, especially in urban areas. Therefore, for bureaucratic and strategic reasons, these killings are carried out more or less in the same few specific places. A few examples of such places according to the RAB commanders are Hatirjheel, Rayer Bazar Boddhobhumi, Beribadh area on the bank of Turag river in Dhaka and Marine Drive in Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf.
According to the two former RAB commanders, after taking the “target” to the designated site of execution in a car with black-tinted glass, a special execution squad — in RAB’s terminology: the “FS team” — drags the individual out of the car. To ensure that the body of the victim does not bear any marks, his hands, legs and eyes are kept tied with soft clothes or towels. Then the “target” is forced to kneel down and within a few minutes, he is shot. While pulling the trigger, a distance of one to two feet is maintained to ensure that the muzzle flash of the gun does not touch the body or dress of the individual. Usually, several bullets are shot at the upper part of the body of the victim and until he dies due to haemorrhage, his body is left lying on the ground.
One of the two RAB commanders says, “To expedite the bleeding, shots are fired at the chest and around the heart in most cases.”
According to the post-mortem report of the slain Teknaf councillor Akramul Haque which we collected, bullet wounds were found on his left chest, right chest and left abdomen. The cause of his death was identified as “haemorrhage [...] resulting from [...] injuries caused [by] firearms (gunshot) which were antemortem and homicidal in nature.”
After that to cover up the staged crossfire as a “real gunfight”, a number of things are arranged.
If the victim is to be framed in an arms-related case, the insiders told us, some blank cartridges of pistols are placed around the body and a pistol is planted in the hand of the victim. If the victim is to be presented as a drug dealer, some drugs are planted in his pocket or a bag beside his body. After that, a cooked-up story is presented to the media, the former RAB commanders describe.
A general pattern can be found if, the statements of the RAB commanders, the post-mortem report of Akramul Haque and the much-talked-about audio tape of his crossfire shared by his wife, are analysed together.
Tool of repression
The testimony of the two RAB commanders suggests that the government of Bangladesh sanctions extrajudicial killings to silence political opponents.
Furthermore, people involved in these murders are often rewarded. For example, we have managed to identify the three officials who were involved in the murder of Akramul Haque — one of them was later sent to the UN peacekeeping mission abroad.
One of the two RAB commanders claimed, “As far as I have seen, everyone has gone to (UN) peacekeeping after serving in RAB.”
This was supported by the other commander who spoke to us.
UN peacekeeping missions, which count Bangladesh as one of the largest contributors, often serve as lucrative postings for the country’s security officials.
According to data collected by human rights organisations and published by the Asian Human Rights Commission, the number of extrajudicial killings skyrocketed in 2018, in the run-up to the general election when a “war against drugs” was declared. 155 people died in so-called gunfights in 2017, the year before the election. In 2018, or in the election year, the number of executions rose three times and 465 individuals were killed. In the immediate post-election year, 2019, 391 people were killed extrajudicially. The number dropped to 223 in 2020.
Bangladeshi human rights activist Nur Khan Liton says, “When the general election nears, Bangladesh’s human rights situation deteriorates.” He also says that, from the experience of the last two elections, it is expected that the ruling party would go to any extent to cling on to power.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says, “Bangladesh’s government has been denying outright that there is no such incident of human rights violation in the country. But these testimonies tell us that the government needs to stop denying and start holding the security forces accountable.”
Response from the Ministry of Home Affairs
Netra News and DW asked the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Rapid Action Battalion for their response to the allegations noted in this report.
In a letter sent to the DW, the Ministry of Home Affairs said, “In the letter, you listed 31 issues of torture, disappearance and killing. The Ministry of Home Affairs diligently assessed and scrutinized the issues and found that the issues are overstated, exaggerated, baseless and untrue.”
While commenting on the death of more than 700 people in the hands of RAB from 2009 to 2021, the ministry said, “this kind of news appears to be fictitious, fabricated and politically motivated. On receipt of any such allegation the Ministry duly investigate[s] each incident by an independent Magistrate. According to the investigation reports, the allegation made appears not to be authentic.
The letter also claimed that the questions that were asked about the involvement of the prime minister and home minister in the extrajudicial killings by the Deutsche Welle and Netra News are “devoid of etiquette and against the principles of responsible journalism.”●
ℹ️ This is the first installment of a three-story investigative series into the Rapid Action Battalion. The next story would be about RAB’s use of custodial torture, and the final story would describe how RAB officials engaged in a “killing competition.”