UK government linked to Bangladeshi 'death squad' renowned for use of torture

UK government linked to Bangladeshi 'death squad', renowned for use of torture. Eight arrested over mass rape in eastern DRC. The UN votes to increase peacekeepers in Ivory Coast as mediation fails. Nigerian troops ordered to shoot-to-kill in Jos as violence increases ahead of elections. All this and more in today’s briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
20 January 2011

The British government’s links to notorious Bangladeshi counter-terrorism unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, extend to information sharing that may amount to complicity in the torture of British nationals on Bangladeshi soil, according to a Guardian report released on Tuesday.


The report alleges that British officials passed information about British citizens to Bangladeshi security forces, and then pushed for intelligence from their Bangladeshi counterparts while detainees were held at an interrogation centre widely renowned for its use of torture.  

The Guardian’s report comes less than a month after Wikileaks cables from the United States’ embassy in Dhaka revealed that the UK government had provided training to RAB, described by human rights organisations as “a government death squad,” in “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement,” as recently as October 2010.

According to unnamed sources quoted in the Guardian, exchanges of intelligence took place between British and Bangladeshi security officials under the auspices of protecting the UK from terrorist attacks plotted in Bangladesh. Following these discussions, at least twelve dual-nationality British-Bangladeshis were investigated by Bangladeshi government security forces, and an unknown number tortured.

The report mentions one meeting between then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and senior officials from the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh’s notorious intelligence agency, in which Smith emphasised the threat posed by dual-nationals and urged the agency to investigate a number of specific individuals. It also names three British-Bangladeshi men who were allegedly tortured in the Task Force for Interrogation (TFI), a Dhaka interrogation centre infamous for its use of torture. According to unnamed sources in the security forces, interrogation of all three was conducted at the behest of British security agencies MI5 and MI6.

Jacqui Smith, her successor at the home office, Alan Johnson, and David Miliband, then foreign secretary, refused to answer the Guardian’s questions about specific incidents. The British high commission in Dhaka has rejected the allegations, stating that “our security cooperation with other countries is consistent with our laws and with our values.” High Commissioner Stephen Evans acknowledged that British and Bangladeshi intelligence agencies cooperated in certain areas, “which includes sharing of information which may be relevant to the security of either country,” but added that “we take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously.” The report was also dismissed by RAB spokesman Commander Mohammed Sohael “fake and baseless.”

The openSecurity verdictThe Guardian’s allegations are disturbing in the extreme but sadly not surprising. Also unsurprising are their quick rebuttals by the Dhaka high commission, and the refusal to comment of all British ministers (allegedly) involved.

Despite the in-depth investigation conducted by the Guardian, the extent or nature of British involvement in ‘information sharing’ with Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies such as the RAB and DGFI (and therefore their complicity in mistreatment of detainees) is not yet clear – and sadly may never be.

However, the fact that the British government has been involved in training the RAB in interrogation techniques was well-evidenced by the leaked US embassy cables, which gave extensive details of a joint US-UK effort to support a broader program of security sector reform in Bangladesh. In one cable, US ambassador to Bangladesh James Moriarty describes in detail the counter terrorism objectives shared by the US and Britain, and the training already provided by the British government to the agency.  

There is no doubt that Bangladesh is in dire need of security sector reform – the mutiny of border guard soldiers against their commanding army officers in February 2009 highlighted both the ongoing tensions in Bangladesh’s security forces, and the dysfunctional relationship that still exists between civilian and military state organisations after a series of coups since the country’s independence in 1971. It is also true – as will no doubt be claimed by defensive government officials – that British and American cooperation with the RAB officially aims to “make the RAB a more transparent, accountable and human-rights compliant paramilitary force”. This is surely an aim that no-one could take issue with, but the recent history and ongoing activities of the RAB make such an objective fanciful.

On the streets of Dhaka, or in the villages of Bangladesh, the RAB strike terror into civilian hearts. With their distinctive dark glasses, bandanas and black uniforms, all Bangladeshis know who and what the RAB is. It is common to see their branded trucks parked on highways, stopping passing buses seemingly at random. It is widely acknowledged that it is wiser not to bump into the RAB on a dark night in Dhaka.

Both English and Bengali newspapers nearly every day run stories of local ‘criminals’ or ‘gang members’ who were ‘cross fired’ by the RAB – that is, killed while the RAB were attempting to ‘arrest’ them on charges that are often not even reported by journalists. This phenomenon is well known amongst Bangladeshis, and amongst the local and international human rights organisations which have painstakingly documented countless cases of extra-judicial killings perpetrated with near-total impunity by members of the RAB. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report catalogued at length human rights violations, including torture and extra-judicial killing, perpetrated by all of Bangladesh’s security agencies. The ‘cross firing’ phenomenon, however, is most commonly associated with the RAB, as the report’s detailed case studies demonstrate.

The governments of the US and UK are indisputably aware of the detailed allegations against the RAB. As Tuesday’s Guardian report notes, when Jacqui Smith met with DGFI officials to emphasise the dangers posed by British-Bangladeshis, her own department had recently published a report on the abuses perpetrated by the RAB. Indeed, one of the Wikileaks cables dated 2008 acknowledges that the RAB’s dire human rights record had to date restricted US and UK ability to provide training and other support to the agency. Further cables dated just nine months later detail security sector reform assistance and training already provided to the RAB by the British government for at least eighteen months, without any mention of improvements of RAB’s human rights record or investigations of past abuses.

