Top Bangladesh Islamists face death penalty over festival attack

DHAKA (AFP) - A Bangladesh court was expected on Monday to deliver its verdict against 14 Islamic militants who face the death penalty for bomb blasts targeting Bengali New Year celebrations that killed 10 people.

Prosecutors accuse the Islamists, including head of the outlawed Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI) outfit, of targeting the popular secular celebrations in Dhaka's main park in 2001, which they deemed offensive to Islam.

The bombings were allegedly among a series carried out by HuJI head Mufti Abdul Hannan and his group, who also attempted to kill Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she was opposition leader in 2004.

A court in Dhaka was set to hand down its verdict and sentence later on Monday, following a trial that started in 2009.

"We've been able to prove the case against all 14 and we hope the court will sentence them to death," prosecutor S M Zahid Hossain told AFP ahead of the judgement.

"The court must send a message that this kind of heinous act won't be tolerated in the country," Mr Hossain said.

Five of the accused are still at large and are believed to have fled overseas. Of the remainder, Hannan and two others have confessed their involvement in the plot in statements made to magistrates.

Hannan has already been sentenced to death for a 2004 grenade attack targetting the British High Commissioner in the northeastern city of Sylhet that killed three people.

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, including Muslims, traditionally gather and sing under a Banyan tree in the capital's historic Ramna Park and the nearby grounds of Dhaka University.

Mr Hossain said the Islamists targetted the celebration because they considered it "un-Islamic and against syaria" law, and viewed the traditional singing and dancing performed as "obscene".

They also wanted to undermine the secular government of then-prime minister Hasina, who later that year lost elections to her main rival Khaleda Zia, he said.

Police also accuse the group of trying to blow up courts and other secular institutions, as well as Sufi shrines and a church.

Hannan, who fought with the Taleban in the 1990s, was arrested in 2005 after the government banned the HuJI comprising of Afghan-trained militants, following other deadly bomb attacks.

Defence lawyers said some of their clients were charged based on disputed confessions.

"My clients are only named in the case because Mufti Hannan mentioned their names in his confessional statements," defence lawyer Idi Amin told AFP.

"But he himself later retracted his confessional statement, saying it was taken by coercion."