Mutiny verdicts in Bangladesh: Was trial fair?

The sentencing of 152 people for a 2009 rebellion has been criticized as an affront to international legal standards.

A.M. Ahad/AP
A Bangladeshi border guard shouts slogans as he leaves a special court after a verdict in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. A Bangladesh court sentenced 152 people to death Tuesday for a 2009 mutiny by disgruntled border guards who killed dozens of military commanders during a brutal, two-day uprising.

A trial that has ended with a record number of death penalty verdicts is raising questions about how well justice has been served in the aftermath of a military mutiny that rocked Bangladesh.

A special court in Dhaka gave the death penalty to 152 people for a 2009 rebellion in the ranks of the Bangladesh Rifles that killed 74 people, including 57 Army officers. The court sentenced 262 others to life and 161 to varying terms. Overall, nearly 6,000 soldiers were convicted for mutiny in at least 11 special courts, with 823 soldiers and 23 civilians being singled out for criminal charges. Some 271 were acquitted.

While relatives of those killed lauded the outcome, others have expressed dismay over what they say were sweeping and harsh verdicts. The sentences have also fueled concerns of added tension in the South Asian country – home to 160 million people – as it faces national protests against the prime minister ahead of a January election.

“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,”  Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week.

The mutiny was triggered by anger over poor pay and treatment for the members of the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, who were tasked with guarding national borders. But it quickly devolved into a violent two-day uprising in which victims were killed and their bodies dumped in sewers and mass graves, which were discovered in the days after the mutineers surrendered their arms following a series of negotiations and discussions with the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“I am sure the family members of the victims will have satisfaction that the killers involved in the heinous act were brought to justice,” says Maj. Gen. Aziz Ahmed, chief of the Border Guards Bangladesh, as the paramilitary force is now known.

Mr. Ahmed says that the accused have been tried following the laws of the land, and that the verdict would help restore the reputation of the border guards, a group first founded 218 years ago.

Concerns have also been raised about what initially sparked the mutiny. Security experts in Dhaka told the Monitor that “there is a lot of opacity behind why such mayhem occurred at the first place.”

“The verdict is a step forward, but many questions remain unanswered,” says Maj. Gen. A.N.M Muniruzzaman (retd), president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. “The master minds of this carnage have not yet been identified, so the real story and the culprits are still free. Unless that is done, the actual closure to the case will not come.”

“A verdict of its kind is expected in [a] case of such chaos, insurgency, and massacre in a state where the highest penalty constitutes capital punishment,” says Anis Pervez, a social scientist and former professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh in Dhaka.

Mr. Pervez points out that the nation has history of coups, including the killing of military ruler Gen. Ziaur Rahman in 1981 and another coup in Bangladesh Air Force in September 1977, the origins of which are still not known. “Looking at it from a historical perspective, we cannot feel secure despite the verdicts,” he says.

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