UK-funded Bangladesh police squad arrested British journalist

July 31, 2016

Image of Shafik Rehman in a wheelchair

The UK government has been funding the Bangladesh police squad that arrested an elderly British journalist who potentially faces a death sentence, human rights group Reprieve has discovered.

Shafik Rehman, an 81 year old British grandfather, is a prominent journalist and opposition figure in Bangladesh. He was arrested in April 2016 by plainclothes officers from the country’s Detective Branch, amid a recent crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh.

Mr Rehman continues to be held without charge, having so far been denied bail, and is in poor health. Officials in Bangladesh have accused him of offences including sedition and it is feared that if charged he may face the death penalty. However, no evidence has been presented to his lawyers and the case appears politically motivated.

In 2009, Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) contributed £10 million to a five year UN scheme to train police in Bangladesh. A UN document shows DFID was the majority funder and the project included helping the Detective Branch “deal more professionally” with arrests, and improve “the use of evidence in investigations”. The project was extended until barely four months before Mr Rehman’s arrest, a freedom of information request by Reprieve found.

In Mr Rehman’s case, the Detective Branch entered his home without a warrant – reportedly posing as a TV camera crew. The detectives have repeatedly missed deadlines to submit evidence, delaying proceedings and prolonging his detention.

A former US Ambassador to Bangladesh said recently that political opponents “have been framed on spurious corruption charges … [and] Journalists who dare cover any of this are being charged with sedition and treason.”

DFID admitted last year that there was a risk of its “support to the Bangladesh Police being misused for political purposes”. In a review of the aid project, the department said that “concerns about the Police’s lack of operational independence from the government in power … have intensified”, and that there was “growing concern about a contraction of democratic space”. DFID also noted allegations that police were involved in murder, citing “increased reports of extrajudicial killing by law enforcers”.

Commenting, Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team, said:

“Britain must demand answers from Bangladesh about whether UK aid has contributed in any way to the arrest of journalists like Shafik Rehman. British diplomats must find out the real reasons behind Mr Rehman’s ongoing detention and call for his immediate release. Months on from Mr Rehman’s arrest, the Detective Branch has failed to make any case against him – meanwhile, his family in Britain are desperately worried that he could face the death penalty if charged, or that his health will fail in detention.”


Notes to editors

  1. Reprieve is an international human rights organization. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on: communications [at] / +44 (0) 207 553 8140. Reprieve US, based in New York City, can be contacted on Katherine [dot] oshea [at] / +1 917 855 8064.
  2. A UN Development Programme document refers to training of the Detective Branch on page 33 at point 3.2. Reprieve’s freedom of information request to DFID is available on request.
  3. Shafik Rehman was photographed on his way to court flanked by officers from the Detective Branch who were wearing olive jackets emblazoned with yellow ‘DB’ initials.
  4. Missed deadlines: Bangladesh police missed deadlines to submit their evidence on 16 June and again on 26 July.
  5. British police training projects in Bangladesh have been dogged by scandals. Wikileaks revealed in 2010 that British police were training a Bangladeshi counter-terrorism unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, that Human Rights Watch called a “government death squad”.
  6. In 2015 the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) published a highly critical report that found the joint DFID-UN project “was helping to develop the intelligence functions of the Bangladesh National Police, including providing software and training to the Criminal Investigation Division on how to track mobile phones, analyse call data and monitor social media.” It warned that “the intelligence capacity built by UK assistance could be used to monitor and suppress political opposition groups.”
  7. Government departments are required to complete a risk assessment, a secretive process known as an “OSJA”, prior to supplying any security assistance to foreign personnel. For the Bangladesh project, DFID completed the form and decided to carry on with the training, until criticism from the Commission led to the department “removing proposed support to criminal intelligence units” in early 2015. However, the rest of the programme continued until at least December 2015.