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Dhaka’s ‘death squad’ shoots for a makeover

Until now, the Rapid Action Battalion has either been thought of as a killing machine — or a useful and necessary killing machine.

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Members of the Bangladeshi Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) run through a security drill in the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka on September 4, 2011. Argentina and Nigeria, two of the powerhouses of international football, are expected to play an exhibition match at the stadium in Bangladesh on September 6, 2011 (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

DHAKA, Bangladesh — “Is there a force in the world fighting armed terrorists who can guarantee there will be zero casualties?” asked Mohammad Sohail.

The question is obviously rhetorical. Sohail is a commander of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, better known as RAB. Depending on whom you ask, the elite paramilitary force is either a killing machine, or a useful and necessary killing machine.

RAB has admitted to killing at least 622 people since its formation in 2004. Rights groups put the number closer to 1,000.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams has called RAB a “Latin American-style death squad dressed up as an anti-crime force.”

If that is the case, then they are now a US-trained Latin American-style death squad.

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American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks revealed that in 2008 and 2009 embassy officials in Dhaka were worried about the force’s record of human rights violations. But the State Department decided to work with them anyway.

The US has focused on human rights training for now. Part of the reason for the engagement is because US officials view RAB as their best prospect for a partner in counter-terrorism operations in Bangladesh. Even detractors admit the force has been successful in stemming the tide of Islamic terrorist activity in the country.

The other driver, however, is RAB’s own desire to rectify what it considers to be a misrepresentative public image. The cables expressed the view that there was strong support within RAB for the human rights training.

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On Jan. 18, 2011, a day he claimed as a turning point in RAB’s history, US Ambassador Dan W. Mozena addressed the graduates of a five-week training program that established an internal inquiry wing to probe RAB’s human rights violations.

You, said the American ambassador to the 19 cadets, are the key to changing how RAB is seen.

Bangladesh’s Men in Black

Image has always been an integral part of the RAB setup. They are quick to stress the “elite” part of “elite paramilitary force.” RAB’s members are drawn from the army, navy, air force, police force and border guards.

“We only consider the best from them, and we only pick the very best of the best,” said Sohail.

RAB takes this Men in Black ethos literally. They are an intimidating and visually striking sight, men and women patrolling the streets of Dhaka armed with assault rifles while dressed in all-black from the boots up to the bandanas and of course, sunglasses.

Sohail himself comes from a navy background. The head of RAB’s Media and Legal wing, he spearheads the task of shedding the “death squad” tag.

He insists that what shows up in the media and on talk shows does not reflect ground reality.

“The challenges in a country like Bangladesh are huge,” he pointed out. “The law and order situation in 2004 was beyond control, a terrifying situation. Militant groups, drugs spreading everywhere, Dhaka was completely run by five to seven Mafia bosses.”

Sohail highlights the difficulties they face in the more inaccessible parts of the country such as the Sundarbans, the sprawling rainforest in the south of the country.

“Take the dacoits [robbers and traffickers] in the Sundarbans. We don’t know the area, they do. They are also desperate to avoid being arrested.”

Around 8,500 RAB personnel cover the whole country, which has a population of around 150 million. 34 RAB members have been killed in action since 2004, and over 400 injured.

Street justice vs. no justice

“I think people feel safer because these guys are around,” said Nicolas Haque, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Bangladesh.

The public’s reaction to RAB doesn’t neatly fit the reaction one would expect from a term like “death squad.”

“I like RAB,” said an American expatriate working in Dhaka.

“I mean, I don’t LIKE them, but you know,” he clarified, implying he doesn’t approve of all their methods but appreciates what they’re doing.

It isn’t just those living in the capital who feel this way. The leaked diplomatic cables note that people in remote areas, particularly women, feel more comfortable coming forward to RAB.

“RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order in the last decade,” said one cable, quoting civil society sources.

“The saying in Bangladesh is