UK refusal to sanction Bangladesh ‘death squad’ revealed


UK refusal to sanction Bangladesh ‘death squad’ revealed

US received the same evidence and sanctioned Rapid Action Battalion in 2021, but UK decided not to act against RAB.

7 Dec 2022

By Kevin Hirten and Yarno Ritzen

The United Kingdom was set to impose sanctions on Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in 2021 but held back for reasons that remain unexplained, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit can reveal.

The sanctions were to coincide with similar restrictions imposed by the United States, the UK’s closest ally, for alleged human rights violations such as torture and forced disappearances by RAB, which has been likened to a “death squad” by several human rights organisations.

The US implemented sanctions against RAB and seven high-ranking current and former members in December 2021, but the UK decided not to at the last moment.

UK barrister Toby Cadman, who worked on the sanction requests for both the US and UK sides, told Al Jazeera the fact the restrictions were not implemented came as a surprise for those involved.

“I filed the request for sanctions and whilst I am not in a position to discuss the substance, I can confirm that I discussed the request with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office [FCDO],” Cadman said, referring to the UK Foreign Office. 

“It was certainly my position that the UK would issue mirror sanctions in coordination with the US. I was extremely disappointed when they failed to do so.”

Cadman’s disappointment was shared by Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission and one of the people who provided both the US and the UK with examples of human rights abuses by RAB to be used as evidence for the sanction requests.

“The expectation was that the UK and US, being strong allies, that they would be collaborating

with each other by announcing back-to-back sanctions. The US did that on 10th of December, the UK didn’t,” Ashrafuzzaman said.

“The expectation was that they were doing it together, but it didn’t happen. That was very surprising to us.”

Al Jazeera was able to confirm with several other sources who said they heard similar accounts about the plan being pulled at the eleventh hour.

Although Cadman conceded that requests for sanctions, such as the one he and his team submitted, do not always come to fruition, he said that usually is for a good reason.

“It generally relates to a lack of an evidential basis and, of course, if there was something lacking it would be normal for the FCDO to seek further information or clarification,” Cadman said.

But he added in this case no reasons were provided by the Foreign Office.

Ashrafuzzaman noted the documentation collected by his team was used by the US for its justification for sanctions against the Bangladeshi police unit.

“The evidence was sent to the US State Department and Treasury, it was used by the US. That evidence was sent to the UK as well.”

Gross human rights abuses

The United States used that evidence to implement sanctions on December 10, 2021.

RAB as an organisation and seven current and former high-ranking officials from the unit were sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, citing evidence of alleged involvement in at least 600 forced disappearances since 2009 and more 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018.

The Bangladesh government has denied those accusations, saying the deaths were the result of so-called “cross-fires” – not summary executions – the “criminal” being killed when he got caught in the crossfire between RAB and his criminal gang.

Under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which was created to penalise human rights abusers by freezing their assets, American companies and individuals are prohibited from doing business with those sanctioned.

According to several sources the I-Unit spoke to, including Ashrafuzzaman, the UK was expected to implement similar sanctions as the US but never did.

“Having worked on both the US and UK request for sanctions, I was strongly of the view that a coordinated response was necessary in the circumstances,” Cadman said.  “Our filing in the UK targeted political officials and those in the security sector.”

According to Amanda Strayer, supervising staff attorney for accountability with human rights organisation Human Rights First, the fact the British government did not go through with the sanctions was “surprising and disappointing”.

“A lot of times when the US government is considering sanctioning someone or an entity like this, they may reach out to the UK, or Canada and the European Union to see if there’s interest in taking joint action together,” Strayer said.

“The fact that at that time and still now, a year later, these jurisdictions haven’t taken any action, it’s very disappointing.”

In response to questions asked by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, the UK Foreign Office did not dispute the reporting but nor did it explain the reasons for the last minute about-turn. It said  that “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”.