Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 4, 2012. Members of the RAB raided a gathering in Dhaka on May 19, 2017, arrested 28 men, paraded them in front of the media while saying they were gay, and accused them of drug possession. 

© 2012 Reuters

Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) raided a gathering in Dhaka on May 19, arrested 28 men, paraded them in front of the media while saying they were gay, and accused them of drug possession. Apparently tipped off by a resident near the venue where the group had gathered regularly in recent months, RAB officers abused their authority to humiliate the men a –flagrant privacy rights violation for an already-vulnerable minority.

While the government has taken some steps – like recognizing a legal third gender category –sexual and gender minorities in Bangladesh are under constant pressure. “Carnal intercourse against the order of nature” carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. In 2015, a Bangladeshi LGBT rights organization said that “visibility can be life-threatening.” Even discreet activism can attract unwanted attention, which is made even riskier as the authorities have repeatedly failed to stand up for freedom of expression. The brutal murders of two leading, visible Bangladeshi gay rights activists a year ago foregrounded the extreme vulnerability of the entire community.

Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission has documented physical and sexual assaults on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people by the police. At a United Nations review, the government accepted a recommendation to enhance police training around serving women and children, but rejected a call to protect LGBT people, saying “sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh.”

RAB, an elite counter-terrorism unit that has operated since 2004, has a well-earned reputation for human rights abuses. While the police did not file sodomy charges against these individuals, RAB’s choice to publicly accuse the men of homosexuality, placing them at risk of humiliation or violent attack, is dangerous and unwarranted. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has remained silent after this incident.

“What both law enforcement and the media have forgotten is that they are complicit in upholding the colonial legacy of criminalizing and stigmatizing diverse sexual and gender identities and expressions,” a Bangladeshi LGBT organization that asked not to be named said of the incident.

The RAB have since handed over the 28 to the police or courts, but they all remain in custody. The authorities dealing with the 28 detainees now should respect their fundamental rights—including their right to privacy.