Each operation is carefully planned, sometimes for months, the target’s every move analyzed and monitored by one of 15 units inside Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Victims are usually picked up late at night and whisked away to the special police force’s facilities.
Few survivors have dared to speak out about their ordeal, but one man could not remain silent. Deep into a warm November night in 2021, officers from the elite force stormed a house in an upmarket neighborhood in Dhaka, recalls Nafiz Mohammed Alam, a self-assured 23-year-old sporting a stylish blue suit.
First, he says, officers beat and even waterboarded him, then they invited several journalists to his house. Typically, journalists are called to witness arrests or crime scenes and broadcast the official version of events, with no room for critical coverage.
That night’s news reports only showed one side of the story: uniformed RAB officers surrounding Alam, the footage zooming into rows of bottles filled with alcohol, proof that the suspect was allegedly running an illegal liquor delivery business.
What the cameras didn’t show was how the force’s officers planted the bottles around his house before the journalists could show up, Alam notes, a detail that could not be independently verified. However, once the media left, he says he was forced into an unmarked van and taken to RAB 1, a large building just off the road to Dhaka’s airport.
There, he says, he was taken to a windowless room on a lower floor at the back of the light green building, hidden from view from the main road.
Two ex-commanders confirm that each of RAB’s units have a secret room with four to five small cells equipped with little more than a toilet and a blanket.
These rooms are “usually soundproof, and from the outside, it is difficult to realize that such rooms exist,” one of the RAB insiders says.
Alam recalls the horror of first entering the secret prison, which he says smelled of human feces and rotting food. In that squalid room, far from his family and friends, he says he was tortured, repeatedly.
“I thought,” he says indignantly, “only terrorists were treated like this.”
Yet, Alam is fortunate to be alive. In many cases, people targeted by RAB are murdered or disappeared, never to be heard from again — a claim the government has long denied.
Alam sketched the windowless room in the secret prison where he says RAB tortured himImage: DW
A collaborative investigation
For months, DW’s investigative unit, in collaboration with the Sweden-based Netra News, investigated the elite force comprising military and police personnel. For the first time since its creation nearly two decades ago, two insiders-turned-whistleblowers have now spoken out about the inner workings of the “death squad.”
Both men are former military officers who were nominated to serve as commanders in different RAB units in recent years. DW and Netra News verified the identities of both men and their deployment history in the force, but to ensure their security, agreed to withhold any identifiable information.
If RAB found out he had talked to the media, says one of the whistleblowers, he would likely end up dead, killed by the very force he had served in.
Together with Netra News, DW’s investigative unit cross-checked and corroborated their confessions with the help of experts, human rights activists and other sources, such as police and post-mortem reports, a database of confirmed cases and an audio recording of one of the extrajudicial killings.
Not every aspect of the two insiders’ accounts could be independently verified, given that orders for secretive operations are usually provided verbally to avoid any incriminating paper trail, both men note.
Interviewed separately, their accounts corroborate each other in key aspects. Along with the findings of DW and Netra News, their testimonies paint a damning picture of systematic human rights violations, encompassing a range of abuses from abductions to torture and extrajudicial killings, covered up with near total impunity.
Both ex-commanders claim the government is using RAB as a political toolImage: DW
It’s an allegation that the Home Ministry, in an email to DW, strongly denied as “ficticious [sic], fabricated and politically motivated,” adding that “on receipt of any such allegation the Ministry duly investigate [sic] each incident by an independent Magistrate. According to the investigation reports, the allegation made appears not to be authentic.”
Orders from above
But allegations made by both insiders go further, suggesting that key figures in the ruling government may be harnessing the elite force for political gain, with tacit approval, at the very least, from the highest offices in Bangladesh.
If targets are political in nature, the operation only goes ahead when explicitly sanctioned from above, in which case the decision “would come at least from the Ministry of Home Affairs, or the home minister would give that order,” says one of the whistleblowers.
“Without the approval of the prime minister, it is very unlikely that the home minister would give an order like this,” the other whistleblower tells DW and Netra News, weighing his words carefully.
He is referring to Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister who heads the Awami League and has been in power since 2009, following a prior term in the late 1990s.
Sheikh Hasina is the longest serving prime minister in the history of Bangladesh Image: PID Bangladesh government
Targets specified “by the home minister or from someone who stays even higher, like the prime minister of Bangladesh” were given “priority,” one of the whistleblowers notes.
