Dhaka’s denial of extrajudicial killings is imperiling its relations with Washington and exposing the country’s corrupt police and undemocratic institutions.
Nazmul Ahasan, a Bangladeshi journalist currently with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
At midnight on May 26, 2018, Ekramul Haque’s daughters were trying to reach their father, who had left home three hours earlier and had still not returned.
Haque was an elected council member in Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf municipality, a southeastern Bangladeshi town bordering Myanmar. To the outside world, Teknaf and surrounding subdistricts in Cox’s Bazar are best known for hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees, but domestically, it is also a major entry point for narcotics (mostly yaba—a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine) sourced from Myanmar.
When Haque’s daughters reached him, he was audibly distressed, but he was also trying to comfort them. “Abbu [dad], you seem to be crying,” one of his confused daughters said. Unsettled, they alerted their mother, Ayesha Begum, who joined in subsequent calls.
Haque was at that time in the custody of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite Bangladeshi police unit estimated to have killed more than 1,100 people between 2004 and 2020. He would soon be executed, joining hundreds of others killed by authorities in a bloody election-year anti-drug campaign. After his death, the RAB produced a typical press release, claiming that Haque had been killed in a supposed gunfight during a drug raid.
The wording of the statement was characteristically contradictory: The description of the events leading to his violent death made his killing sound inadvertent, but allegations against him—that he was a top drug dealer and a “yaba godfather”—are used to imply he deserved to die anyway. (Haque’s family, political colleagues, and locals strongly contest the claim that he was a drug dealer.)
But what was exceptional about Haque’s case was that his killing and preceding moments were captured in calls recorded on Begum’s phone, because RAB officials had forgotten to seize Haque’s device when they detained him, and he managed to pick up at least four calls from his family that night.
On May 31, Begum called a press conference and released the recordings as proof that her husband was murdered. But the only news outlet that decided to share them was the Daily Star—Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper, where I was working at the time—which published the chilling recordings the next day, causing an uproar on social media.
The Bangladeshi authorities responded not by taking action in the wake of the shocking revelation but by trying to cover it up: They kept the Daily Star’s website blocked until they realized it was pointless, as enough people had already listened to the call recordings on Facebook.
In the years since, Haque’s case has become the centerpiece of conversations about extrajudicial executions in Bangladesh. But not a single RAB official was ever punished or reprimanded for their roles in his killing.
That is not an exception. Very few RAB officials have ever been held accountable despite the unit’s history of rights abuses since its founding in 2004 as a crime-busting agency.
That impunity for the RAB ended on Dec. 10, 2021, when the U.S. Treasury imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against current and former RAB leaders, including the current chief of police, for gross human rights violations, including more than 1,000 extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. Separately, but simultaneously, the U.S. State Department imposed a travel ban on two former RAB officials and cited Haque’s case.
Authorities in Dhaka, unsurprisingly, responded with denial and attacks against the United States. Ministers and ruling party leaders pointed to America’s domestic human rights record and alleged war crimes in the Middle East.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son and heir apparent, Sajeeb Wazed, a longtime U.S. resident, uploaded an infographic on Facebook that shows that every year since 2013 police departments across the United States caused more than 1,000 deaths.
Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen cited the same statistics in a phone call with his U.S. counterpart, Antony Blinken. “Police in the U.S. kill roughly a thousand people a year. You call these [casualties] in the line of duty. But when people die in our country [under similar circumstances], you decry extrajudicial executions,” he told reporters, referring to his conversation with Blinken.
While the United States undeniably has a police brutality problem, and its police departments have been guilty of countless murders—disproportionately targeting Black men—there is a crucial difference between police violence in the United States and Bangladesh.
Even when U.S. officers accused of murder do not face trial or conviction (as in the case of the 2014 asphyxiation of Eric Garner in New York), there is extensive, critical, uncensored media coverage of the killings, and there are civil legal claims for monetary damages. Additionally, other cases are tried before juries in impartial courts, sometimes—though not always—resulting in convictions and long prison sentences for the officers who murdered innocent people (as was the case for Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests in 2020).
In Bangladesh, there is no such scrutiny or impartial justice; there is only impunity.
As the United States under President Joe Biden attempts to revamp its democracy promotion policy abroad, these are the sorts of criticisms it will face from authoritarian regimes like Bangladesh. As a country that waged bloody wars around the globe and has a history of police brutality against minorities, the United States can be an easy target for these regimes as they try to discredit the Biden administration’s pro-democracy policies.
Such tactics are similar to how the governments in China and Iran attempt to cash in on U.S. domestic division to invalidate the West’s calls for greater freedom for their citizens or how Soviet propagandists during the Cold War exploited racial strife in the United States to dull the appeal of capitalism. While U.S. readers may clearly see the flaws in these comparisons, Bangladeshi citizens—who are the primary target of the government’s propaganda—may not.
Bangladeshi officials’ attempt to compare extrajudicial executions in Bangladesh with U.S. police killings is intended to imply hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. government and challenge the Biden administration’s moral authority to pass judgment on other countries. They seek to draw a parallel between the two crimes, rather than address the merits of the allegations. But by deploying this tu quoque fallacy, the Bangladeshi authorities are inadvertently acknowledging the allegations themselves—and simply denying the U.S. government’s moral standing to point them out.
