Several members of a Bangladesh anti-crime unit accused of human rights abuses travelled to the United Kingdom in 2022 to receive security training, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) reports.
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a law enforcement unit dubbed a “death squad” by human rights organisations, went to the UK in May and October 2022 for a cybersecurity course and training on the use of mass surveillance equipment.
The instruction by British law enforcement experts happened despite the RAB being sanctioned by the United States for its alleged involvement in human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.
News of the RAB’s UK training led Al Jazeera’s I-Unit to discover that the UK had reversed a decision to join the US in imposing sanctions on the police unit in 2021. It is unclear why the UK government decided not to sanction the RAB.
If it had, the 2022 training trips would likely have not happened, but the sanctions were inexplicably not implemented by the UK despite the US doing so.
“RAB is turning to US partner countries to get the kind of training and tools and resources that they need to be a more ‘effective’ force back at home in Bangladesh. And by effective, I mean that they’re going to further engage in repression in Bangladesh,” said Amanda Strayer, supervising staff lawyer for accountability at human rights NGO Human Rights First.
The I-Unit approached the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ask about its knowledge of these trainings, presenting a document that the FCDO responded had “never been shared with the High Commission and the UK Government was not aware of it”.
According to the document reviewed by Al Jazeera and presented to the FCDO, the British High Commission in Dhaka was informed of the RAB members’ trips by way of communication from the Bangladeshi foreign ministry.
Cybersecurity and surveillance
In May, at least five officers travelled to the UK to receive a Cyber Incident Response Management Foundation Training Course and a Cyber Security Practitioner Training Course from Irish company IT Governance, according to the documents.
The training took place over several days and cost more than 15,000 euros ($15,800) in total, an invoice sent to RAB shows.
In October, at least six members received training in the use of a backpack IMSI catcher, a portable mass surveillance tool that acts as a mini-mobile phone tower and can intercept phone calls and text messages.
“They’re used to intercept communications … which basically prohibits any kind of freedom of speech,” Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, told Al Jazeera. “In Bangladesh, people have died in custody for Facebook posts they made.”
“This highlights the real risk that the UK, the EU, and Canada are facing when they don’t join in on these sorts of sanctions, because the entities and the individuals that were sanctioned by the US will turn to their jurisdiction and will find the kinds of tools and training and resources,” Strayer told Al Jazeera.
“Maybe they can no longer get it from the US, but they can get it from the EU and they can get it from the UK. And they can take those back to their country to further their repression there.”
Caught in the crossfire?
The Rapid Action Battalion was founded in 2004 and has since been linked to many abuses in reports by human rights organisations.
When the US sanctioned the RAB and seven current and former high-ranking officials in December 2021, it cited evidence the battalion was involved in at least 600 forced disappearances since 2009 and more than 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.
The Bangladesh government denied the accusations, saying the deaths were the result of people being caught in so-called “crossfires” during shootouts between RAB officers and criminal gangs.
In response to questions asked by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, the UK FCDO said: “The UK is a leading advocate for human rights around the world and we regularly raise human rights issues directly with other governments, including Bangladesh”.
IT Governance has not responded to Al Jazeera’s questions about providing training to the RAB by the time this article was published.
The RAB has also not responded to any questions asked by Al Jazeera.