It’s an allegation that could not be independently verified. But institutionally, RAB falls under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and its highest official is responsible to the prime minister.
DW and Netra News confronted the Ministry of Home Affairs and Prime Minister’s Office with the allegations. The Ministry of Home Affairs denied any involvement, claiming the allegations are “politically motivated” and “malafide,” a legal term for something undertaken in bad faith. It warned DW against “circulating any partisan views.” The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond.
Inner workings of a ‘death squad’
Aside from detailing the chain of command, the two insiders unveiled the inner workings of the elite force. When a decision is taken to execute a target, a series of carefully prepared steps are put into action.
First, an execution site is selected; one far away from prying eyes and thus potential witnesses. In Dhaka, one such site is the bank of the Turag, a polluted river that flows through the city; another is on the side of Marine Drive, an 80-kilometer- (50-mile) long road that runs along the coast in southern Bangladesh.
Next, usually late at night when the roads are deserted and shops shuttered for the evening, unsuspecting targets are captured and blindfolded, then thrown into a civilian van that takes them to their final destination.
Official RAB vans are not used when people are forcefully disappeared Image: Piyas Biswas/SOPA Images/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance
Some victims, says one whistleblower, beg for their life; others remain silent.
Then the target is shot and left to bleed to death. Once they are immobile, the blindfold, often made of a soft cloth so as not to leave any visible marks, is removed and their hands untied, one whistleblower explains.
Then, the scene is set; evidence is planted on the body, depending on the cover story.
If the crime scene is to look like a shootout with a gang, then drugs, often a local mix of meth and caffeine called yaba, are planted on the body. If the victim is to be an alleged jihadi, then religious pamphlets are deposited next to him.
In both cases, firearms are planted on the target, the whistleblowers note. These, one of the insiders says, are unofficially smuggled from India. Next, shots are fired in the air and bullets strewn on the ground.
But in rare instances, RAB operates quietly: victims are picked up and literally vanish without a trace, sometimes for weeks, months, or even years. The practice is often referred to as an “enforced disappearance.”
Across Bangladesh, hundreds are still missing.
A lethal legacy
The RAB force was founded at a time when the United States and its allies were still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. At that time, Washington was willing to allocate vast resources into the global fight against terror.
Created in 2004, the elite force took members of Bangladesh’s military and police and brought them together to fight terror and organized crime. Its more than 13,000 members don black uniforms, masks and often even sunglasses.
Before sanctions were passed, RAB had received considerable assistance from the USImage: Abir Abdullah/dpa/picture alliance
RAB was pretty good at what it had been designed to do: It “has been a brutally efficient counterterrorism entity that has tracked down bad guys in Bangladesh, a country that some years ago was suffering pretty significantly from a wave of terrorism,” says Michael Kugelman, who heads the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
In a written response to DW and Netra News, a US embassy spokesman says it was “no secret that the United States played an important role in training and equipping the Rapid Action Battalion when it was established for the purpose of countering terrorism.”
Funding, he says, ended in January of 2018 “due to concerns over human rights violations.”
From 2009, when the current government came to power, to 2021, more than 700 people have been killed by RAB, according to human rights activists.
Killings peaked in 2018, when Bangladesh launched an apparent “war on drugs.” Initially, one whistleblower says, “it was the drug peddlers who were killed,” in a process that forfeited due process for a shoot-first approach.
The families of the disappeared and missing have demanded justiceImage: Arafatul Islam/DW
Over the years, political targets were seemingly added to RAB’s repertoire. Hundreds of politically active civilians have been abducted by RAB and other law enforcement agencies, never to return, according to activists who are documenting their cases.
One of them is Nur Khan Liton. RAB, he says, “ignores the law and kills people.”
The prominent human rights activist, who has spent the last two decades closely monitoring the elite force, explains that since its inception it was imbued with “this mentality that if someone is brought to justice, it takes a lot of time, and sometimes people get bail and return to criminal activities,” referring to Bangladesh’s slow and often corrupt legal system.
Instead, RAB seemingly took justice into its own hands.
Despite earlier concerns, it would take until December 10, 2021, for the US Treasury Department to add RAB, along with seven high-ranking former and current officials, to its sanctions list.
The decision was based on “widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse,” which “threaten US national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh.”
