Cablegate: Engaging Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion:
DE RUEHKA #0856/01 2240810
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 110810Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7211
INFO RUEHJA/AMEMBASSY JAKARTA 0255
RHHMUNA/USCINCPAC HONOLULU HI
RUEKDIA/JOINT STAFF WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L DHAKA 000856
DEPT FOR SCA/PB, SCA/FO, DRL, S/CT AND G
EO 12958 DECL: 08/10/2018
TAGS PGOV, PHUM, PINR, MASS, PREL, BG
SUBJECT: ENGAGING BANGLADESH’S RAPID ACTION BATTALION:
VISIT BY USG INTERAGENCY ASSESSMENT TEAM
REF: STATE 61983
Classified By: Ambassador James F. Moriarty. Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)
1. (C) The leadership of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has pledged to provide additional information about alleged human rights violations committed by members of the force since its inception in 2004. This pledge came during two days of intensive fact-finding and discussions with members of an interagency USG team that visited Bangladesh to assess both the RAB’s current operating procedures regarding human rights violations as well as possibilities for engagement. The RAB seeks a broad engagement with the USG including human rights and counterterrorism training and recognizes the need to address allegations of past abuses. While there are lingering concerns about the RAB’s human rights record, there is a widespread belief within civil society that the RAB has succeeded in reducing crime and fighting terrorism, making it in many ways Bangladesh’s most respected police unit. A possible stumbling block moving forward is inertia within some levels of the government bureaucracy, primarily within Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, which we are trying to overcome through repeated high-level interventions with Bangladeshi government decision-makers.
RAB Pledges Full Support After Meetings with USG Team ============================================= ========
2. (C) A USG interagency team from the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice visited Dhaka July 12 - 16 to conduct an assessment of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), focusing on whether and how the USG might engage with the force. During the visit, the team met with the RAB senior leadership, visited the training academy outside of Dhaka, and visited two of the RAB’s operational battalions (in Narayangang and Sirajgang). In addition to the meetings with the RAB, the team met with representatives from civil society, including journalists, human rights groups, and business leaders, in both Dhaka and the field. On their final day, the team met with officials from the Ministries of Foreign and Home Affairs. Representatives of the Embassy’s inter-agency Counter Terrorism Working Group also participated in the assessment team’s meetings.
3. (C) The assessment team’s visit followed several months of intensive discussions between the RAB and the Embassy, as well as meetings with senior visiting officials, including DRL DAS Barks-Ruggles and S/CT Coordinator Ambassador Dailey. In these previous meetings, USG officials informed the RAB of our desire to help improve its human rights record and build its counter terrorism and law enforcement capacity but underscored the need for greater transparency and accountability. The officials explained that our ability to offer training or assistance is currently constrained by the RAB’s alleged human rights violations, which have rendered the organization ineligible to receive training and assistance according to the Leahy legislation.
4. (C) The two days of meetings with the RAB, therefore, focused on gaining a better understanding of the RAB’s past human rights record and the procedures in place to prevent, investigate and adjudicate abuses. The team was briefed on the RAB’s efforts to incorporate human rights training into the curriculum at the training academy and at the unit level. This training, some of which is conducted by a local human rights group, is given to all new personnel transferring into the RAB. (Note: Although it shares our concerns, the British High Commission has already started a pilot round of Human Rights training with the RAB; the British will closely monitor program impact before launching a second round, which will require Ministerial approval.) According to RAB officials, allegations of abuses are handled both through internal disciplinary measures as well as through an administrative investigation by magistrates and the local court system. In response to repeated requests from the team for greater information about the magistrates’ reports, the RAB’s senior leadership pledged to explore providing this information to the USG.
5. (C) The discussions with the RAB also provided the assessment team with insight into the areas in which USG assistance, at both the tactical and operational level, could be most effective. The RAB also provided additional information about its organizational structure and personnel policies, which will help us determine how individuals and units might be held accountable for past abuses.
Meetings with Civil Society Provide Nuanced View ============================================= ===
6. (C) In order to provide the assessment team with a balanced view of the RAB, we arranged meetings with members of civil society in Dhaka and during field visits. As a result, team members were able to hear from journalists, academics, human rights advocates, and business leaders, and informally through people requesting assistance from the RAB, about perceptions of the RAB’s past and current conduct. There were reports of abuses and a pattern of misrepresentation by the RAB regarding so-called “encounter/crossfire killings.” The Assessment Team interviewed NGOs, media personnel, and members of civil society who reported that members of the RAB, possibly on instruction from senior government officials, have unlawfully used lethal force to eliminate their targets. All we talked with agreed, however, that the RAB’s human rights performance had improved during the current Caretaker Government and under the leadership of the current Director General (a career police officer and DS/ATA graduate).
7. (C) A strong message from many civil society interlocutors was that the RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order in the last decade. Moreover, given the persistent corruption and ineffectiveness of other elements of the police, the RAB has come to be seen by many as a preferred alternative. According to some NGO sources, people in remote areas, particularly women, feel more comfortable coming forward to the RAB because they think their complaints will be dealt with in a more effective and honest manner. The team noted that the RAB and many civil society representatives seem prepared to accept that some notorious individuals will die in encounters with the RAB, and they seem to prefer that outcome as opposed to the chance of the currently ineffective and backlogged court system acquitting the guilty. What this highlights is that our desire to improve respect for human rights will require not only engagement with the RAB, but efforts to help improve other elements of the Bangladeshi judicial systems and police. Our recently approved 1210 proposal would establish a community policing program that could assist such effort.
Bureaucracy is Potential Stumbling Block =======================================
8. (C) The team’s final meetings with representatives of the Foreign Ministry and Home Ministry indicated that some levels of the government bureaucracy may still be reluctant to share information about past alleged human rights abuses. In 2007, an inter-agency Embassy team met with GOB counterparts to develop a mechanism for investigating allegations of human rights violations by the security forces, including RAB. This responsibility was given to a Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, but despite some positive initial meetings there has been little tangible outcome from these sessions. During the Assessment Team’s meeting with the Acting Home Secretary, he displayed little enthusiasm for taking the steps needed to move ahead with an engagement program. The team underscored that it needed information from the Home Ministry regarding abuses by the RAB in order to effectively vet candidates in accordance with Leahy legislation. Fortunately, this meeting coincided with Home Secretary Abdul Karim’s visit to Washington, which provided senior officials in SCA, DRL and DOD to reinforce the importance of GOB information-sharing about past abuses.
9. (C) Embassy Dhaka greatly appreciates the efforts of State, DoD, and Justice to send the assessment team to Bangladesh to interact with the RAB. Post looks forward to receiving the results of the assessment team’s analysis of the RAB. Our multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team signaled the seriousness with which the USG views potential RAB engagement. We were clear in our meetings with the GOB that we are eager to engage, but committed to doing so in a manner consistent with Leahy legislation. We expect that the Bangladeshi Government will reciprocate by providing us with some of the additional information we need to move forward. At the same time, we may need to ensure that a few unenthusiastic bureaucrats do not foil plans for further cooperation that are strongly supported by the RAB and at least some senior government officials. Embassy Dhaka looks forward to working with the inter-agency team in Washington as we consider next steps in this process.
10. (U) The inter-agency assessment team has cleared this message. Moriarty