By Barry Malone
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan police said officers of an elite crime fighting unit who acted illegally had been charged in the courts, rejecting accusations by a rights group the unit tortured and murdered suspects as a matter of course.
"There has been a lot of transformation as far as the unit is concerned. If torture happens it is individual officers, and once it comes to light, these cases are always investigated. So we can't say that torture is the order of the day," Judith Nabakoba, a spokeswoman for the police said.
New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the east African country's Rapid Response Unit (RRU) looked to operate outside of the law.
"RRU appears to be the preferred unit of authorities seeking arrests and confessions by any means," HRW said in a report for which it interviewed 77 people once detained by the unit, 60 of whom said they were tortured.
The force was set up to fight violent crime and worked with the FBI to investigate twin suicide blasts by Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels on July 11 that killed 79 people watching the World Cup soccer final on television.
A United States embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on whether FBI agents had questioned suspects at the RRU's offices.
Former suspects detailed being beaten with batons and padlocks and, in some cases, being electrocuted, HRW said in its report. Some said they were transported in the trunks of cars and one suspect was allegedly shot while handcuffed.
An opposition official was also held incommunicado at the unit's headquarters ahead of February's presidential and parliamentary elections, the report said.
"Human Rights Watch wants to imply that our officers have been acting with impunity, which is not the case," said Nabakoba.
The rights group report outlines allegations of at least six suspects being killed by the unit in 2010, including four men shot dead in one incident on a Kampala street.
Nabakoba said the four men shot were about to rob a supermarket and had fired on police before they were killed.
Three RRU officers were in custody over one death referred to in the HRW report.
"Where they have been implicated, action has been taken and they have appeared before the courts of law. There have been changes, torture has drastically reduced and 20 RRU officers were suspended on such allegations in 2008," said Nabakoba.
HRW says it has been denied permission to interview any of the 17 people charged with involvement in the attacks.
"There has been an effort by several international actors to support and train the Ugandan police force and work with them to fight terrorism in the region," Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher with HRW told Reuters.
"But this work should be accompanied by real pressure - such as public condemnation of abuses -- to ensure that officers who break the law will face prosecution."
(Editing by Matthew Jones)