The Daily Star November 25, 2010
Fuelled by ideas and shaken by law and order slide, the then state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar in 2002 sat with top police officials and proposed formation of a special force comprising members from different armed and security forces.
Babar’s worries, recall officials attending that meeting, were rising crime in the capital and southeastern region, and the police alone, he was quoted as saying, were “unable to contain it”.
The police were not much interested. The department had several identical proposals for a special police-only force shelved since 1996. But Babar was persistent. He sat with the armed forces’ chiefs, who, to his dismay, also rejected the idea citing shortage of troops.
A relentless Babar in April 2003 formed a committee and instructed it to put things together to form a composite force. The Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) was finally launched on March 26 in 2004, bringing some amendments to the Armed Police Battalions Ordinance.
“The concept behind forming the force was to develop an independent elite force on its own capacity to assist the police under special circumstances. The force was supposed to develop its own capacity through fresh recruitment as soon as possible,” says one of the think-tanks requesting anonymity.
“Unfortunately, our politicians were in a hurry to curb rising crime and protect their reputation. They soon began using Rab as a shortcut to bring an end to crime instead of strengthening the judiciary, making regular police force more effective and developing own capacity of the elite force through fresh recruitment,” he added.
After the creation of Rab with security personnel from three armed forces and police, BDR and Ansar, the government began equipping it with highly sophisticated small weapons outsmarting all other forces except the military.
The 10 truckloads of automatic submachine guns, AK-47 rifles and other modern arms and ammunition seized in the largest ever arms haul in Chittagong in April 2004 were also handed over to Rab.
Even a Rab constable can be seen carrying sophisticated arms like an Uzi but doing jobs as insignificant as checking motorcycle documents or busting brothels at city hotels — tasks usually vested with the police.
The Rab arms also include sniper rifles and sophisticated concealable mini pistols. The elite force has the only dog squad in the country besides having a bomb squad. They also have equipment to track phone calls and cellphones.
Forty-four percent of the Rab personnel come from the police and another 44 percent from the three armed forces, while the rest come from Ansar and BDR. Members of the armed forces and police are at the helm of Rab.
The elite force also has a well-equipped training school capable of holding even specialised training.
Just five months into formation of Rab, a new phenomenon of “extrajudicial killing”, popularly known as “crossfire”, took a firm grip on the society. At times the term was replaced by “encounter” or “shootout” and very recently, by “gunfight”.
As “crossfire” incidents continued to increase, Rab began to issue the same press release called “Brief” every time only by changing the names of place of occurrence and victims. The “crossfire” incidents continued taking place, as per the “briefs”, in the same manner for years.
In the last one year and ten months, 588 people fell victim to alleged extrajudicial killings across the country. Over 80 percent of the dead were victims of “crossfire”, “encounter”, “shootout” or “gunfight,” says a monthly report of Odhikar, a rights organisation.
Of the victims, about 250 died in shooting involving Rab, around 240 involving police, while the rest involving joint forces, army, coastguard and forest guard during special drives.
Seventy-one percent of those who died during the special drives were victims of torture in the custody of Rab and police, the report adds.
Investigators of Ain O Salish Kendra, another rights organisation, say about 1,200 people became victims of extrajudicial killing, mostly in crossfire, since Rab began its operation.
A top Rab official however brushes aside the term extrajudicial killing saying people killed in crossfire were mostly criminals caught in “the line of fire”.
Rab officials say they lost six men in gunfights with criminals and recovered 7,531 firearms since 2004.
“I have my own rights to live and I also have the responsibility to protect you. We’re using legal arms within a legal framework in a particular situation,” explains Rab Director (legal and media wing) Mohammad Sohail.
But intellectuals, political analysts, journalists, legal experts and rights activists hold a different view almost six and a half years into formation of the elite force now. They allege that unabated and regular deaths in Rab custody have further deteriorated law and order in terms of people’s constitutional right to justice, liberty and basic human rights.
“Independence, democracy and extrajudicial killings cannot coexist,” said Prof Anu Muhammad of Jahangirnagar University.
“The law and order cannot be improved by violating the law,” commented former adviser to a caretaker government and inspector general of police ASM Shahjahan.
Experts however have not brushed aside Rab successes in checking growing militancy, extremism, abduction for ransom and extortion. They say the success was unfortunately marred by “extrajudicial” killings, which reinforced the culture of impunity, allowing dishonest people with an opportunity to cash in on.
Allegations are rife that a section of dishonest people and some members of Rab and police are using “crossfire” for both political gain and money. There are also serious allegations of creating a safe haven for “the accused in sensational murder cases and godfathers”. Revenge killing in cases as trivial as extramarital affairs is also reported.
“All these violations of laws and rights might have a snowball effect on law and order in near future as people are losing faith in law,” said Prof CR Abrar, president of Odhikar. “People might take law into their own hand if this situation continues. People might fight back in counter violence,” he warned.
Yearly crime statistics maintained by the police show “hardly any improvement” since formation of Rab in 2004. As many as 3,471 murders were committed in 2003, while the figures were 3,902, 3,592, 4,166, 3,863, 4,099 and 4,219 in the next six years till 2009 respectively.
In 2003 the rate of people falling victim to crime was 90.64 per lakh of the total population. Six years later in 2009 police figures show that in every lakh population crime rate rose to 104.739.
The number of crimes committed in 2003 was 125,639, while the succeeding six years experienced 119,323, 123,033, 130,578, 157,200, 157,979, and 157,108 numbers of criminal incidents respectively.
Rab officials, however, claim their presence has greatly contained crime rates. If the elite force were not in operation, law and order slide would have been much worse today, they claim.
Intriguingly, Rab officials decline to reveal their annual budget for the 8,500-strong force.
A publication by Ain O Salish Kendra reveals that the home ministry spent Tk 2,187.59 crore in 2003-2004 fiscal year (revised budget), while its proposed budget for 2004-2005 fiscal year rose to Tk 2,366.97 crore.
With regards to political allegiance, 198 people killed in law-enforcers’ custody were from different outlawed and underground outfits, 11 from BNP, eight from Awami League, two from Islami Chhatra Shibir and one from Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal since January 2007, says an Odhikar report.
Family members of the victims on different occasions claimed the killings were politically motivated.
“In a democratic country there will be criminals, opponent politicians, radical and underground politicians,” said Prof Piash Karim of Brac University. “But we cannot have them killed as everyone is entitled to justice.”
“In a civilised system no-one can be punished without trial, whatever the complexities might be or how long it might take,” said eminent writer Prof Muhammad Zafar Iqbal.