ucanews.com reporter, Dhaka
Updated: January 17, 2017 10:40 AM GMT
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion on patrol in Dhaka. Three former members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion police unit were among those sentenced to death for seven politically-motivated murders. (ucanews.com file photo)
A Bangladesh Catholic Church official and rights activists have hailed a court verdict as a "landmark judgment" in one of the most sensational murder cases the country has seen.
A court in Narayanganj district near Dhaka sentenced 26 people to death on Jan. 16 including a former leader of the ruling Awami League Party and three former members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion police unit, for seven politically-motivated murders. The court also sentenced nine others to 7-17 years in prison.
Most the convicted, 25 out of 35, were regular members of of the battalion, formed in 2004 as an anti-terror force. One of the officials, former Commander Tareque Sayeed is the son-in-law of current Disaster Management and Relief Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury.
Although hailed for their anti-terror and anti-militancy drives, the Rapid Action Battalion members have also been accused of dozens of politically-motivated abductions, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
This is the first time that Rapid Action Battalion members have been sentenced to death and convicted in such a large number.
On April 27, 2014 seven people were abducted near a cricket stadium in Narayanganj at the height of a power struggle in the city. Three days later their bodies were found floating in the nearby Shitalakshya River.
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion in Dhaka in 2014. (file photo)
Among the deceased were Nazrul Islam, a local leader of the Awami League and Chandan Sarker, a prominent lawyer.
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion were dismissed and arrested after a public outcry over allegations that a Awami League politician, Nur Hossain had paid them to kill his rivals. Hossain fled to India but was later repatriated and put on trial.
Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission hailed the verdict.
"As a Catholic I can't support the death penalty but I think this is an outstanding, exemplary verdict that delivers justice. There is a lack of faith in the country's criminal justice system and I think this verdict will help restore faith to some extent," Nokrek said.
"To establish democracy in the true sense, ensuring the rule of law and justice is important. I hope this landmark judgment will be a step forward for the nation," he added.
Nur Khan, executive director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra, a Dhaka-based human rights organization, said that the verdict diminishes mistrust of the justice system.
"People doubted whether this case would bring any result at all, but they have been proved wrong. Yet, I don't think the judiciary can gain the full confidence of people with one outstanding case and there is no guarantee such crimes won't continue to be committed," Khan said.
Selina Islam, wife of slain politician, Nazrul Islam said she was satisfied with the verdict and expected the higher court will uphold it.
"I am happy with the verdict but I will not show the 'V' sign until the execution of the verdict," Selina told reporters.
However, Muhammad Sultanujjaman, a defense lawyer for former RAB official, Tareque Sayeed expressed dismay.
"We will appeal to the higher court," he told The Daily Star after the verdict. "The evidence produced before the court against my client was not enough to prove him guilty."
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