A Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldier gestures following the announcement of his death penalty at the special court in Dhaka on November 5, 2013. A Bangladeshi court sentenced at least 150 soldiers to death and jailed hundreds more November 5 over a 2009 military mutiny that left scores of top officers massacred. TOPSHOTS / AFP PHOTO/ Munir uz ZAMAN (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP)
DHAKA — A Bangladeshi court sentenced at least 150 soldiers to death and jailed hundreds more on Tuesday over a 2009 military mutiny that left scores of top officers massacred.
Some 823 soldiers were charged with murder, torture and other offenses over the mutiny, in which 74 people were hacked to death and burnt alive before their bodies were dumped in sewers and shallow graves.
A judge convicted and sentenced to death at least 150 of the soldiers, who went on the killing spree partly in anger that their pleas for better pay and treatment had long been ignored.
At least another 400 soldiers were jailed, with terms ranging from several years to life, over the 30-hour uprising that started at the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) headquarters and spread to other bases.
“The atrocities were so heinous that even the dead bodies were not given their rights,” Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman told the packed court in the capital Dhaka as he read out the verdicts.
Death sentences are common in Bangladesh, where they are handed down for militancy, multiple murder and coup-related offenses.
The judge acquitted another 270 soldiers, prompting chaotic scenes in the court, with many cheering and crying out “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
Several of those convicted screamed at the judge in anger, with one elderly soldier crying out: “I am innocent. You will face Allah’s wrath.”
“I don’t need a life term. Hang me, hang me,” another shouted.
Nearly 6,000 soldiers have already been convicted by dozens of special courts over the mutiny, whose dead victims included 57 top army officers.
The 823 soldiers were singled out for prosecution in a civilian court for leading the mutiny at the BDR headquarters, after earlier being found guilty in military courts over their role. Twenty-three civilians have also been charged with criminal conspiracy.
A former opposition member of parliament and a junior official from the ruling party were given life sentences on Tuesday for criminal conspiracy over their role in assisting the uprising.
The 823 shackled soldiers were earlier crammed into the specially built court room, sitting on long rows of benches before sessions judge Akhtaruzzaman to hear the verdict.
Families of 10 of the officers slain in the mutiny were also in court.
An official probe into the mutiny blamed years of pent-up anger over ignored pleas for pay rises and improved treatment of ordinary troops, who resented their better-paid superiors.
The judge said the soldiers should have been given better treatment to defuse the resentment, saying they could not afford to send their children to military-owned schools.
Security was tight at the court, with several thousand police and elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers deployed outside as a precaution.
The case comes as Bangladesh reels from a political crisis that has left some 20 people dead as the opposition campaigns to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit.
The opposition Tuesday staged the second day of a nationwide strike as part of the campaign, which started on October 25 and has witnessed deadly clashes between activists on both sides of the political spectrum and police.
During the 2009 uprising, the mutineers stole around 2,500 weapons and broke into an annual meeting of top BDR officers before shooting them.
They also stormed the house of the BDR head on the base and killed his wife, domestic staff and guests, before setting fire to the building and stealing valuables including gold jewelry.
The BDR, which since the event has changed its name, is responsible for patrolling the country’s borders.
Lead prosecutor Baharul Islam said the case was the largest of its type in the world, with hundreds of witnesses called for the trial that started in January 2011 and finished in October this year.
“There were 654 prosecution witnesses,” Islam said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the trial, saying it was simply too large to bring anyone to justice.
“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.