British officials in Bangladesh have confirmed Wikileaks reports that the UK is training a police force in the country accused of being a death squad. Rapid Action Battalion members have been taught “interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement” by the UK authorities, said the leaked cables.
One message says the US would not offer tactical training to the RAB because of its alleged human rights violations. UK officials told the BBC the focus of the training was on human rights. Set up in 2004, the 9,000-strong RAB is accused of more than 550 killings.
The whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has obtained a cache of about 250,000 US diplomatic cables, which it has released to several newspapers, including the Guardian. In a cable dating from May 2009 published by the Guardian, the US ambassador to Dhaka, James Moriarty, writes: “The US and UK representatives reviewed our ongoing training to make the RAB a more transparent, accountable and human-rights compliant paramilitary force. “The British have been training RAB for 18 months in areas such as investigative interviewing techniques and rules of engagement.”
In another cable, Mr Moriarty notes it would be illegal for the US to offer anything other than human rights training to the RAB because of the force’s alleged crimes. Several hundred criminal suspects have died in RAB custody since 2005, and there are strong grounds to doubt the unit’s claims these deaths occurred as a result of “encounters” or “cross-fire”.
No RAB personnel have been prosecuted for any of these fatalities, which creates the impression it operates with impunity. On the other hand, it is fair to point out that killings by RAB have been declining since 2008, though have not stopped completely. The force carries out a range of law and order activities, most of which do not result in any deaths.
But widespread claims that it operated an “arrest-interrogate-kill” policy towards alleged criminals and banned left-wing militants, could support the “death squad” tag. The RAB cannot be compared, however, to the death squads operated by military regimes in Latin America in the 1970s, as the force is not known to have been used to kill political opponents.
He also notes that despite its record, the RAB had become Bangladesh’s “most respected police unit”. However, Human Rights Watch says the force is a government death squad. In a report last year, it said the paramilitary unit had an “operating culture” of extrajudicial killings, which its members perpetrated with impunity.
British High Commission officials in Dhaka told the BBC that the UK training programme for the RAB had begun in early 2008 and was due to finish in March 2011. “The focus is on human rights. It concentrated on providing the RAB with the skill-set to conduct law enforcement duties in an ethical manner,” said an official, who did not want to be named.
“The areas covered basically include basic human rights training, interview skills, investigation skills, basic scene of crime skills, inclusion on a range of legal and human rights focused events.” The official declined to comment on whether this training was part of any counter-terrorism effort in Bangladesh.
The Guardian reports that the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency provided training to the RAB on crime scene management and investigation, via officers from West Mercia Police and Humberside Police.