Several members of a Bangladeshi anti-crime unit accused of human rights abuses traveled to the UK in 2022 to undergo 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 groups, went to the UK in May and October 2022 for a cybersecurity course and training on how to use large-scale surveillance equipment.
The instruction by British law enforcement experts happened despite the fact that the RAB was sanctioned by the United States for its alleged involvement in human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
News of the RAB’s training in the UK 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 probably wouldn’t have 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 they need to be a more ‘effective’ force in Bangladesh. And by effective, I mean they will continue to repress in Bangladesh,” said Amanda Strayer, supervising staff attorney for accountability at human rights NGO Human Rights First.
The I-Unit approached the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to inquire about its knowledge of these training courses and presented a document to which the FCDO replied that it had “never been shared with the High Commission and that the UK Government is not aware of it. altitude”.
According to the document reviewed by Al Jazeera and submitted to the FCDO, the British High Commission in Dhaka was informed of the RAB members’ travels through communications from the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry.
Cyber security and surveillance
At least five agents in May traveled to the UK to take 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, according to an invoice sent to RAB.
At least six members arrived in October training in use of a backpack IMSI catcher, a portable mass surveillance tool that acts like a mini cell phone tower and can intercept phone calls and text messages.
“They are used to intercept communications… which basically prohibits any form of freedom of expression,” Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s director for South Asia, told Al Jazeera. “In Bangladesh, people have died in custody because of Facebook messages they posted.”
“This highlights the real risk the UK, EU and Canada face if they fail to cooperate with these types of sanctions, as the entities and individuals penalized by the US will turn to their jurisdiction and find the types of tools and training and resources,” Strayer told Al Jazeera.
“Maybe they can’t get it from the US anymore, but they can get it from the EU and from the UK. And they can take them back to their country to continue 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 organizations.
When the US imposed sanctions on the RAB and seven current and former senior officials in December 2021, it was quoted evidence that the battalion has been involved in at least 600 enforced disappearances since 2009 and more than 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.
The Bangladesh government denied the allegations, saying the deaths resulted from people caught in so-called “crossfires” during gunfights between RAB officers and criminal gangs.
Responding to questions from 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”.
As of the time this article was published, IT Governance has not yet responded to Al Jazeera’s inquiries about providing training to the RAB.
The RAB has also not responded to questions from Al Jazeera.