Israeli phone-hacking firm Cellebrite sold its technology to Bangladesh’s notorious paramilitary unit, documents reveal.
The unit, known as the Rapid Action Battalion, has been called a “death squad” by rights groups and has faced allegations of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torturing civilians and journalists.
The sale was revealed as part of documents filed by a human rights lawyer to an Israeli court on Monday. The documents, submitted by lawyer Eitay Mack, were filed as part of an attempt to get the Defense Ministry to halt the tech firm’s exports to Bangladesh and explain their failure to do so in light of reports regarding misuse of Cellebrite’s UFED (Universal Forensic Extraction Device), a system that allows authorities to unlock and access the data of any phone in their possession.
The documents followed another filing, which the Defense Ministry did not respond to, that sought to halt the sale of technology from Celebrity and PicSix to the country after an Al Jazeera investigation revealed Bangladesh’s army bought phone hacking capabilities from them.
According to reports in Bangladesh, on May 7 a new budget was authorized for the purchase of an additional Cellebrite system for the RAB and per the documents filed to the Israeli court, it is not the first time the unit purchased the UFED.
Cellebrite’s phone-hacking technology is intended for law enforcement agencies and is sold across the world. However, critics have long slammed the company for selling its wares to states with poor human rights records, from Indonesia to Venezuela, to Saudi Arabia and Belarus.
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“This is a very serious ‘error’ by the Defense Ministry,” the document by Mack and a long list of human rights activists says. “As Israel does not have diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and due to the repeated human rights infringements and wide-spread corruption in the country, there is no way for the ministry to actually oversee and control the use that is made of the Israeli systems in this country.”
“How is it possible that despite promises to ‘be sensitive and take into account human rights issues’, the ministry’s director general allows the sale of technology which breaks into phones to a security forces unit that is accused of torturing their victims by drilling holes into their head with an electric drill,” Mack asked in the filing.
As part of his investigation, Mack found, in wake of Al Jazeera documents proving Cellebrite was selling its technology to Bangladesh, that its technology had reached the RAB unit through representatives of the Israeli firm in Singapore. Officers from RAB were even sent to Singapore to undergo training on the system in 2018 and 2019.
“Between January 2009 and until 2018, human rights groups in Bangladesh collected evidence indicating that 1,920 people were executed without trial and 129 died while being tortured,” Mack wrote. According to Amnesty International, in 2018 the RAB unit was responsible for 466 extrajudicial killings (more than three times those attributed to them the previous year). The report notes these are reported as gangland shootings in the country but are actually part of a wider crackdown conducted as part of the country’s war on local drug trade.
Mack also notes that the unit has also been accused of persecuting LGBTQs in Bangladesh.
“According to reports by Odhikar and OMCT, human rights groups in Bangladesh, the latter which represents over 200 anti-torture groups across the world, from July 2019, in recent years the Bangeldesh security forces have been accused of using drills to torutrue their vicitms, beatings, long detentions in subhuman conditions and even hanging people upside down,” Mack wrote, noting that there were also reports of victims being shot in their knees; having their testicles beaten; their fingernails pulled out; their heads held underwater; alongside sexual violence, threats of rape and rape itself. “Mock and real executions,” the document also noted.
Cellebrite refused to comment on the report and the specific claims it raised. Bangladesh did not respond to request for comment.
The Defense Ministry said in response to Mack's filing: “In regards to the allegations raised in your request, the Defense Ministry does not address specific details regarding specific export licences, due to security, diplomatic and strategic considerations. It is worth noting that the [body that overseas defense exports] is examining its policies together with the relevant bodies in a regular manner and in response to developments and in some cases does cancel or rescind licences."