A day after Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) reported on Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) undergoing cybersecurity and surveillance training in the UK, it can reveal that nine of its members are also received goods and training in at least two countries of the European Union. countries in 2022.
The RAB as an organization and seven individuals currently or formerly working for it were sanctioned in December 2021 by the United States under the Global Magnitsky Act for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses.
The following year, nine RAB members, including one of seven individuals sanctioned by the US, received training or other services in the Netherlands and Poland.
Since 2010, human rights groups have written extensively about the RAB’s alleged human rights abuses, ranging from enforced disappearances to extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.
“We are concerned that these governments may be enabling the abuses that RAB has already been accused of and held responsible for,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) Southeast Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly told Al Jazeera. .
“What these documents suggest is that the RAB has been traveling around the world acquiring equipment and receiving training.”
When the US sanctioned the RAB and seven current and former high-ranking RAB officials in 2021, it cited evidence that the organization was involved in at least 600 enforced disappearances since 2009 and more than 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.
foreign intelligence training
In March 2022, the RAB officers traveled to Poland, where they received foreign intelligence training, according to documents and statements obtained by Al Jazeera.
Among them was the additional director general of the RAB, Khan Mohammad Azad, one of the seven people sanctioned by the United States.
The training in Poland was conducted by a company called the European Security Academy (ESA), which provides training for military personnel, law enforcement agencies and private military companies.
Later in the year, in September, three RAB members traveled to the Netherlands to “participate in a pre-shipment inspection” of police dogs purchased from a company called the Police Dogs Center for the RAB’s canine squad, the documents reveal. .
It was the second time in three years that the RAB’s canine squad had traveled to the Netherlands for such an inspection.
According to RAB documents obtained by Al Jazeera, the RAB sent copies of the travel advisories to the Polish and Dutch governments.
Penalties of the Magnitsky Act
Under the US Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which was created to criminalize human rights violators, US assets belonging to a sanctioned person or organization are frozen and companies and individuals Americans are prohibited from doing business with them.
According to Amanda Strayer, supervising accountability attorney at the US-based human rights organization Human Rights First, the RAB officers traveling to Europe show why allies must work together when it comes to sanctions against human rights violators.
“We’re talking about them going to Europe for training to get better at what they do,” Strayer told Al Jazeera.
“The UK, the European Union, Canada all have very similar style global Magnitsky sanctions programs. All of them have the ability to sanction the Rapid Action Battalion and sanction those senior officers.”
But, Strayer said, implementing those kinds of sanctions is especially difficult for the EU because it is a very large multilateral organization.
“EU consensus is not something you get easily and maybe that’s one of the reasons why RAB felt: ‘We should go here because we’ll be much more likely to get our way,’” he said.
UPDATE: I-Unit has seen documents revealing that members of the Bangladeshi paramilitary group, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), traveled to the UK in 2022.
Although sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses, the RAB received training in cybersecurity and mass surveillance while in the UK.
— Al Jazeera Investigations (@AJIunit) December 7, 2022
More than 25 trips to Europe
Additional data collected by I-Unit reveals that RAB officers have traveled to Europe more than 25 times since 2017. Some of those trips were for training on the use of mass surveillance equipment and others were for pre-shipment inspections of equipment.
In 2017, its then leader Benazir Ahmed, who is one of the people sanctioned by the US, was a speaker at a police conference in Germany.
RAB members also traveled to China, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates during that period.
All of these trips took place despite the fact that human rights groups have reported on the RAB’s human rights abuses for years, with reports of abuse by members of the group going back more than 10 years.
The force, founded in 2004, has been linked to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, and has been dubbed a “death squad” by HRW.
In March 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that allegations of ill-treatment and torture had been a “long-standing concern”.
Bangladesh is the world’s largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces, and a UN working group has raised concerns about former RAB members being eligible for such missions.
According to Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer for the Asian Human Rights Commission, that represents a significant risk.
“Organizations like the UN must seriously reconsider if they want murderers to build peace in the world.”
Ashrafuzzaman said the UK and EU should take a hard look at their policies towards the RAB: “Despite the US sanction designation, the UK and some of the EU states are providing training and goods to this people.
“Diplomacy and partnership for development… must not go beyond the basic principle of democracy and human rights… fundamental values of the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
‘This should get attention’
Member of the European Parliament Thijs Reuten of the Netherlands, commenting on the RAB’s trips to the European Union, told Al Jazeera that the fact that “services that can be used for internal repression, especially by an organization so clearly linked to human rights violations, so easily obtainable in the Netherlands should certainly attract attention in The Hague.”
Reuten also referred to a 2014 EU resolution calling on Bangladesh to end impunity for the RAB, saying that he still supports that resolution and that the Bangladeshi government should carry out independent investigations into the killings and enforced disappearances.
Although Reuten made it clear that the EU, US and UK are separate jurisdictions with separate human rights sanctions regimes, he said: “This new evidence of RAB training on EU soil makes a clear case for further coordination between like-minded partners”.
“Pending a clear and demonstrable commitment to such investigations, the EU may need to consider harmonizing its restrictive measures on ARBs with its partners,” Reuten told Al Jazeera.
right of reply
In response to questions from I-Unit, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said that it is aware of the US sanctions against the RAB and that it is aware of the human rights situation in Bangladesh, but that the EU does not have similar sanctions and the government was not involved in the dog purchases.
He explained that “specially trained dogs are not considered strategic goods (military or dual-use goods), so an export permit is not required for such transactions. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not involved in the export of specially trained dogs to Bangladesh.”
The spokesperson continued: “RAB delegations may have traveled independently to the Netherlands in recent years. The Embassy or the Dutch government have not played a role in such visits. The Netherlands does not grant a visa in Bangladesh; this service is performed by another Schengen country.”
The Dutch government said it could not establish whether it received a copy of the intended travel plans.
Police Dogs Center said that they “do not acknowledge the statement mentioned in your letter, we did not have any RAB members visit us in September 2022, we also do not have any business affairs with them.”
The Polish government, the European Security Academy and the Rapid Action Battalion did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera.
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