Bangladesh police use torture to extort illegal payments from refugees

(BANGKOK, August 10, 2023)–The Government of Bangladesh should investigate and hold accountable police officials responsible for extortion and violence against Rohingya refugees, including torture, arbitrary detention, and harassment, said Fortify Rights today. A new investigation by Fortify Rights found that members of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) – a specialized combat unit of the Bangladesh police force – arbitrarily detained and tortured Rohingya refugees while systematically demanding corrupt payments that amount to extortion.   

The investigation by Fortify Rights found that Bangladesh police beat Rohingya refugees from Myanmar with batons and choked and used other torture methods against them to extort payments, sometimes amounting to the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars.

“Bangladesh police are using Rohingya refugees like human ATMs by inflicting severe physical and mental pain to demand corrupt payments,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The authorities in Dhaka must immediately reign in the police and work to end corruption and impunity within the police force. The government should conduct an independent and impartial investigation of violations committed by APBn and immediately begin reforming its approach to ensuring security in the refugee camps.”

Between March and June 2023, Fortify Rights interviewed 14 Rohingya refugees who detailed systematic violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, and extortion, committed by APBn officers between December 2022 and May 2023. Fortify Rights also spoke with several humanitarian aid workers and others, including Bangladeshi nationals, as part of its investigation.

For instance, in May 2023, more than ten APBn officers arrested a 30-year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar for unknown reasons. He told Fortify Rights:

There was no reason for my arrest. I was just lying down at home, and they [APBn] just came in and took me. It was around 11:30 [p.m.] or midnight . . . When the police came in, I asked, “What did I do wrong?” and “Why do I have to go with you?” I told my younger sister to take a video, and the police seized the phone from my sister and beat me. When I refused to go with them, they beat me again and said that they would give me proof of what I did wrong. They said, “Come with us, and we will show you there.”

The man said that the APBn detained him for four days in police barracks but never told him why they arrested and detained him. While in APBn custody, he said the police handcuffed him throughout the day and beat him all over his body:

They have black sticks, and they beat me with that stick. It is three feet long. I was beaten in three locations. First in my house, second at the checkpoint, and third in their barracks. They beat me on my body and head. There was a cut on my head. They also beat me on the bottom of my feet. I couldn’t walk for a week.

On the conditions in the police barracks, he said:

I stayed [in detention] for four days, and they didn’t give me any food. But my family brought me some food. Sometimes, they let me eat it . . . The barrack room was in very bad condition. We urinated in the same place we slept. There were seven people [detained together]. There was no arrangement for sleeping, so we would just sit all day long.

The police demanded that the man’s family pay 360,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$3,300) for his release. He said: “My family kept negotiating with the police and, on the last day, [APBn] agreed to 220,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$2,200).” At no point was he offered legal representation or informed of his rights.

Another Rohingya man, 45, told Fortify Rights that APBn beat, detained, and extorted money and other valuables from him on multiple occasions since January 2023. The police accused him of selling “yaba” – a synthetic stimulant drug containing a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine – which he denied. He recalled: 

I was beaten badly in my house. The police came around 11:00 a.m. to my house . . . They said, “We heard you have a yaba business and have a lot of money. Give us money and tell us about it.” . . . The police looted the gold at my house . . . [I]t was worth eight lakhs Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$7,550) at the time. They took a lot of money and two of my smartphones.

Later, APBn detained the man for two nights, and they tortured him. He explained:

There’s a senior officer at APBn. He took me to their offices and detained me for two days . . . They charged me 360,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$3,300) to be released from them. My family had to manage the money. [APBn officers] beat me badly with a metal stick while I was taken [to the police office]. They threatened me, saying that they would send me to jail for ten years if I didn’t pay them. They said they’d make a yaba case [against me], and then they told my family to pay the money. My family borrowed money from people because I used up my savings.

The name of the senior APBn officer who detained the refugee and the name of the police station where the APBn detained the man are on file with Fortify Rights.

In another incident, a Rohingya woman told Fortify Rights that in 2022, APBn officers beat her and four of her family members in the refugee camp and extorted 6,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$55) from them in exchange for not detaining her and her son.

APBn officers also recruited a child as a community night guard, which may constitute human trafficking under international law and standards, said Fortify Rights. One night, while on duty, the child briefly fell asleep. In response, APBn officers beat the child, brought him to the family house, and beat four other family members. The woman mentioned above witnessed the beating and told Fortify Rights:

When I saw that they beat him, they said, “. . . He isn’t doing his job properly.” They beat me with a stick injuring my leg . . . It was a green color plastic stick, but inside it, there was a metal rod. The stick was the length of one and a half feet . . . They beat [another family member in my house] 20 times and my other [relative] around 15 times. They also choked [him] in front of me. I was begging the police to stop, but they pushed me away and beat my leg. I was bleeding a lot.

