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Asia

Rights activists slam Bangladesh's mutiny trial

A Bangladesh court has sentenced 152 border guards to death for their involvement in a bloody mutiny in 2009. The UN and rights groups have slammed the mass trial for failing to meet the 'most fundamental' standards.

They had waited nearly five years for this moment. Crammed into a specially built courtroom in Dhaka, sitting on long rows of benches, a total of 823 soldiers and 23 civilians, accused of murdering, torturing and looting during a 30-hour mutiny in Bangladesh, listened closely to Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman's words.

His ruling: 152 death sentences and 161 convictions to life imprisonment. A further 262 defendants were ordered to be jailed for up to 10 years. More than 270 people were acquitted. The sentencing prompted chaotic scenes in the courtroom. While some welcomed it, claiming that justice had been served, others screamed at the judge in anger.

The events surrounding the controversial November 5 rulings date back to 2009, when a section of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary corps responsible for securing the nation's borders, stormed an annual meeting of top BDR officers, killing dozens of military commanders. The revolt quickly spread from the border guard's Dhaka headquarters to a dozen other towns.

More than 30 hours into the February 25-26 uprising, the then newly-elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was able to negotiate the mutineers' surrender, thus avoiding an army assault on the rebels.

Bangladeshi soldiers take up position with a machine gun outside the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters complex in Dhaka on February 25, 2009. (Photo: Getty images/AFP)

The government negotiated the mutineers' surrender, avoiding an army assault

By that time, however, 74 people had been killed - some of them hacked to death or burnt alive - including the then chief of the BDR and 57 army officers. Bodies were dumped in ditches and some wives of army officers were sexually assaulted.

Anger over low wages

There are different theories on the reasons for the insurrection and who exactly orchestrated it. But Henrik Maihack, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's office in Dhaka, believes the guards revolted mainly because their grievances over low wages, insufficient food subsidies, lack of paid vacation and resentments against senior army officers had been ignored for years.

Moreover, the guards wanted to be assigned to the lucrative UN peacekeeping missions abroad, which were limited to regular army soldiers only, Maihack told DW. Bangladesh is one of the world's largest contributors of soldiers to such missions.

According to the Associated Press, presiding Judge Akhtaruzzaman acknowledged the soldiers' low monthly earnings of about of 70 USD, saying they should have been given better benefits and treatment to defuse the resentment, as they weren't even able to afford to send their children to military-owned schools.

Overall, nearly 6,000 soldiers of the paramilitary force - later renamed the Border Guard Bangladesh - were convicted over the mutiny in special army courts. However, Maihack explains, the military judges were not allowed to prosecute murder-related cases and could only deliver maximum sentences of seven years in prison.

The 823 soldiers were therefore singled out for prosecution in a civilian court. According to Bangladesh's law minister Shafique Ahmed, the convicts still have at least two tiers of appeal. Death sentences in the South Asian nation are usually not carried out without confirmation in higher courts. Furthermore, Bangladesh sentenced a total of 45 people to death last year, but carried out only one execution, according to a report by Amnesty International.

'A perversion of justice'

The rulings have triggered a wave of international criticism. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed "serious alarm" at the sentencing, arguing the trials of the more than 800 suspects had been "rife with procedural irregularities," including the lack of adequate and timely access to lawyers.

The UN rights chief called the crimes committed during the mutiny "utterly reprehensible and heinous," but also said in a statement that "justice will not be achieved by conducting mass trials of hundreds of individuals, torturing suspects in custody and sentencing them to death after trials that failed to meet the most fundamental standards of due process."

Amnesty International condemned the rulings, calling them a "perversion of justice." Polly Truscott, the organization's deputy Asia-Pacific director said in a statement: "Justice has not been served with today's ruling, which, if carried out, will only result in 152 more human rights violations."

A similar view was expressed by Tejshree Thapa of Human Rights Watch (HRW): "Our research shows that these trials were far from fair, many of the accused did not have access to counsel and most of the defendants were unaware of the charges filed against them," Thapa told DW.

The rights expert also pointed out that her organization had received credible accounts of torture and mistreatment of the accused during detention. HRW claims that at least 47 suspects have died while in custody. Both the UN and HRW oppose the death penalty in every case, even for war crimes and genocide.

Bangladeshi authorities, however, said the criticism was "baseless." Lead prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain Kajol told AFP that the trial was conducted in an "exemplary" fashion, saying every defendant got a lawyer who had "plenty of time" to question the witnesses.

This is not the first time that these rights organizations have slammed legal proceedings in the South Asian nation. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), set up to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, has faced similar accusations of conducting unfair trials.

Relatives react as a police van carrying prisoners arrives at the gate of the central jail after the verdict of a 2009 mutiny was announced, in Dhaka November 5, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Although some believe justice has been served, others say the trials was rife with irregularities

A political impact?

It is unclear what kind of impact the recent rulings in the mutiny trial will have on Bangladesh society and, particularly, on the country's parliamentary elections, which are set to be held by the end of January. William Milam, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center and former US Ambassador to Bangladesh says these kinds of murky situations cannot help but have an effect on the upcoming poll.

"The opposition is certain to cite this case as another example of the moral corruption of the government party. This charge may resonate with those cadres of the army who believe the ringleaders of the mutinous murder rampage got away," Milam told DW.