DHAKA - A Bangladesh appeals court on Tuesday upheld the death sentences on a ruling party politician and 14 security officers for murdering political rivals in a case seen as a test of the government.

A trial court had in January sentenced 26 men to be hanged over the murder of seven victims who were suffocated with polythene bags and had their bellies cut before their bodies were dumped in a river.

Sixteen were members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite security force that rights activists say has been implicated in other unlawful killings in the country.

On Tuesday the High Court in Dhaka upheld the death sentences of 15 defendants and commuted the rest to life in prison, Deputy Attorney General Jahid Sarwar Kazal told AFP. Those convicted can now make a final appeal to the country’s highest court, he said.

The case had been seen as a test for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which stands accused of using the security forces for the unlawful killing and enforced “disappearances” of scores of opposition activists.

Among the defendants was Nur Hossain, a former local representative of Hasina’s Awami League who hired RAB officers to kill a political rival and four of his aides.

Hossain, whose death sentence was upheld, fled to neighbouring India after the killings but was later arrested and extradited. The other 14 were from the RAB, prosecutor Bashir Ahmed told AFP. “They were the protectors of life and property of the people, instead they became the predators,” Ahmed said, quoting the verdict.

Convictions of security force members are rare in Bangladesh and rights activists say they operate in a climate of impunity.

A lawyer who filmed the abductions outside the stadium on his mobile phone was then himself kidnapped, along with his driver.

Opposition parties say hundreds of their activists have been abducted during Hasina’s nearly nine years in power and never seen again, although the government denies any involvement by the security forces.

Local rights groups say at least 326 people have disappeared since January 2009, many of whom were members or supporters of opposition parties.