What is also missing from their narrative is that the U.S. government’s moral authority derives from the fact that it does not deny its own police killing problem and has sought to deal with it through an open and democratic process, a transparent legal system, and a robust press—none of which exist in today’s Bangladesh.
Extrajudicial executions in Bangladesh have long been justified by claiming they occurred in the line of duty. The doctrine of self-defense has been the cornerstone of this narrative. The authorities in Bangladesh argue that all these executions take place in so-called gunfights.
These gunfights supposedly occur when the RAB (or regular police) engage purely in self-defense with armed criminals, who always end up dead. Before the “gunfight” framing became popular, most casualties caused by the RAB were described as taking place in “crossfires.”
“Crossfire,” a term now rarely used by officials but still popular among the population to describe such killings, referred to a supposed situation in which a detained suspect would have revealed an important location during interrogation, and police or RAB officers would have taken the suspect there to recover hidden firearms or to capture his accomplices. As soon as security forces arrived at the location, they would come under attack from criminals waiting for them, and when the detained suspect then tried to flee, he would be killed in a so-called crossfire.
Criticism surrounding these supposed crossfire incidents was centered on the argument that police had failed to protect someone in their custody. Subsequently, officials started denying that they had detained anyone, and they instead claimed that the targets had simply been killed in a gunfight during a raid.
These accounts are hardly ever true: Both “gunfights” and “crossfires” are merely euphemisms for shooting unarmed people to death at point-blank range—often with the blessing of the government.
Haque’s killing was the only known instance when such an incident was captured or recorded, and it was clearly indicative of what human rights organizations, family members, journalists, opposition activists, and numerous others have long argued: that these killings are premeditated murders.
The recordings revealed how an unarmed man with his hands tied was shot, and how he cried out loud for a second before falling silent. The recordings also captured the conversations of RAB personnel as they instructed each other to fire random shots at his body from different directions and place some empty bullet shells around the crime scene to give the appearance of a fight.
Even if one were to ignore such an overwhelmingly incriminating piece of evidence and consider arguments made by Bangladeshi officials, there are other key differences between Bangladeshi “gunfights” and U.S. police killings.
Despite the high yearly death tolls resulting from U.S. police shootings, a typical gunfight committed by RAB or police in Bangladesh meets at least one major criterion of extrajudicial executions that many U.S. police killings do not: They are premeditated.
The most frequent reason for a police presence in the United States is a reaction to a 911 report of an ongoing crime, disturbance, or domestic abuse—or a traffic stop, often due to racial profiling. Police often treat Black people and other minorities in a discriminatory manner, and they often commit crimes—including murder—after stopping a driver or after arriving on the scene following a 911 call.
In Bangladesh, however, the primary reason for police presence in cases of deadly encounters is rarely clear. Most often than not, officials hide behind confidentiality, claiming that they acted on anonymous tips or information derived from interrogation. While using privileged communication as a shield to obscure transparency can be an effective tactic, it also indicates a tendency to be proactive, which suggests premeditation.
In the United States, even in cases when officers accused of murder are not convicted, the transcripts of 911 calls, dispatcher calls, descriptions of evidence collected, testimonies of witnesses and every police officer involved, body camera footage, toxicology and postmortem reports, and investigation reports are often made public. Transparency is ensured to the extent that few disputes remain about the key facts of what happened (although fierce disputes do exist about what should have happened). Family members or witnesses rarely claim that the killing was staged.
On the other hand, in Bangladesh, disputes about what transpired in a gunfight are never resolved. Family members often allege that the victims were already in RAB or police custody before they were killed in a so-called gunfight. No body camera footage, testimonies, or documentation are provided to support the police claim of self-defense.
If it were true, as Bangladeshi officials often claim, that their deadly incidents are no different than those in the United States, then surely they should be able to produce equivalent evidence, testimony, and documentation to substantiate their version of events. The fact is that Bangladeshi forces do not bother to collect such evidence, nor does the country’s legal system demand it. They are allowed to kill without consequences.
In Bangladesh, family members have rarely been able to file lawsuits against involved officials or agencies. In Haque’s case, the police refused to accept his wife’s complaint, because there was already a case filed concerning the incident—by the same RAB team that killed him—which has been a common procedural tactic to deter family members from pursuing legal accountability.
And even when U.S. police killings do fulfill the criteria of extrajudicial executions, such as when individual police officials target and kill someone based on racial assumptions, city governments or police departments have often been forced to pay compensation to the family members of the victims. In 2016, for example, the city of Cleveland paid $6 million to family members of Tamir Rice, a boy who had been shot and killed by the city’s police two years earlier, even though a grand jury had decided against charging the officers involved. But in Bangladesh, none of these deterrents or accountability measures exist.
Bangladeshi officials have appeared shocked by the new U.S. sanctions. For too long, the ruling Awami League government’s U.S. policy has been driven by a set of stereotypes and assumptions, including that Washington’s desire to see democratic reform in Bangladesh is supplanted by other more pressing concerns such as the need to contain Islamist militancy or tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis. The government may also have hoped to leverage the country’s growing strategic and economic significance as China’s influence in the region increases.