Bangladesh Police Extorting Rohingya in Camps: HRW

By Muktadir Rashid   17 January 2023

DHAKA – Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, better known as the APBn, is extorting, arbitrarily arresting, and harassing Rohingya refugees who are already facing violence from criminal gangs and armed groups, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

The rights group urged donor governments to press Bangladesh authorities to investigate alleged abuses against Rohingya living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, ensure victims have effective remedy, and develop measures to better protect refugees.

In a statement, HRW said it documented over 16 cases of serious abuse by APBn officers after interviewing more than 40 Rohingya refugees in October-November 2022 and reviewing police reports.

These included abuse against 10 refugees who were detained on apparently fabricated charges of trafficking methamphetamine or perpetrating violence, according to HRW.

“Abuses by police in the Cox’s Bazar camps have left Rohingya refugees suffering at the hands of the very forces who are supposed to protect them,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Bangladesh authorities should immediately investigate allegations of widespread extortion and wrongful detention by Armed Police Battalion officers and hold all those responsible to account.”

Rights groups including HRW say they have long documented the common practice by Bangladesh security forces of framing suspects with drugs or weapons.

Police generally demanded 10,000-40,000 taka (US$100-400) to avoid arrest, and 50,000-100,000 taka ($500-1,000) for the release of a detained family member. Families often had to sell gold jewelry or borrow money for bribes or legal costs, HRW said.

It added that the APBn had seemingly targeted Rohingya for sharing information about abuses on social media.

Sayed Hossein, 27, a Rohingya citizen journalist and health volunteer with an international organisation, told HRW that about 30 APBn officers raided his house on July 25 last year, handcuffed him, and confiscated his laptop and flash drive.

They took him to a police camp, demanded a bribe, and, when his family could not pay 50,000 taka ($500), they forcibly photographed him with meth tablets and sent him to nearby Ukhiya police station, HRW said.

“I asked them not to take any photos since it would impact my job and future,” Hossein told HRW. “They said that because I’m Rohingya, I don’t have any future.”

APBn posted the photos on their social media accounts and the man spent 41 days in jail on drug trafficking charges before making bail. He said most of his fellow inmates were Rohingya.

APBn officers arrested Soyedul Hoque, 57, in his betel leaf shop on November 2, 2022, and demanded 100,000 takas ($1,000) for his release. “Because we have such little income from the shop, we couldn’t pay the police anything,” his daughter told HRW. He was charged with possession of 2,000 meth tablets and remains in jail.

The APBn crackdown has compounded fear and vulnerability among the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the majority of whom fled Myanmar military atrocities in late 2017.

The police abuses have escalated amid tightening restrictions on livelihoods, movement, and education in the camps, including harassment at checkpoints and the closing of community schools and markets.

In late October 2022, the APBn initiated “Operation Root Out” in response to a spike in targeted killings by armed groups. The police have arrested at least 900 Rohingya since mid-2022. But refugees allege that APBn corruption has allowed criminal activity to proliferate, while innocent Rohingya are targeted in police crackdowns.

HRW noted that the 2022 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis received less than half of the US$881 million needed for the year. It urged donors including the US, UK, European Union, and Australia to increase funding to meet the protection needs of the Rohingya refugee population while leaning on Bangladesh authorities to end police abuses in the camps.

“Bangladesh should do what Myanmar never has – hold those responsible for abuses against Rohingya to account.”

When approached, APBn deputy inspector general (operations and intelligence) Mahbub Alam claimed they received hardly any formal complaints against their personnel on the ground and that “most were fabricated”. He claimed his troops were facing violent organised criminals supported by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and needed to use tough measures.

Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammed Mizanur Rahman said he would respond to HRW’s report after examining it.

The report also documents the case of a recently transferred APBn official who admitted that a camp leader (majhi) was tortured by security forces under the pretext of interrogation.

“It’s a very complex situation inside the camps,” the official said.

A Rohingya rights campaigner living in a camp told the Irrawaddy there are frequent complaints against law enforcers and security agencies, especially over arbitrary arrests.

Almost every case HRW investigated involved extortion directly by APBn officers or communicated through majhis.