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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 15:43 GMT
Bangladesh's feared elite police

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Dhaka

A RAB personnel alert with his gun
RAB was formed to tackle rising crime figures

Human rights lawyers in Bangladesh say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of suspects dying in the custody of the elite anti-crime force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).

They say 190 people have been killed in less than two years.

The government admits to a figure of around 150.

The RAB was set up in April 2004 amid concerns about rising crime.

It draws its personnel from the police and the military.

Dead within hours

All that Sumon Ahmed Majumder's parents have are memories of their son.

As they look at his photos tears pour down his mother Selima's face.

Selima, mother of Sumon Ahmed Majumder
Selima tried to get justice for her son but gave up after threats

The 30-year-old had witnessed the murder of opposition Awami League MP, Ahsanullah Master, in May 2004.

Soon after, he was arrested on allegations of being involved in extortion - which his parents have always denied.

They were told that he was then transferred to the custody of the RAB.

The next they heard of him, he was dead.

"I raised my child with great care," says Selima, sobbing.

"Even if the world forgets him, I will never forget my Sumon. This is causing me terrible pain."

Fearsome reputation

Bangladesh's law minister, Moudud Ahmed, was instrumental in setting up the RAB in 2004.

"The law and order situation was bad and it had to be contained," he said.

RAB soldiers frisk a passenger at a ferry terminal in Dhaka
Human rights groups say over 190 people have died in RAB custody

"Our police is inadequate. They do not have sophisticated weapons nor do they have sufficient training.

"It is not possible to raise the whole police to a sufficient standard."

That, he says, is why the RAB had to be created.

Its members are believed to be much more disciplined than the regular police force which is riddled with corruption.

Dressed all in black with bandanas tied around their heads and wraparound sunglasses, they are a familiar sight on Bangladesh's streets.

Even the labradors they use as sniffer dogs are black

The RAB has developed a fearsome reputation.

"Death by crossfire"

In an average week two or three people are killed in incidents involving the RAB.

The authorities say most deaths happen during shoot-outs between law enforcers and criminals.

RAB soldier stands on duty
RAB dress in all black complete with bandana and sunglasses

These incidents have become so frequent that a new term has been coined in the country - "death by crossfire".

"All those who have died in this crossfire all known terrorists and criminals of the country," said the law minister, Moudud Ahmed.

"When the people see that this criminal in a particular area who was creating havoc for them and when they found him dead they celebrate."

Mr Moudud says that he personally regrets the loss of life.

But he argues that the RAB is not above the law and people can take its members to court if they believe a death was unlawful.

But it is not always easy.

Gave up

Sultana Kamal is a prominent human rights lawyer with the group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra

She took up Sumon Ahmed Majumder's case, but says his parents were put under pressure from the start.

Selima holding a family photo showing her son Sumon Ahmed Majumder
Selima denies allegations that her son was involved in extortion
"First of all it was the police who were not very cooperative," she says.

"Then, of course, they got threat calls from different quarters that if they tried to do something they would be also dealt with. Even if people fight cases, at some point, it stops.

"When the court issues the rule to the government saying, 'Why shouldn't this act of the government be declared illegal?' they are supposed to say something in return and they keep on taking time. So people get exasperated."

The Majumders eventually gave up.

As they visited Sumon's grave in the pouring rain Selima's face was a mixture of grief and rage.

But in Bangladesh, they said, you just cannot fight the system.

They must now live with the fact that they will probably never get justice for their son.

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