Bangladeshi men who surrendered to authorities and allegedly admitted involvement in the drug trade sit in front of police on February 16, 2019. Rights groups have condemned violence committed in the name of the 'war on drugs.' Photo: AFP

On October 27, the Democratic ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations  Committee, Bob Menendez, was joined by nine other senators from both parties to call on President Donald Trump’s administration to issue sanctions on senior commanders of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion. The basis of this concern is that the RAB is reportedly responsible for the extrajudicial killings of 400 people since 2015. 

The senators addressed a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin requesting that the administration impose targeted sanctions on senior RAB officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act Section 7031(c) of the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act. 

In their letter, the senators wrote sternly, “Extrajudicial killings by the RAB have reportedly spiked since the government of Bangladesh began its ‘war on drugs’ in the months ahead of the December 2018 elections.” 

This point needs to be elucidated. The spike in extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and arrests before the 2018 elections had an explicit purpose.

In preparation to seizing power for the second time since 2009, the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, launched a mass operation to eradicate, by any means, any forms of dissent in favor of a free and fair election, and of support for the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by Sheikh Hasina’s arch-rival, Khaleda Zia.

The concerted operations to seize the election meant using any means of force possible to crush the opposition and dissenters. This is exactly what the RAB did, and this is where the gruesome statistics cited by members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee come from. 

The period leading up to the 2018 election was also when Sheikh Hasina’s “war on drugs” began, in which those on the extrajudicial hit list were shot dead by law-enforcement personnel who later claimed that the victim was a drug peddler or had illegal substances on his possession and was armed, thus the officers, including the RAB. had to take him down in self-defense.

The “war on drugs” is now commonly understood in Bangladesh as synonymous with extrajudicial killings.

The US senators’ letter therefore states, “UN experts including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution wrote that the ‘war on drugs’ ‘appears to be a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings’ and urged the government to end it and respect the rule of law and human rights. However, the government has failed to end these abuses and the RAB continues to commit extrajudicial killings with impunity.” 

The senators also expressed concern that the RAB had been involved in other forms of human-rights abuses in addition to extrajudicial killings. They are right. 

Amnesty International’s 2019 human-rights report on Bangladesh stated that freedom of expression was under serious attack and that nearly 400 indictments had been filed under the country’s draconian Digital Security Act. There have been restrictions on freedom of assembly, as have been seen with the Rohingya and the opposition BNP. 

In some instances, victims were kidnapped for months before being killed in what the authorities claimed were the infamous “gunfights.” At least 58 people were killed in mob violence.

There is also continuous violence against women and girls. Amnesty International reported that in 2019, there were almost 17,900 cases of violent acts against women, including 5,400 rapes.

The senators added, “These cases illustrate a pattern of gross human-rights violations for which the Rapid Action Battalion and its senior leadership have faced no consequences.” 

This is the crux of the problem in Bangladesh. Crimes and human-rights violations by the RAB or any other government-related groups, individuals or its cronies such as industrialists, have met with complete impunity. 

The senators focused on the senior leadership of the RAB, but that is not to say that human-rights violations are limited to that outfit. The problem is widespread and with no end in sight because of a leadership that condones such violations. The instillation of fear is the only way to survive for a government that has been comfortably seated in absolute power for two terms without the people’s mandate. 

We have seen time and time again denials from government officials of its wrongdoing, completely whitewashing what all the human-rights organizations and witnesses on the ground say.

The Awami League’s standard response to all confrontations with the truth are shaky excuses that we, the people, the human-rights organizations, the foreign governments, the journalists, the families of those who have been killed extrajudicially, are all somehow “misguided” and we are “misrepresenting” the actions of a “perfect” state. 

To this gross underestimation of our understanding, we remind the Bangladeshi authorities of Mother Teresa’s words: “Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity.”

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.