Bangladesh mutiny death sentences

A court in Bangladesh has sentenced at least 152 soldiers to death over a bloody border guard mutiny in 2009.

More than 150 others, mostly border guards, were given life. Verdicts took hours to read out. Twenty-three civilians also face conspiracy charges.

Most of the more than 800 soldiers who packed the civilian court had already been jailed by military tribunals.

The 30-hour uprising over pay and other grievances broke out in Dhaka and left 74 people dead, 57 of them officers.

The mutiny began at the Bangladeshi Rifles headquarters in the capital. Senior officers were killed and their bodies dumped in sewers and shallow graves.

The revolt spread to other army bases around the country before the mutineers surrendered. Nearly 6,000 soldiers have already been jailed by military courts.

Many soldiers who packed into the special civilian court in Dhaka on Tuesday were charged with murder, torture, conspiracy and other offences.

“The atrocities were so heinous that even the dead bodies were not given their rights,” Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman said as he read out the verdicts.

But the judge said that the soldiers should have been given better pay and privileges to defuse resentment, adding they could not afford to send their children to military-owned schools.

Fire fighters carry the body of an officer recovered from a mass grave discovered at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka (February 2009)The bodies of senior officers in Dhaka were dumped in sewers and shallow graves

Several of those convicted screamed at the judge in rage, with one elderly 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.

The trial of the mutineers by military and civilian courts has been one of the biggest in Bangladesh’s history.

It has also been one of the most sensitive, rivalled only by verdicts throughout this year by a tribunal investigating war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence.

While the military tribunal investigated breaches of military law in relation to the mutiny, the specially-convened civilian court was probing individual crimes committed during the uprising.

Of those being tried on Tuesday, some 152 were sentenced to death, 159 given life sentences and the remainder received sentences of between three to 10 years. About 277 were acquitted.

But correspondents say that few of those acquitted will actually be able to walk free because their convictions by the military court still stand.

The trial process has been criticised by a human rights groups who say it was not credible – at least 50 suspects died in custody. A handful have also either escaped from custody or are on the run.

Members of the BDR, since renamed as Border Guards Bangladesh, say they revolted over demands for salaries in line with their army commanders. They also wanted to be deployed on lucrative UN peacekeeping missions, which come with generous benefits.

But the revolt over pay and conditions spiralled into an orgy of violence against their superiors.

The case exposed deep tensions between the government and the powerful military, who were angered over Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to negotiate with the mutineers instead of allowing the army to attack.

Among those jailed for life are former Bangladesh Nationalist Party lawmaker Nasiruddin Ahmed Pintu and regional Awami League leader Torab Ali, local media reported.

Those convicted have the right to appeal, a process which could take many months given the number of cases.

BBC Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa says it will be very difficult for the authorities not to carry out the death sentences – to do otherwise would anger the army and send the wrong message to future would-be mutineers.

Our correspondent says public sentiment was initially sympathetic towards the mutineers, but turned against them once the mass killings became apparent.