By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
A Bangladeshi court sentenced 19 people to death and the son of opposition leader Khaleda Zia to life imprisonment Wednesday over a 2004 grenade attack at a rally attended by politician Sheikh Hasina, who is now the country’s prime minister.
Twenty-four people were killed and more than 300 injured on Aug. 21, 2004, when 13 grenades exploded after Hasina had finished addressing an anti-terrorism rally attended by thousands of supporters in the capital Dhaka.
Judge Shahed Nuruddin of Dhaka’s Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted 49 defendants who faced multiple charges related to the grenade blasts, which prosecutors said were aimed at assassinating Hasina and leaders of the then-opposition Awami League party.
“Those who are sentenced to death shall be hanged by the neck until they are dead,” Nuruddin said as he condemned 19 defendants to death, including former cabinet minister Lutfuzzaman Babar, former Deputy Minister Abdus Salam Pintu and several former army intelligence officers.
Thirty-one of the accused were in the courtroom during the sentencing, but others were tried in absentia, including Tarique Rahman, son of Zia, the 73-year-old former prime minister who is serving a five-year jail term after a court convicted her of corruption in February.
Rahman, who lives in London, received a life sentence for each of the two conspiracy charges filed against him. Eighteen others received the same verdict.
The remaining 11, including three former chiefs of police, received up to five years in prison for negligence of duties in the broad daylight attack that also killed Ivy Rahman, the wife of former Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman.
Leaders of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) described the verdict as political vengeance and announced a week of protest rallies, starting Thursday.
Hundreds of armed police officers were deployed outside the courtroom during the sentencing, but there were no street protests.
Prosecutors said members of the militant group Harkat-ul Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh carried out the grenade attack, with support from influential members of the then BNP-led government, including Rahman.
Babar, Pintu, former National Security Intelligence chief Rezakul Haider Chowdhury and former NSI official Abdur Rahim received death sentences for “planning and conspiring” the grenade attack, public prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain Kajol told BenarNews. The four men were in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down.
Thirty-one of the accused, including alleged militants, were brought to the court from the Kashimpur jail near Dhaka.
“This is a verdict based on fabricated stories,” one of the militants shouted from inside the prison van as BenarNews asked for his comment. “This is not a justice.”
‘Naked political vengeance’
Hasina, who narrowly escaped assassination as supporters shielded her from the grenade blasts, has been the prime minister since January 2009. Aides said she suffered permanent hearing impairment due to the explosions.
Rahman’s conviction would effectively prevent him from returning to Bangladesh and, in turn, bolster the Awami League’s bid to retain power in a general election expected to take place in December or early next year, analysts told BenarNews.
Rahman, 53, was appointed leader of the BNP in February, a few hours after a Dhaka court sentenced his mother over charges that she embezzled 21 million taka (about U.S. $252,000) from an orphanage trust. The special court then also sentenced Rahman and four others to 10 years in prison each.
Zia had described the case as politically motivated.
The opposition BNP rejected the verdict against Rahman.
“This is a verdict dictated by the government,” BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a news conference on Wednesday. “The judgment is the reflection of naked political vengeance of the government. We reject this verdict, dictated verdict.”
Defense attorney Sanaullah Mia said Rahman did not receive justice.
“Tarique Rahman was not involved in the attack,” Mia told BenarNews. “He was implicated in the case for political vengeance of the government.”
He said Rahman’s legal team would proceed to the High Court to petition for reversal of the verdict.
“The court has asked us to appeal in 30 days. We will appeal once we get a copy of the final verdict,” he said.
Awami League chief Obaidul Quader told reporters that his party was happy that the trial was over after 14 years.
“But we are not completely happy,” he said, without elaborating.
Hours after the verdict, the Washington-Based firm BGR Public Relations sent a news release to BenarNews detailing how prosecutors had stated that Rahman played “an integral role in coordinating and planning the failed assassination of Hasina and the Awami League leadership.”
“Terrorists allegedly met with, took directions from, and were assured of administrative support from Tarique Rahman, as well as from other co-conspirators,” the news release said.
Government seeks death sentence
According to Law Minister Anisul Huq, the government might file an appeal before the High Court to demand that the punishment against Rahman and others be upgraded from life imprisonment to death sentence.
“Tarique was the mastermind. He was the central man who tried to exterminate Awami League and Sheikh Hasina. Tarique Rahman should have received the capital punishment,” Huq told reporters on Wednesday.
Ataur Rahman, a former political science professor at Dhaka University, told BenarNews that the ruling Awami League primarily would gain from Rahman’s conviction, as he described the sentencing as the “biggest political debacle” for the opposition.
He said the BNP had surmounted the challenges and united its forces even after Zia’s conviction, but “this verdict puts the BNP into another political debacle.”
He said the sentencing of Zia’s son would help the ruling Awami League gain some public sympathy because it could portray that the BNP was headed by a former prime minister who was convicted of corruption, and now by Rahman, who received a life sentence for planning to kill the nation’s leader.
“The BNP would make a mistake if they go for street violence,” Rahman said, referring to the rallies planned by the opposition starting this week.
But, on the other hand, the ruling party could also lose public support if its leaders pushed for a death sentence against Zia’s son, he said.