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Nearly five years after border security forces in Bangladesh mutinied against their commanding officers in Dhaka, killing scores of people and raising concern a new civilian government could fall, a special court sentenced more than 150 soldiers to death.
The drawn-out legal process has been criticized by human rights organizations. Today's verdicts also come against the backdrop of nationwide strikes aimed at forcing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was in power at the time of the mutiny, to resign before upcoming national elections.
Roughly 850 people were accused of involvement in the bloody two-day capital uprising in 2009, which was sparked by dissatisfaction with unequal pay and poor treatment. The charges included arson, murder, and torture in the deaths of 74 people – 57 of whom were top Army officers. At least 400 soldiers were sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from three years to life.
The trial began in January 2011 and lasted through October this year. Some 654 witnesses testified for the prosecution, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
"The court announced the death sentence to them for the heinous killing of the country's brave sons," prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain Kajol told Reuters.
"The atrocities were so heinous that even the dead bodies were not given their rights," Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman said while reading the verdicts to a packed room. Many of the dead were found in shallow mass graves or stuffed into manholes, their bodies showing signs of torture, reports the Associated Press (AP).
Reactions in the courtroom today were frantic, with those acquitted (about 250 men) praising God, while others threatened the judge or begged for a death sentence over life in prison, AFP reports.
Nearly 4,000 other soldiers and a handful of civilians have already been found guilty of involvement in the 33-hour uprising in special courts and sentenced to up to seven years in prison, reports Reuters.
According to The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage at the time, thousands of border patrol members, then known as Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), gathered at an annual conference in Dhaka on the day of the incident.
Among them were 168 officers. Suddenly, shots were fired by junior personnel, who were allegedly aggrieved over poor pay scales and untimely promotions. The mutiny appeared to spread in subsequent days as BDR soldiers in several districts abandoned their barracks. But it was quickly reined in when Prime Minister Hasina, under pressure to de-escalate the situation, promised a general amnesty.
Still, the facts themselves … served only to deepen the public's sense that the mutiny was well planned and, perhaps, connected to a larger plot to destabilize the country....
According to the AP, the incident “exposed deep tensions between the government and the military. The military was furious with Prime Minister Hasina for negotiating with the mutineers instead of allowing the army to attack.”
“Many of the country's brightest military leaders” were killed in one strike, “their death rendering a serious blow to the country's security apparatus while feeding fears that more violence may follow,” the Monitor wrote at the time.
In February 2009, when the mutiny occurred, Bangladesh’s civilian government had been in power for only a few months after two years of military rule.
Today, Bangladesh is reeling from a political crisis, with the opposition holding its second day of nationwide strikes. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party says a neutral caretaker government must be established three months before national elections, which are set to take place in January.
There have been deadly clashes between police and activists from both sides of the political spectrum, leaving at least 20 people dead, according to a second AFP report.