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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.

that there are people who are actually above the law,” said Sultana Kamal, the director of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights group based in Dhaka.

“For people who think they’re above the law, RAB is an interesting factor to think about,” Al Jazeera's Haque said.

“We have a system with such a huge backlog, a backlog of 10 years of cases that have not been tried,” he added. “One case that made me really angry was a story we were doing. A child had acid poured on her ear, and the culprit, her father, was free. We went to the Home Ministry and the cops, and no one wanted to do anything about it.”

One US cable observed that members of civil society were prepared to accept that “some notorious individuals will die in encounters with RAB,” and that this was preferable to risking the court process.

Kamal and ASK do not belong to this group.

“Our problem is with the way the crime situation is dealt with by RAB,” said Kamal. “In our constitution there are definite directives on how to go about this. The way RAB was dealing with crime was extrajudicial, and not permitted in a civilized society.”

Damage control

The extrajudicial deaths, which RAB usually presented as being the result of crossfire, eventually took its toll. Newspapers implicitly mocked the explanation put forward for deaths by always using quote marks around "crossfire."

“No one believed they happened in shootouts or crossfire,” said Kamal, “everyone knew these were instances of direct killing. They believed this was the only way to deal with crime. But now there is quite a lot of opposition to it.”

In March 2010 photographer Shahidul Alam arranged an exhibition on the extrajudicial killings titled “Crossfire.”

“I got a phone call from RAB,” Alam recalled, “It was a Col. Sohail or something. He said that it would not be good to go through with the exhibition. He strongly recommended we don’t go through with it."

The gallery was shut down before the exhibition was due to open, and protesting the clampdown became a popular cause. A further blow to RAB’s image was dealt with the shooting of Limon Hossain, a 16-year-old student Sohail says was the lackey of a local mobster.

Kamal says that extrajudicial deaths are rarer now, but that forced disappearances linked to crime and politics are on the rise.

RAB is in the strange situation of being a popular entity that is at the same time a stigmatized one. The result has been a new level of opening up to the media and a process of re-branding.

According to Sohail, the media acts as one of its biggest sources. RAB reciprocates, staging theatrical press conferences when it makes arrests where reporters get to confront those accused for the benefit of live television.

At one such press conference, following a narcotics bust, Sohail himself approached the detained man. “Do you deny that this is a drug?” he thundered, holding up a packet of Ya ba, a popular methamphetamine, to the face of the arrested man.

“I was really surprised, happily surprised to be inside RAB headquarters with crime correspondents questioning the RAB with the US and UK diplomats right there,” said Haque. “Before there were only one or two outlets to deal with, but now there’s so many broadcasters that RAB is more open to questioning.

“They [the media] were talking about the case of Limon, raising really strong journalistic questions without any fear.”

A South Asian FBI

Mohammad Sohail, the RAB commander, is a religious man, and he interrupts the interview for his afternoon prayers. He leaves to wash himself, and after returning rolls up his trousers, rolls out a mat, and prays on the floor of his office.

“Look, I pray,” Sohail said after he’s done. “And I’ve gone to Hajj [in Mecca]. You can have ideology. But when you impose …”

In 2004 when RAB was formed, Bangladesh was experiencing a rise in Islamic militancy. The Far Eastern Economic Review, along with the Wall Street Journal, published articles identifying Bangladesh as a “cocoon of terror.”

A defining moment for Bangladesh arrived on Aug. 17, 2005.

Five hundred bombs ripped through 63 of the country’s 64 districts almost simultaneously. Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group allegedly linked with Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility.

RAB reacted swiftly. It took the US nearly 10 years to capture Osama bin Laden; it took RAB a little more than six months to collar Bangla Bhai and Shaykh Abdur Rahman, the masterminds behind the August bomb plot.

“Since 2004, we’ve arrested 104,000 people, confiscated more than 10,000 illegal firearms, all foreign made. These people were killing daily. Law and order was a mess. We changed this, otherwise Bangladesh could be like Afghanistan or Pakistan,” said Sohail.

Considering the state of those two countries, the US sees RAB as a valuable ally in counter-terrorism. American diplomats think that RAB could develop into a South Asian equivalent of the FBI.

Sohail disagrees, saying: “We can do better than the FBI.”