Moreover, the cables reveal a wildly unrealistic perception of RAB. US Ambassador Moriarty in one cable describes RAB as “the country’s premier counter terrorism force... the enforcement organisation best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.” British collaboration with the US regarding the RAB, and Moriarty’s description of the British training programme suggest that UK officials share this unlikely view of RAB’s hidden potential.

The current coalition government in the UK needs to re-examine its choice of counter terrorism partners, possibly across the world, but certainly in Bangladesh. The RAB is not a politically viable choice when it is commonly associated with extrajudicial killing. Nor can the coalition place blame on its Labour predecessors for forming this questionable alliance. The leaked cables and the Guardian’s latest report make it clear that cooperation was ongoing in October last year – a full five months after the coalition was formed.

The coalition government needs to make a meaningful break from its predecessors on counterterrorism policy. A rhetorical distancing that distracts from what is effectively business as usual, as seems to be the coalition’s chosen strategy on control orders, will not suffice.

Eight arrested over mass rape in eastern DRC UN

Eight soldiers from the national army of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been arrested over allegations that they were involved in raping around fifty women in the eastern DRC earlier this year. The accused may go on trial on charges of rape and looting as early as next week, say local government sources.

The mass rape took place on 1 January this year, in the eastern town of Fizi, according to UN sources. In what was reportedly a revenge attack after one soldier was killed in a drunken dispute, at least fifty women were raped while the settlement was looted and burned.

Some survivors and witnesses have identified Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi Mutware as the officer in charge of the soldiers allegedly responsible. Monusco, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, has called on the commander and deputy commander to be removed from their posts over the allegations. A spokesman for the national army put the total number of rapes at fourteen, and said that those responsible had already been disciplined.

Rape is a frequent occurrence in the lawless eastern DRC, whether perpetrated by rebel groups or government soldiers. The national army is made up of a mixture of soldiers and former rebels and militia members, who were hastily incorporated as part of security sector reform after decades of civil war in the DRC. This is not the first time the country’s security force has been accused of widespread sexual violence: in 2009, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report into sexual violence carried out by the army. 

However, incidents such as this one often go unreported. Even reported cases are rarely dealt with, thereby creating a climate of “virtual impunity” for perpetrators, according to Amnesty International. Investigations into the rape of hundreds of women last summer in North Kivu province have been inconclusive.

UN votes to increase peacekeepers in Ivory Coast as mediation fails.

The United Nations Security Council yesterday voted unanimously to increase by 2,000 the number of peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, as the political stand-off between rival presidential candidates continues.

Speaking to the fifteen member states, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over the “openly hostile security environment” facing peacekeepers on the ground in Ivory Coast. Attacks targeting peacekeepers directly have been on the rise in recent weeks, mainly perpetrated by supporters loyal to Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo, widely acknowledged as the loser of last November’s presidential election, has refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, who remains barricaded inside one of Abidjan’s luxury hotels. Gbagbo, who retains control of much of the army, key transport hubs and the state media, has so far resisted sanctions, mediation efforts and the threat of force in an effort to cling on to power.

The UN has reported over 200 deaths in violence connected to the presidential poll at the end of November 2010. Yesterday’s resolution, which spoke of the international body’s “deep concern over the continued violence and human rights violations” in the wake of the election, will increase the total number of peacekeepers in Ivory Coast to almost 12,000.

Meanwhile, further attempts to persuade Gbagbo to bow out by African heads of state yesterday ended in yet more failure. Kenyan President Raila Odinga, who is also the African Union’s chief mediator in this crisis, released a statement in which he said that “the window of any opportunity for any amnesty will continue to close if Mr Gbagbo’s supporters continue to commit crimes against civilians and peacekeepers.” In a further blow to mediation efforts, Gbagbo’s foreign minister yesterday announced that “Mr Odinga has failed in his mission and we are no longer prepared to receive him”, signalling a belief that the AU mediator is biased in favour of rival Ouattara.  

Nigerian troops ordered to shoot-to-kill in Jos as violence increases ahead of elections

Soldiers on the streets of the central Nigerian city of Jos were on Tuesday issued with shoot-to-kill orders that aimed to bring flaring communal violence under control after three people were killed on Monday.

Military spokesman Captain Charles Ekeocha told reporters “we are ordered to protect civilians and quell violence by any means necessary.” The new orders, which allow troops to kill anyone trying to hurt another person, or destroy a home, church or mosque, were issued after one Muslim election worker and two others were killed on Monday.

The Muslim election worker was allegedly killed after a group of Christians were angered by the role of Muslim officials in the electoral registration process. According to the AFP, a mob of Christians razed a mosque and hacked the worker to death in order to block voter registration. State police commissioner, Abdulrahman Olajide Akano, said the Christian youths attacked the Muslim workers because they did not want them to conduct the voter registration exercise. Two civilians were reportedly killed after soldiers fired upon a group throwing at electoral officials and their armed escorts.

Jos, which is in central Plateau state, lies in Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt’, where the mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulani north meets the majority Christian south. The city has long been a flashpoint of violence, but has witnessed particularly intense unrest over the last year. Since Christmas alone, over one hundred people have been killed in violent clashes in the city, mostly in connection to preparations for April’s presidential elections. Hundreds were killed in the area a year ago, in fighting linked to the tensions between the area’s main ethnic groups.

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