Eight Bangladesh Islamists to hang for 2001 bombing

DHAKA (AFP) - A Bangladeshi court sentenced eight Islamists to death on Monday for a 2001 bomb attack that killed 10 people during the main Bengali new year celebrations in the capital Dhaka.

"The attack was carried out to destabilise the country and create panic," Judge Ruhul Amin said as he delivered the verdict in a packed courtroom in Dhaka's old city.

The head of the outlawed Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI) outfit, Mufti Abdul Hannan, was among the eight who were sentenced to hang for planning and carrying out the attack on the festivities in Dhaka's main park which they deemed unIslamic.

The judge also sentenced six others to life in prison for setting off two bombs as thousands of revellers were celebrating the first day of Bengali New Year in 2001.

The Bengali New Year, celebrated on April 14, is the most important secular festival for the 155 million ethnic Bengalis in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Hundreds of thousands of people traditionally gather and sing under a Banyan tree in the capital's historic Ramna Park and the nearby grounds of Dhaka University.

"It was a heinous attack and unprecedented in our history," prosecutor Abdullah Abu told reporters after the verdicts were announced. "We're happy with the eight death sentenced, but not satisfied with the sentencing of six people who were given life terms. We'll appeal against the life sentences."

The HuJI chief, better known as Mufti Hannan, is already on death row having been convicted in 2008 for trying to assassinate the British high commissioner four years earlier in a grenade attack.

Bangladesh saw mass protests last year when several senior Islamists were sentenced to death after being convicted for war crimes offences dating back to the 1971 independence conflict.

However experts say the latest death sentences are unlikely to trigger new protests as HuJI ceased to be a major force after most of its leaders were arrested in a nationwide sweep back in 2005.

A lawyer for the defendants, Faruque Ahmed, told AFP that he planned to appeal the verdicts which he said were politically motivated and designed to "make people happy in certain quarters".

Mufti Hannan, who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan's civil war, is also accused of having been behind a plot in 2004 to assassinate the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she was opposition leader.

His organisation has also been accused of trying to blow up courts and other secular institutions, as well as Sufi shrines and a church.