“Dark secrets revealed: Uncovering the shocking truth behind Bangladesh’s deadly Rapid Action Battalion”

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Bangladesh carefully plans each operation, sometimes taking months to analyze and monitor the target’s every move. They usually strike at night and whisk victims away to their facilities. Those lucky enough to survive are few and far between, with most being too afraid to speak out. However, self-assured 23-year-old Nafiz Mohammed Alam couldn’t remain silent about his ordeal. One warm November night in 2021, RAB officers stormed his house in an upmarket neighborhood in Dhaka, beat him, and waterboarded him before inviting journalists to his home. Alam claims that the journalists only saw a one-sided story of RAB officers surrounding him with rows of bottles filled with alcohol, allegedly proof of his illegal liquor delivery business. However, what the cameras didn’t show was how the officers had planted the bottles around the house before the journalists arrived.

Once the media left, they forced Alam into an unmarked van and took him to RAB 1, a large building near the airport. There, he was taken to a windowless room in the back of the light green building, hidden from view from the main road. According to two ex-commanders, each of RAB’s units has a secret room with small cells equipped with little more than a toilet and a blanket. The cells are usually soundproof, and it is hard to realize that such rooms exist from the outside.

Alam recalls the horror of 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 claims he was tortured repeatedly. He thought only terrorists were treated like this. But he was fortunate to survive. Many targets of RAB are murdered or disappear, never to be heard from again, which the government has long denied. A new investigation by DW and Netra News reveals that high-ranking officials are approving extrajudicial killings.

A collaborative investigation

For months, DW’s investigative team partnered with Netra News in Sweden to investigate the elite force composed of military and police personnel called RAB. Recently, two former military officers turned whistleblowers spoke out about the inner workings of the “death squad.” While both men were nominated to serve as commanders in RAB units, to protect their identities, any identifiable information has been withheld. Speaking out means risking their lives, as RAB would likely kill them if they discovered their actions.

DW and Netra News cross-checked and corroborated their confessions with experts, human rights activists, and other sources, including a database of confirmed cases, police reports, and post-mortem reports. While not all aspects of the whistleblowers’ accounts could be independently verified, their testimonies corroborate each other and, combined with the findings of DW and Netra News, paint a disturbing picture of systematic human rights violations, including abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings carried out with near-total impunity. The Home Ministry responded to these allegations in an email to DW, strongly denying them as “fictitious [sic], fabricated, and politically motivated,” and highlighting that they investigate all such incidents by an independent magistrate. However, investigation reports indicate that the allegations made are not authentic.

Orders from above

Two whistleblowers have made allegations that key members of the ruling government in Bangladesh are using the country’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for political purposes. According to one of the whistleblowers, operations only take place when explicitly sanctioned from above, possibly the Ministry of Home Affairs or even the prime minister herself. RAB falls under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs and its highest official is responsible to the prime minister, currently Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009. While the allegations cannot be independently verified, the Ministry of Home Affairs denied any involvement, calling the allegations “politically motivated.” The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond.

Inner workings of a ‘death squad’

The two insiders have exposed the behind-the-scenes operations of the elite force, in addition to describing the chain of command. When a decision is made to execute a target, a series of meticulously prepared steps are put into motion.Firstly, an execution site is carefully chosen; one that is far away from nosy onlookers and therefore, potential witnesses. The Turag river, polluted and flowing through the city of Dhaka, is one such site; another is located on the side of Marine Drive, which is an 80-kilometer-long road that runs parallel to the coast in southern Bangladesh.

Next, the unsuspecting targets, usually captured late at night when shops are closed and roads are deserted, are blindfolded and thrown into a civilian van that transports them to their final destination.

According to one whistleblower, some victims plead for their lives, while others remain silent.

Once they reach the execution site, the target is shot and left to bleed to death. Once immobilized, the blindfold is removed, often made of a soft cloth, leaving no visible marks, and their hands are untied.

