152 Bangladeshi soldiers sentenced to death over 2009 mutiny
DHAKA - Agence France-Presse
Handcuffed Bangladesh Rifles soldiers look through a prison van as they arrive at the special court. Some 800 soldiers were charged over the mutiny. AFP photosA Bangladeshi court sentenced more than 150 soldiers to death and jailed hundreds more on Tuesday, following a mass trial over a 2009 mutiny in which scores of top officers were massacred.
Some 823 soldiers plus 23 civilians appeared in a special court charged with murder, torture and other offences over the mutiny, in which 74 people were shot, hacked to death or burnt alive before their bodies were dumped in sewers or shallow graves.
A judge passed the death penalty on 152 of the soldiers, who looted weapons and led the killing spree partly in anger that their longstanding pleas for better pay and treatment were ignored.
Another 161 soldiers plus some civilians were sentenced to life in prison while 262 defendants were jailed for up to 10 years, over the uprising that started at the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) headquarters in Dhaka and spread to other BDR bases.
"The atrocities were so heinous that even the dead bodies were not given their rights," Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman told the packed court in the capital as he read out the long-awaited verdicts.
The uprising briefly threatened the newly elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a country with a history of military-backed coups.
Executions by hanging are regularly carried out in Bangladesh. Lawyers for the soldiers on death row said they will appeal.
The judge acquitted another 271 people, prompting chaotic scenes in the court. Many cheered and cried out "Allahu Akbar!" (God is great). Several of those convicted screamed at the judge in anger, with one soldier crying out: "I am innocent. You will face Allah's wrath." "I don't need a life term. Hang me, hang me!" another shouted.
Nearly 6,000 BDR soldiers, a paramilitary corps responsible for patrolling the nation's borders, have already been convicted by dozens of special courts over the mutiny, whose victims included 54 top officers.
The 823 soldiers were singled out for prosecution in a civilian court for leading the mutiny at BDR headquarters, after earlier being found guilty in military courts. Twenty-three civilians were also charged with criminal conspiracy. A former opposition MP and a junior official from the ruling party were given life sentences on Tuesday for assisting the uprising.
The 823 shackled soldiers were crammed into the specially built courtroom, sitting on long rows of benches before sessions judge Akhtaruzzaman to hear the verdict.
Families of 10 of the slain officers were also in court.
"Today we have got justice. The dead will finally find peace and their families will now get some solace," Major General Aziz Ahmed, chief of the renamed Border Guards, said after the verdict.
An official probe into the mutiny blamed years of pent-up anger among ordinary soldiers over ignored pleas for pay rises and for improved treatment. Resentment of better-paid superiors built up.
The judge said the soldiers, who earned about $70 a month, should have been given better benefits and treatment to defuse the resentment, saying they could not afford to send their children to military-owned schools.
Security was tight at the court, with several thousand security officers deployed outside as a precaution.
The case comes as Bangladesh reels from a political crisis that has left some 20 people dead as the opposition campaigns to force Hasina to quit.
The opposition Tuesday staged the second day of a strike as part of the campaign, which started on October 25 and has seen clashes between activists from both major parties and their allies and police. Deadly violence has also erupted this year in protest at the sentencing to death of seven mainly Islamist leaders for atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence.
During the 2009 uprising, the mutineers stole around 2,500 weapons and broke into an annual meeting of top BDR officers before shooting them. They also stormed the house of the BDR head on the base and killed his wife, domestic staff and guests, before setting fire to the building and stealing valuables including gold jewellery.
Lead prosector Baharul Islam said the case was the largest of its type in the world, with hundreds of witnesses called for the trial that started in January 2011 and finished in October this year.
But rights groups have criticised the hearing, saying it was simply too large to deliver justice.
"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 said last week.