For years, Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has been deployed by successive governments not only to fight crime, but often as an in-house death squad, leaving a string of extrajudicial killings – often referred to as “crossfire” deaths, torture, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests in their wake. And for years, almost no members of RAB were held to account for these crimes.

Until now.

Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) raid a street during a clash with activists of Jamaat-e-Islami in Dhaka March 11, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

In a very rare verdict, on January 16 the Narayanganj District and Sessions court sentenced 26 people, including 16 members of RAB, to death for their role in a 2014 politically-motivated murder case. Nine other RAB members were sentenced to prison terms. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty and will urge it not be carried out.

For too long, RAB officials have been shielded from prosecution by successive governments, some even justifying their crimes. But in this case, the court has found a local Awami League politician, Nur Hossain, crossed the line by contracting members of RAB-11, the unit deployed in the area, to abduct and kill his political rival, Nazrul Islam, also an Awami League official.

On April 27, 2014, the verdict finds, Nazrul Islam was returning from court when, according to eyewitnesses, he was abducted along with three associates and his driver. His lawyer, Chandan Kumar Sarkar, who was following in another car, was abducted along with his driver. The killers were clumsy, failing to dispose of the bodies, which floated up in a river in Narayanganj, leading to public outrage. A government investigation concluded that members of RAB-11 had been involved in the murders.

But those convicted are not the only ones responsible for the situation. The government has responsibilities too, because of the climate of impunity it has created. In recent cases, when RAB and other law enforcement agencies have disappeared people, witnesses say officers arrived claiming they were from the “administration,” an open admission they worked for the state. Many of the disappeared people have later turned up dead.

RAB is a mixed force of police and soldiers. Although formally led by a civilian officer, it is the army that controls RAB. Involving trained-to-kill soldiers in law enforcement is inherently risky, but the police also have their own problems with abuse. In recent years, members of the Detective Branch of the police has also been responsible for RAB-style serious human rights violations, including deliberately maiming suspects in custody by shooting them in the leg.

The prosecution of RAB members is a welcome step towards ending violence and impunity. Yet it should not only happen when the victim is a ruling party member.

While in opposition the Awami League called for the disbanding of RAB. Before taking office in 2009 prime minister Sheikh Hasina said she would reform RAB. This has not happened, so it is time for the government to take immediate steps to disband RAB and replace it with a rights respecting force.