DHAKA, Bangladesh — The United States and Britain should immediately stop supporting a Bangladeshi anti-crime force blamed for killing hundreds of suspects without trial if there is no visible effort to reform it, a rights group said Thursday.
The Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, was responsible for more than 1,000 extra-judicial slayings in the preceding five years, a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch alleged.
The United Kingdom and United States have trained the Bangladeshi force as part of a counterterrorism strategy since at least 2008, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables say.
Britain trained RAB members on human rights issues, investigative interviewing techniques and other skills, according to a cable written by U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty in May 2009. The U.S. provided only human rights training in adherence to a U.S. law that made further assistance illegal because of the battalion's past human rights violations, a cable he wrote in August 2008 said. The cables were released by WikiLeaks and published on the Guardian website.
The United States and Britain favor bolstering the RAB to strengthen counterterrorism operations in Bangladesh, and Moriarty wrote that it was the "enforcement organization best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi" FBI.
India, Bangladesh's influential neighbor, also thinks the RAB could be a good option to fight terrorism, according to the cables.
The Muslim-majority nation of 150 million people has struggled against a terrorism threat in recent years after the Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh group, which wants to establish strict Islamic law, bombed government offices and courts. RAB led operations against the group and captured its top leaders, who were later hanged.
The Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh is trying to gain strength and other terror groups have international ties, Bangladeshi officials and local media say.
Moriarty said the RAB recognized the need to address allegations of past abuses and had incorporated human rights training at the RAB's academy and in units of the force.
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The Bangladeshi government has not commented on the allegations.
According to the cables, foreign diplomats in Dhaka believe that the battalion is enjoying a wide range of public support because of deteriorating law and order in Bangladesh.
But a nation cannot ensure law and order by being complicit in violating the very laws it should protect, Meenakshi Ganguly, the rights group's South Asia director, told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
"Criminals should be arrested, prosecuted and punished, not randomly picked up and killed in an effort to put an end to the activities for which they are suspected," Gunguly said.
Human Rights Watch said this is the time for the countries to pressure Bangladesh to reform the force.
"The UK and the U.S. should stop their cooperation unless there are immediate and visible efforts to reform RAB, and hold those responsible for human rights violations to account," she said.
The New York-based group said continued violation of human rights by the battalion will only harm Bangladesh's law enforcement capacity.
"Does Bangladesh really want a force that can easily run amok because it is protected by the state from being prosecuted for human rights violations," she asked.