DHAKA • A Bangladesh court yesterday sentenced 19 people to death over a 2004 grenade attack on the current prime minister, although a top opposition leader escaped with a life sentence.
The attack in Dhaka on a rally by Ms Sheikh Hasina, at the time in the opposition and now prime minister, left her injured and killed 20 people.
Tarique Rahman, son of then-premier and Ms Hasina's ally-turned-archrival Khaleda Zia, was among 49 people on trial, with Rahman charged with criminal conspiracy and multiple counts of murder.
Rahman, 50, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, was tried in absentia after he fled the country for London in 2008. He now leads the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from exile after Zia was jailed for five years in February for corruption.
"We thank God for the verdict," prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain told reporters yesterday amid tight security. "We hoped that Tarique Rahman would get the death sentence," he said, adding that the court observed that Rahman played a key role in the attack.
Ms Hasina was addressing the rally when the grenades exploded and suffered severe injuries in one ear. Among the dead was the wife of a former president. Four years later, Ms Hasina stormed back to power after leading a secular coalition to a landslide victory in elections in December 2008.
Two other ministers, former heads of the intelligence agencies and police as well as a key aide of Zia were also facing death sentences in the case. Three Islamist extremists were also charged over the attack and later executed in a separate trial. Death sentences are common in Bangladesh, with hundreds of people on death row.
Rahman's lawyer Sanaullah Mia said the charges against his client were politically motivated. He questioned the timing of the verdict, saying it was aimed at keeping Rahman out of elections expected for December.
"There was no evidence or witness against him. No witness could say that conspiracy was hatched at Hawa Bhaban," he said, referring to a former BNP office used by Rahman.
Police spokesman Sohel Rana said security was tightened in the courts and across the South Asian nation to prevent any violence following the verdict. "Police are fully prepared to prevent any violence centring on the verdict," he said.