That step, Kugelman points out, was “a big deal.”
Neither the European Union nor the United Kingdom have followed suit.
Hundreds have disappeared
Relatives of the “disappeared” meet with DW on a large rooftop lined with potted plants and flowers in one of Dhaka’s affluent neighborhoods.
Dozens of people gather on rows of plastic chairs: mostly women, some older men, several children, clutching often faded photos of husbands, fathers and sons. Most of the men on the pictures had not been seen in over a decade; a few had eventually turned up dead.
Many families carry unbearable pain as they don’t know what has happened to their fathers, brothers and husbandsImage: Arafatul Islam/DW
Many of the victims were local activists for the current opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. They were picked up in the run-up to elections in 2014 and 2018 by RAB and other security agencies, according to local activists.
In most cases, officials categorically deny involvement in their disappearances.
One after another, the relatives stand up to tell their stories, often breaking down in tears as they recall their relatives’ disappearance and, in the words of one woman, the “unbearable pain” of not knowing what happened to them.
One girl weeps as she begs for her father to be returned to her. Another girl cries as she shares her innermost dream: she just wants her father to walk her to school.
At one point, the group’s spokeswoman, Sanjida Islam Tulee, who is hosting the meeting, points to several men lounging outside a shop in a narrow lane down below. The men were, she says, a constant. Later that day, her CCTV camera showed a uniformed man sidling up to her driver, asking him about the visitors upstairs.
Many of the group’s members had similar accounts of intimidation and harassment, including late-night calls to police stations and open surveillance.
He had, one of the whistleblowers says, a chilling message for the relatives of those who had disappeared: an organization like RAB would not keep someone for years. The chance that those who had been abducted would return alive was “less than 1%,” he notes.
According to the whistleblowers, there is not much hope for the families of the disappearedImage: Arafatul Islam/DW
Anyone who might still be alive, he adds, would likely be held at RAB headquarters or could even be in the custody of another security agency.
“It’s not that we are just eliminating someone,” the other whistleblower says. “We are actually putting the whole family” and those related to that person “in danger and in trauma for the rest of their lives.”
Out of control
As it stands, relatives of those killed or missing are unlikely to ever receive justice: investigations by Bangladeshi authorities into RAB officers are rare, especially when they would concern extrajudicial killings, torture or enforced disappearances.
Service records of their time with the elite force, both men say, are not transferred to their seconding unit. This creates a “culture of impunity,” according to one insider: the army or police unit that RAB officers are seconded from “does not have any idea about the nature of operations he was involved in while working in the RAB.”
RAB is “beyond any control,” a human rights activist in Dhaka tells DW, saying no one can hold them accountable.
When it comes to the elite force, few in Bangladesh are prepared to go on the record. Behind closed doors though, their phones safely stowed away, many say US sanctions imposed in 2021 have had some positive effects: while killings are still happening, the numbers have decreased significantly. Although people are still getting picked up, they often no longer disappear indefinitely, but rather are presented to court after a few days or weeks on what activists say are usually trumped-up charges.
For now, US officials indicate that they are in no hurry to lift the sanctions, particularly given that Bangladesh is set to head for the polls by early next year at the latest. Election time is traditionally a moment when RAB officers come knocking on doors.
“There are enough reasons to believe that the ones who are in power now will try to use any means” to hold on to it, human rights activist Nur Khan Liton tells DW.
When “thousands of people have become the victims of cross fires, when hundreds of people have become the victims of enforced disappearances, and those who are responsible for running the country don’t take necessary steps to stop it, sanctions are essential to save lives.”
DW and Netra confronted RAB, too. But a spokesperson referred all questions to the Ministry of Home AffairsImage: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP
Like others in Bangladesh, Liton voices his hope that more sanctions might be passed, including by the European Union. RAB, one of the whistleblowers agrees, must be stopped, “whatever it may take.”
DW and Netra News confronted the Home Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and RAB with the allegations leveled in this story. A spokesman for RAB referred to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which, in turn, wrote that it had “diligently assessed and scrutinized the issues and found that the issues are overstated, exaggerated, baseless and untrue.”
Yet, across Bangladesh, hundreds remain missing for weeks, months and even years.
Julett Pineda, along with several other journalists who, for security reasons, cannot be identified, contributed to this report.
Edited by: Mathias Stamm and Lewis Sanders IV