Evidence is then planted on the body, based on the cover story. If the crime scene is to look like a shootout with a gang, drugs are planted on the body, often a local mix of meth and caffeine called yaba. If the victim is supposed to be an alleged jihadi, religious pamphlets are deposited next to them. Firearms are also planted on the target, unofficially smuggled from India, according to one insider. Shots are fired in the air, and bullets are strewn on the ground.

In rare instances, RAB operates quietly, where victims are picked up and disappear without a trace, sometimes for weeks, months, or even years. This practice is known as “enforced disappearance.”

There are still hundreds of missing people across Bangladesh.

A lethal legacy

The formation of the RAB force can be traced back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when the country and its allies were grappling with widespread terror. Capitalizing on this opportunity, the US government generously funded various global counter-terrorism initiatives, including the RAB force. Launched in 2004, this elite task-force was made up of skilled personnel from Bangladesh’s military and police, who worked in tandem to combat terrorism and organized crime. With over 13,000 members who typically don black uniforms, masks, and sunglasses, the RAB force was considered an efficient and forceful entity that relentlessly pursued and apprehended criminals in Bangladesh.

Despite US funding being a vital component of RAB’s success, this organization also faced severe backlash over allegations of human rights violations. The US embassy spokesman recently acknowledged that the country played a critical role in training and providing equipment to RAB, though reported concerns over human rights violations led to the cessation of funding in January 2018. Human rights activists also claim that over 700 people have been killed by RAB between 2009 and 2021, with the worst spate of killings occurring in 2018 during the purported “war on drugs” launched by Bangladesh. In a concerning trend, due process was frequently side-stepped in favor of hasty, shoot-first tactics during this period, as whistleblowers reported.

Rampant impunity

Over time, RAB has expanded its targets to include political figures, according to activists who document cases of abduction by RAB and other law enforcement agencies. Many of these politically active individuals have been arrested and never returned. Nur Khan Liton is one such victim. He alleges that RAB “ignores the law and kills people.” The human rights activist has studied the elite force for two decades and believes that the agency was established with a mindset that it would take too long for justice to be served in Bangladesh’s corrupt legal system, so RAB resorted to taking matters into its own hands.

Despite previous concerns about RAB’s activities, the US Treasury Department only added the force, along with seven current and former officials, to their sanctions list on December 10, 2021. The Treasury Department cited “widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse” that undermine rule of law, respect for human rights and freedoms, and economic prosperity. This action was significant, according to Kugelman.

However, the European Union and the United Kingdom have yet to follow suit.

Hundreds have disappeared

DW met with the relatives of the “disappeared” in an affluent neighborhood of Dhaka, where dozens of people gathered on rows of plastic chairs. Most of them were women, some older men, and several children, holding often faded photos of their missing loved ones. Many of these men had not been seen for over a decade or had eventually turned up dead.

The victims were mostly local activists for the current opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who were picked up by security agencies prior to the 2014 and 2018 elections. Many of the group’s members had accounts of intimidation and harassment, including late-night calls to police stations and open surveillance. Whistleblowers claim that there is not much hope for the families of the disappeared, and the chance that those who had been abducted would return alive was “less than 1%.”

Out of control

The families of those killed or missing in Bangladesh are unlikely to ever see justice as investigations into RAB officers are rare, particularly for extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. This “culture of impunity” is created by the lack of transfer of service records from the elite RAB force to their seconding unit. Human rights activists describe RAB as “beyond any control,” and no one can hold them accountable. While US sanctions have brought about positive effects, including a significant decrease in killings, people are still being picked up, although they are usually presented to the court after a few days or weeks on trumped-up charges.

The US has shown no intentions to lift the sanctions, particularly with Bangladesh’s upcoming election, a time when RAB officers often come knocking on doors. Though Bangladesh has denied the allegations, hundreds remain missing for weeks, months, or even years. Bangladesh hopes for more sanctions, including from the European Union, to stop RAB’s actions. However, RAB officials did not respond to these allegations.

Julett Pineda and a team of journalists, who must remain anonymous for their own protection, contributed to the creation of this report.