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Asia

Opinion: Mutiny trial was rightly condemned

A Bangladeshi court has sentenced 152 people to death for their part in a bloody mutiny by border guards in 2009. The verdicts and the trial have been condemned internationally and rightly so, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

Bangladesh's human rights record has been deteriorating inexorably in recent years amidst allegations of the country's failure to comply with international legal standards at the so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and the growing number of prosecutions of journalists and human rights activists.

The death sentences delivered on November 5, after a mass trial involving 846 defendants have once again raised questions about Bangladesh's willingness to adhere to international judicial standards and to respect human rights.

At the trial of those accused of participating in the mutiny - which led to the deaths of a total of 74 people, including 57 military officers - defendants were apparently only granted limited access to defense lawyers, thus making it impossible for them to be given a fair trial.

Moreover, some 47 people suspected of involvement in the mutiny died in custody even before the trial could begin - allegedly as a result of torture by the authorities. Despite guarantees by the court, the evidence extracted from the accused under torture was used against them, according to Human Rights Watch.

Some, like the director-general of the border guards, Aziz Ahmed, have said that justice has been done. From a purely Bangladeshi perspective, that may appear to be the case. After all, the mutiny, primarily about pay and working conditions, involved acts of disgraceful and unprovoked violence and led to many deaths.

According to the Associated Press, the army itself had been planning to put down the rebellion by force, but was prevented from doing so by the government, which did not want the army out on the streets of the capital. That in itself is not surprising. The army in Bangladesh has been involved in no fewer than 21 attempts to overthrow the government since the country gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Two coup attempts were successful and led to the formation of military governments. One of the attempts led to the murder of the country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. He was the father of the country's incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But this cannot excuse the government's failure to ensure that the trial of the accused took place in an acceptable manner and in conformity with international judicial standards.

Neither can the government be excused for other human rights violations that have been taking place in the country over the past few months. For instance, Bangladeshi authorities have recently brought charges against leading representatives of the country's Odhikar human rights organization.

The group has been campaigning against rights violations by the government's notoriously brutal security forces during the rioting in Dhaka in May 2013 by supporters and opponents of the verdicts - including death sentences - handed down at the ICT.

The charges were brought against the activists under the Information and Communication Technology Act first passed by the parliament in Dhaka two months ago. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, international law "prohibits the application of new criminal laws retroactively".

The work of ICT, which began its deliberations in 2010 to prosecute those allegedly responsible for mass murder and rape during the Bangladeshi war of independence, has also been widely criticized by human rights groups, not least because of the difficulty of obtaining reliable witness testimony 40 years after the alleged crimes. The government has also failed to defuse the allegations by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Islamist Party Jamaat, that Sheikh Hasina is pursuing the accused for personal reasons, namely to exact revenge and damage the already poor democratic credentials of these parties.

Moreover, the government has not hesitated from attempting to restrict the freedom of expression in the country. While leading bloggers have generally supported the work of and the sentences handed down by the ICT as a long overdue attempt to bring closure to a particularly ugly chapter in the country's history, their blogs provoked an angry backlash from Islamists earlier this year and even triggered mass riots.

But instead of prosecuting the hardline Islamists, the government reacted by bringing charges against the bloggers. Dhaka's High Court then banned Jamaat from participating in the upcoming elections thus stifling public debate. There is now a real danger that the Islamists' frustrations will find a vent in acts of terror. None of this augers well for the general elections due to be held in January 2014 and indeed for the future of democracy in Bangladesh. The next few months promise to be very difficult indeed.

Grahame Lucas is the head of DW's South East Asia Service.