(New York) - The military-backed interim government should take prompt action to end a wave of unlawful killings by Bangladesh’s elite crime-fighting force, Human Rights Watch said today. Since June 1, 2008, officials from the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the police have killed at least 50 individuals under suspect circumstances.

“Despite overwhelming evidence of RAB and police responsibility for unlawful killings, the interim Bangladeshi government seems unwilling to address the problem,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, Bangladesh’s security forces continue to get away with murder.”

After strong national and international criticism of the Rapid Action Battalion for its poor human rights record, RAB killings decreased in 2007 and early 2008. However, this trend has been abruptly broken in recent months and the number of killings has surged, Human Rights Watch said.

For example, around 7 p.m. on July 15, RAB officers in Dhaka arrested Moshiul Alam Sentu, an activist in the student wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. When Sentu’s mother contacted a RAB officer shortly afterwards, he assured her that her son would not be mistreated. Around 4 a.m. the following day, eyewitnesses observed RAB officers dumping Sentu’s body in a paddy field in Barisal city, south of Dhaka. The body had two bullet wounds in the chest and another in the leg. Sentu’s neck was severely bruised and possibly broken, as was his left hand, indicating possible torture. The RAB later stated that it took Sentu to Barisal to recover a cache of hidden arms and that he was killed in crossfire as the RAB team was attacked by his associates.

“The officials responsible for killing Moshiul Alam Sentu and others should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law,” said Adams. “Unless those officers involved are held to account, regardless of rank, the RAB will continue to torture and murder.”

Established in 2004, the RAB immediately became known for its involvement in what the authorities often refer to as “crossfire killings.” Over the past four years, RAB members have killed more than 540 people. Research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that many of these “crossfire killings” are in fact poorly disguised extrajudicial executions, often preceded by torture.

Tragically, the Bangladeshi police have copied the actions of the RAB, killing several hundred people over the past few years. Since a state of emergency was declared on January 11, 2007, the RAB and the police have often operated together.

On July 26, the mother of Dr. Mizanur Rahman Tutul, the head of the outlawed Purbo Banglar Communist Party (Red Flag faction), informed the media that RAB officers had arrested her son in Dhaka. She urged the government to save her son from “crossfire.” According to the police, Tutul was killed in a shootout between his criminal group and the police on July 27, the day after his mother talked to the press.

The interim government, in power for 19 months, has stated its commitment to establishing a “healthy and stable democratic system” based on the rule of law, but Human Rights Watch said its failure to address impunity is undermining its own reform efforts.

“The rule of law can’t become a reality in Bangladesh unless the very forces tasked with upholding the law are also bound by it,” Adams said.

While the RAB’s human rights record has been so poor that the United States and United Kingdom had refused to work with them officially as partners in counterterror operations, some international agencies and foreign governments have recently initiated or are now considering cooperation with the force. According to reports in Bangladesh’s Daily Star and New Age newspapers, a delegation of US officials from the departments of state, defense and justice visited Bangladesh in mid-July and met with the RAB to explore possibilities for future cooperation. Among other things, the RAB reportedly proposed that the US provide them with equipment and counterterrorism training.

Human Rights Watch urged governments not to work with or provide support to the RAB until it ends its pattern and practice of human rights abuses and holds responsible officials accountable. For a foreign government to provide assistance to the RAB at this point in time would be to condone the RAB’s record of human rights abuses and would raise serious questions about the donor’s commitment to improving human rights in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and several other human rights treaties, Bangladesh is obliged to thoroughly and promptly investigate serious violations of human rights, prosecute the perpetrators, and in accordance with international fair trial standards punish them if their guilt is established. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, no RAB officers have ever been held criminally responsible for taking the life of another person or for torture.