UN's Pillay slams Bangladesh death sentences over mutiny

Prisoner reacts as police force him into a van after the verdict for a 2009 mutiny is announced, in Dhaka, 5 November 2013 There was anguish outside the makeshift court as death penalties, life sentences and lesser sentences were handed out

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UN rights commissioner Navi Pillay has expressed serious alarm over Bangladesh's sentencing of 152 soldiers to death over a bloody mutiny in 2009.

Ms Pillay said crimes committed during the mutiny were "utterly reprehensible and heinous", but said the trials that followed "failed to meet the most fundamental standards of due process".

But Bangladesh insists those convicted have ample right to appeal and all defendants had lawyers.

The 30-hour revolt left 74 people dead.

It began over pay and other grievances and spread from the capital Dhaka to bases around the country.

Army courts have jailed nearly 6,000 soldiers over breaches of military law, but the maximum sentence is seven years.

Civilian courts have been trying people for more serious crimes - murder, torture and other charges. As a result, 152 soldiers were sentenced to death while 161 others, mostly border guards, were given life sentences.

A reported 256 people received prison terms between three and 10 years at the special makeshift courthouse on Tuesday, while more than 270 people were acquitted.

The Bangladesh mutiny of 2009

  • Began principally because of resentment over pay and conditions - the average border guard at the time of the mutiny earned about $70 (£50) a month, equivalent to the wages of a low-ranking government clerk
  • Exactly why it became so violent - with senior officers and their family members shot in cold blood - is unclear; one theory is that resentment against the officer-class had reached boiling point
  • The mutineers stole about 2,500 weapons and broke into an annual meeting of top border defence officers before shooting them
  • The case is believed to be one of the largest of its type in the world, with hundreds of witnesses called for the trial that started in January 2011
  • The uprising briefly threatened to overthrow the newly-elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a country with a history of military-backed coups
  • Soon after the uprising was crushed, the government announced it was changing the law to allow mutiny to be a capital offence
'Cruel revenge'

In her statement, Ms Pillay sets out some of the crimes that took place during the mutiny, which began on 25 February 2009 at the Bangladeshi Rifles headquarters in the capital.

Seventy-four people, including 57 army officers, "were brutally killed. Bodies were dumped in ditches and some wives of army officers were sexually assaulted", the statement says.

But the statement adds:

  • Some suspects died in custody, according to reports
  • There were allegations of widespread abuse and torture of detainees
  • Evidence obtained under torture was reportedly admitted in court

It also raised concerns about the mass trials of hundreds of individuals.

"The perpetrators of the crimes must be held accountable in compliance with the laws of Bangladesh and the country's international obligations, including those pertaining to fair trial standards, as laid down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bangladesh ratified in 2000. The trial of these 847 suspects has been rife with procedural irregularities, including the lack of adequate and timely access to lawyers," Ms Pillay contended.

Amnesty International has also joined a chorus of protest over the sentences.

"Justice has not been served with today's ruling, which, if carried out, will only result in 152 more human rights violations," said deputy Asia-Pacific director Polly Truscott.

"With these sentences, Bangladesh has squandered an opportunity to reinforce trust in the rule of law by ensuring the civilian courts deliver justice. Instead, the sentences seem designed to satisfy a desire for cruel revenge.

"The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and has not been proven to be a deterrent to crime."

Claims dismissed

But earlier the Bangladeshi authorities defended the sentences, with Law Minister Shafique Ahmed saying each of those convicted of the death penalty would have at least two tiers of appeal.

"No death sentence will be carried out unless they are confirmed in the higher courts," Mr Ahmed was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

He has dismissed claims that suspects were tortured in custody, while lead prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain has insisted every defendant had a lawyer and that an "unprecedented" number of witnesses were called to substantiate the charges.

BBC Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa says it will be very difficult for the authorities not to carry out the death sentences - to do otherwise would anger the army and send the wrong message to future would-be mutineers, he says.

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