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Unheard Voices of BDR Trial

July 9, 2012

New York based Human Rights Watch’s(HRW) recent report, titled “The Fear Never Leaves Me”, caused a great deal of anger among some section of Bangladeshi government. Notably, Bangladesh’s elite crime buster agency Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was furious as the report recommended to disband RAB. In its press briefing, RAB said the report was prepared with the aid of some ‘upstart’ local human rights NGOs.

It is always debatable whether an organization like HRW can make such recommendation since it is neither a Bangladeshi registered organization nor hired by Bangladeshi govt. to provide consultancy services.

But, at the same time, does HRW deserve such severe criticism for what it published?

I think, in Bangladesh,everyone is familiar with names like Ain O Salish Kendra and Odhikar. These are not ‘upstart’ NGOs. Ain O Salish Kendra has long been working on Human rights issues. And Odhikar has drawn attention to media in recent years because of its tracking of border killings along the Indo-Bangladesh Border. Moreover, Sultana Kamal, chairperson of Ain O Salish Kendra, clarified that her organization never told anyone to disband RAB, rather they shared the opinion that RAB should operate under the terms of references.

RAB also claimed this report was an attempt to malign the image of its recent anti-terror drive. There is no doubt that the elite force is doing an excellent job in dealing with notorious criminals. But its actions against Islamist militants are always viewed with great suspicion. In a TV talk show, one critic even commented that how many Islamists were killed in RAB encounter while the number of bandits, miscreants and extreme left terrorists killed in RAB ‘cross-fire’ was staggering. One of the cynical critics of RAB and Bangladesh Army even observed that media wings of both Pakistan’s ISI and Bangladesh’s RAB are being headed by a serving Navy officer. I think, even if this is true, it is a mere coincidence.

Under the present leadership of RAB, the number of extra-judicial killing has dramatically reduced and it has become a popular name among the business community. But the negative perceptions created during BNP-Jamaat’s tenure, when RAB was created, still dominate some peoples mind. At that time, RAB was used to implement political agenda. Jamaat-i-Islami’s leader and war criminal Motiur Rahman Nizami named it, using its initial, as Rahmat from Allah for Bangladesh. One of the recent failed coup plotters was a Jamaati minded army officer who also served RAB as a commanding officer. Phrases like Tore RAB dia Khawamo! ( I’ll teach you a lesson using RAB!) entered into the heated conversation of our everyday life during this period.

With the change of government, RAB’s conduct and reputation improved significantly but its prejudiced actions still remain.

Now let’s come to the key point. Are the incidents mentioned in the report baseless?

Before any outright rejection of the report, RAB has to prove, case by case, all these incidents are false and fabricated.

The important aspect of this report is the horrifying description of torture that the detainees suffered at the hands of their interrogators. In the report, HRW changed the names of family members who fear that they may be further harassed if their names get published. According to the HRW report, a study conducted by Bangladeshi NGO Odhikar reported 47 deaths of so called detained BDR mutineers in the custody.

Take a look at some of the incidents mentioned in the report, told by victims and their dear ones, to understand how serious the matter is:

He (DAD Nurul Alam) was almost incoherent when he described to me what had happened to him: electric shock to his genitals and ears, nails were pulled off his toes. He is almost blind now from what happened, and I think he is brain damaged.

—-Shahnaz Begum, wife of Nurul Alam

My father had trouble talking to me about it, it was still too painful for him to remember. He told me that they hung him upside down from the ceiling and he was beaten regularly, all the nails were ripped out of his fingers and toes, and he was subjected to electric shocks.

—Mohammad Rahibul Islam, son of Abdul Jalil Sheikh

He had been hung upside down from the ceiling, beaten, and subjected to electric shock. He said he enjoyed it when he fainted because that was the only time he got any relief. I felt like it was talking to man I didn’t know, he was dazed and confused by it all.

—–Nargis Nasi, wife of Nasruddin Khan

He couldn’t walk, his eyes were swollen shut. He is 5 foot 9 inches tall, and he looked easily a foot shorter than that. He told me they kept giving him injections and he would faint, then more injections, and then beatings.

—–Raziya, mother of Al Masum

…………they kept taking me out for interrogations, and beating me and slapping me. I was given electric shock one more time, this time on both my big toes and on my penis.………..The fear never leaves me. I didn’t used to be like this, now I am constantly nervous, I can’t sleep, can’t be normal. The fear just holds me down all the time.

—-MA, one of the victim

Pilkhana massacre, undoubtedly, is a tragic chapter to Bangladesh’s history. I still believe it was a deliberate plan to cause a feud between the newly elected Awami League Government and the Army; ultimately, this feud might end up in derailing the democracy. Luckily, that did not happen since all the parties acted pretty maturely. But the 47 custodial deaths could not be a response to the death of 57 army officers! A wrong cannot justify another wrong.

In the interviews, RAB headquarter and RAB-1’s name was frequently mentioned; so it is RAB’s obligation to refute the torture incidents described in HRW report. Every country has elite crime busting agency. Why should Bangladesh be different? At the same time, its rule of engagement, transparency and accountability have to be clearly spelled out. Policy makers will have to pass law that will ensure transparency in RAB actions and that will make RAB more accountable to people’s representatives, or else suspicion will grow and anger will continue to fume over RAB’s action.

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