A court in Bangladesh yesterday sentenced 152 people to death for their actions in a 2009 border guard mutiny in which 74 people, including 57 military commanders, were killed.
Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Court Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman also sentenced 161 people to life in prison, while 256 others received prison terms between three and 10 years, and 277 people were acquitted.
The mutiny exposed deep tensions between the Bangladeshi government and the military, and the verdicts in the extensive case were delivered in a packed courtroom on the premises of a school in Dhaka amid tight security. The case involves 846 defendants and human rights groups have questioned the fairness of such a mass proceeding.
The paramilitary border guards known as the Bangladesh Rifles, now Border Guards Bangladesh, staged the two-day insurrection over pay and other grievances against their military leaders. The mutiny on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, 2009, took place two months after Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office. The country’s influential military was unhappy over the response of the government, which did not allow troops to attack the border guards’ headquarters in Dhaka where military commanders were killed.
Hasina offered an amnesty to quell the revolt, but rescinded the offer when dozens of bodies were found in sewers and in mass graves. Bangladesh’s military has staged 21 past coup attempts and the amnesty offer and the government’s handling of the case strained the military’s relationship with Hasina, but she pledged to try those responsible.
The Bangladeshi Criminal Investigation Department investigated and pressed charges against 850 people with serious crimes, including murder and arson. Four of the accused died and 20 were tried in absentia.
New York-based Human Rights Watch last week criticized the Bangladeshi authorities for holding such a mass trial, saying it would not ensure justice. The rights advocacy group demanded authorities initiate a more credible inquiry and new prosecution process for the serious charges.
The group says the violations of fair trials standards in the mass trial include torturing and abusing prisoners while in custody to extract confessions and statements.
It says at least 47 suspects have died in custody and have had limited access to lawyers, as well as little knowledge of the charges and evidence against them.
“Trying hundreds of people en masse in one giant courtroom, where the accused have little or no access to lawyers is an affront to international legal standards,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement on Oct. 29.
Also yesterday, an opposition-enforced general strike hampered public life for a second day as violence was reported in parts of the country.
The nationwide strike was meant to force Hasina’s administration to quit to allow for a caretaker government with people from outside political parties to oversee upcoming elections.
Opposition activists clashed with police in Rajshahi District, leaving at least 25 people injured, Somoy TV station reported. It said three activists were detained.
Separately, activists from the ruling Awami League clashed with opposition supporters in Munshiganj District, leaving dozens injured, Channel 24 station reported.
On Monday, the first day of the 60-hour strike, two people died and dozens others were injured as protesters set off homemade bombs and torched cars.
Security was tight across the capital, Dhaka, with extra police and paramilitary guards patrolling the streets yesterday.
The violence comes at a time of deep tension in Bangladesh, a nation struggling to overcome extreme poverty, rancorous politics and a string of horrific accidents linked to the garment industry.
The election, expected in January, has become a flashpoint in the decades-old rivalry between Hasina and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairwoman Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition.
The opposition says Hasina’s government is not capable of holding a credible election and wants a neutral caretaker administration from outside the political parties to oversee the vote.
Hasina has agreed to form a caretaker government, but one including members of both the ruling and opposition parties.