Bangladesh shocked by ‘unilateral’ U.S. sanctions on paramilitary unit

Rapid Action Battalion accused of human rights violations; move could have repercussions on other countries

Updated - December 12, 2021 04:34 am IST

Published - December 11, 2021 09:19 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The decision by the U.S. to ban the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), came as a shock to the Sheikh Hasina government. File photo for representation.

The decision by the U.S. to ban the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), came as a shock to the Sheikh Hasina government. File photo for representation.

Bangladesh reacted sharply to the U.S. Treasury’s decision to sanction a special military and police task force for alleged human rights violations. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen summoned U.S. Ambassador to Dhaka Earl Miller to protest the actions.

The decision by the U.S. to ban the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), came as a shock to the Sheikh Hasina government, just days before its planned celebrations for the 50th anniversary of its Liberation Day, where President Ram Nath Kovind will represent India.

“The Foreign Secretary [Mr. Momen] regretted that the U.S. decided to undermine an agency of the government that had been on the forefront of combating terrorism, drug trafficking and other heinous transnational crimes that were considered to be shared priorities with successive U.S. administrations,” a Bangladesh government statement said, adding that the sanctions had been made “unilaterally” and without any “prior intimation”.

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury announced a designation and sanctions against Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force for “serious human rights abuse”, as a part of a batch of sanctions announced on International Human Rights Day on Friday, against China, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea as well.

In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Friday that a Sri Lankan intelligence officer Chandana Hettiarachchi was being sanctioned and ineligible to enter the U.S. under 2021 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriation Act, also for alleged human rights violations.

‘Widespread allegations’

“Widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse in Bangladesh by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — as part of the Bangladeshi government’s war on drugs — threaten U.S. national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh,” the U.S. Treasury Department said, explaining the sanctions against the joint task force that was set up in 2004. Six senior officials have been designated and a visa ban slapped on one of them — former Director General of the RAB Benazir Ahmad.

Mr. Ahmad, who became Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police last year, was at the forefront of the country’s crackdown on terror groups during his tenure at the RAB, and led the operations against the ISIS-inspired JMB terrorists, who took hostages at Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery, killing 20 people in July 2016. The U.S.’s visa ban was placed due to Mr. Ahmad’s “involvement in gross violations of human rights, making him ineligible for entry into the United States”, the Treasury Department said.

The MEA declined to comment on the U.S. action, which also followed a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in President Joseph Biden’s Democracy Summit, to which Bangladesh was not invited. Despite India’s good ties with both countries, officials said the matter was a bilateral issue, which India would not seek to interfere in.

However, the sanctions against Bangladesh, based according to the Treasury note on “widespread allegations” and reports by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), could set off alarm bells in India and across the region, for the possible use of actions against security forces similarly accused of human rights violations here.

“NGOs have alleged that RAB and other Bangladeshi law enforcement are responsible for more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture. Some reports suggest these incidents target opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists,” the U.S. Treasury said, invoking its “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”.

The Magnitsky Act as it is known, was named after a Russian lawyer who was arrested after he exposed corruption in the Putin administration, and died in prison in 2009. Subsequently the U.S. Congress extended the 2012 law and authorised its President to “impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person identified as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption”.

“Our actions today…send a message that democracies around the world will act against those who abuse the power of the state to inflict suffering and repression,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said.

In its response, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry said it took exception to being sanctioned along with Myanmar which has been accused by the United Nations of a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of its Rohingya population, and said the sanctions “appeared to have been based more on unverified or unsubstantiated allegations of command responsibility than on the facts involved.”

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