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Last updated: November 5, 2013 11:41 am
A Bangladeshi court has sentenced to death 152 members of a paramilitary border police force for involvement in a 2009 mutiny in which 57 senior military officers were killed in a bitter dispute over pay and working conditions.
A total of 74 people died in the February 2009 rebellion by the Bangladeshi Rifles, which rocked the government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed just weeks after the elected prime minister took power following two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker administration.
More than 150 other people, mostly border guards, were sentenced on Tuesday to life in prison for the mutiny, during which some of the wives and female relatives of senior officers were raped and molested by the rebels.
However, the special court also acquitted 171 members of the force, who have spent four years in jail. Their acquittals were greeted with shouts of “God is great.”
A total of 847 members of the Bangladeshi Rifles were tried in a special civilian court, accused of murder, sexual assault and other crimes in connection with the violence, which had its roots in longstanding grievances by the lower ranks against their senior officers.
Reading his verdict under tight security, Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman acknowledged the mutineers had legitimate grievances – including a level of pay so low that they could not afford to send their children to military schools – that should have been addressed to prevent an eruption of violence. But he said that their crimes were “heinous”.
The former paramilitary men were held in four packed cages, then herded to a holding pen in batches to hear the verdicts.
Human Rights Watch, the US-based advocacy group, has said the mass trial had violated the basic international standards of a fair hearing, with many defendants tortured to extract confessions or statements, and most given only limited access to defence lawyers.
The group has called for an independent review of the entire judicial process in connection with the mutiny, and a retrial of the 847 suspects tried by the special court.
“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,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director in a statement last week.
Musharaf Hussein, one of the prosecutors, has denied allegations of torture, saying they were “absolutely bogus.”
The mutiny began when disgruntled members of the Bangladeshi Rifles, angered by their failure to resolve grievances over pay, promotions and their exclusion from lucrative UN peacekeeping contracts, opened fire on their senior officers, who belong to the regular army.
The military was mobilised to suppress the rebellion, which led to an intense gun-battle in and around the Bangladeshi Rifles’ headquarters in central Dhaka. Fighting later spread around the country, and more than 6,000 people were later arrested. Many have been tried by military courts under the Bangladeshi Rifle code, which provides for a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.
In the wake of the mutiny, the Bangladeshi Rifles were renamed the Bangladeshi Border Guards.
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