In another case of ill-treatment documented by Fortify Rights, in February 2023, a Rohingya man explained how APBn officers beat and extorted money from him. He told Fortify Rights that the officials stopped him while he was traveling back to the camp from a local market: “[APBn officers] called me over to their checkpoint and hit me two times and then fined me 2,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$19) and let me go. The stick was a plastic pipe, and they hit me two times.”

The man told Fortify Rights that he also witnessed others being beaten:

When I was on the way to the market that day, the police were driving people away from the checkpoint. I saw about ten people beaten. I think it was because, before this incident, a majhi [an unelected Rohingya community leader in the refugee camps] was killed in Balukhali camp. The camp situation became intense, and the police did this as a result.

In yet another incident, a Rohingya-refugee shopkeeper told Fortify Rights that in February 2023, police cooperating with a majhi came to his shop, extorted 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka (approximately US$75) from him, and beat him for having on his mobile phone a digital financial service application called “Nagad” — a Bangladesh government-backed application for populations without access to banks, often used to send and receive money, top-up mobile airtime, and more. He said:

Three police came [to my shop]. One of them beat me . . . They asked me for my password for the Nagad account . . . After that, they kicked me. The police officer kicked me in the back. I sat down after he kicked me, and later he punched my back . . . [T]he police deployed in the camps are the ones who beat me. They were deployed to protect us, but instead, they are abusing us . . . The majhi told me I had an illegal Nagad account and had to pay the police. Rohingya are not allowed to have financial accounts like Nagad or bKash.”

A humanitarian aid worker in the refugee camps in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights: “The entire camp is a pyramid scheme of extortion . . . [Refugees] have to pay money to armed groups and are extorted by APBn.”

In August 2017, at the beginning of the Rohingya refugee influx into Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Army managed security in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar District. However, since July 2020, following the formation of two new APBn special battalions, the Bangladesh Army has transferred responsibility for security in the camps to the APBn. Along with the APBn, other security agencies operate in and around the refugee camps, including the National Security Intelligence, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, Rapid Action Battalion, and others.

Fortify Rights previously documented abuses by APBn, including beatings and detention of Rohingya children and other refugees. Testimonies from Rohingya refugees and aid workers suggest an institutionalized culture of corruption and abuse within the APBn, Fortify Rights said today.  

Customary international law and Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party, protect the right to liberty. This right extends to migrants and refugees. The U.N. Human Rights Committee affirmed that the rights covered in the ICCPR should apply “without discrimination between citizens and aliens,” including refugees.

Bangladesh is also a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which prohibits torture and requires  accountability for perpetrators of torture, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which protects the “right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by an individual group or institution.”

International law bans torture in every context. Under CAT, torture includes any act causing severe mental or physical pain or suffering, intentionally inflicted by a public official, or by someone with the consent or acquiescence of a public official, for a specific purpose, such as obtaining information, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or discrimination.

Following the accession to CAT, Bangladesh enacted the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Act in 2013, which lays down the procedure for investigating torture complaints, punishment, witness protection, and compensation.

Moreover, although not legally binding, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners and Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also outline fundamental guidelines for U.N. member states regarding the fair and humane treatment of individuals in custody. The principles emphasize the importance of respecting human dignity and safeguarding against torture or ill-treatment.

Public officials in Bangladesh also have a legal mandate to prevent corruption and promote accountability for corrupt practices. For example, the U.N. Convention against Corruption, to which Bangladesh is a state party, requires “measures to prevent and combat corruption more efficiently and effectively.” Bangladesh’s Penal Code further criminalizes specific actions by a public servant, including accepting, agreeing to accept, or attempting to obtain remuneration other than legal remuneration to perform or omit their official duties. Violations under the act include imprisonment and/or a fine.

On February 2007, the Bangladesh government acceded to the legally binding U.N. Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Article 5 of UNCAC says that state parties should “develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.”

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) – the independent corruption prevention and investigative body of the government – should take up an independent investigation of extortion and corruption by APBn officials. The ACC operates under the Anti-Corruption Commission Act of 2004. As part of the mandate of ACC, it can “hold [an] inquiry into any allegation of corruption on its own motion.” However, critics, including human rights organizations, have expressed concerns about the lack of independence and transparency in the commission’s investigations into allegations of corruption.

Bangladesh hosts more than one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. In 2016 and 2017, the Myanmar Army led a genocidal campaign of massacres, mass rape, and mass arson, forcibly deporting more than 800,000 Rohingya men, women, and children to Bangladesh.

“Abuse, instability, and corruption in the refugee camps are good for no one,” said Matthew Smith. “Dhaka must set an example and hold corrupt police accountable through an independent, impartial investigation, and accountability for those responsible.”

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