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Experts Doubt Bangladesh Student Murder Convicts Will Serve Harsh Sentences

FILE - Teachers make a human chain to protest the murder of Abrar Fahad, a student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in Dhaka, Oct. 9, 2019.

A day after a court in Bangladesh sentenced 20 students to death for killing a fellow student, members of the victim’s family said they hope the punishments would soon be served.

Abrar Fahad, 21, a student at Dhaka’s elite Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, was beaten to death in October 2019 by fellow students who were members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling Awami League [AL] political party.

Fahad's battered body was found in his university dormitory hours after he wrote a Facebook post that quickly went viral slamming Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, head of the AL party, for signing a water-sharing deal with India.

After the post, a group of pro-Hasina students called Fahad into a room to interrogate him about his “anti-government” post. Police reports say Fahad's body, severely beaten with cricket bats, tree stumps and sticks, was found six hours later.

History of political clemency

Fahad’s killing sparked outrage among students across Bangladesh, where scores of AL-aligned convicts—some on death row, some facing life sentences—have received clemency from the ruling party since 2010.

Bangladesh law minister Anisul Huq said Wednesday's verdict proves Dhaka's commitment to the rule of law, but some legal experts say there is little chance any of Fahad's killers will be executed as long as AL remains in power.

“The High Court may overturn the rulings of the lower court soon. [But] if that does not happen, in all probability, the convicts will be granted presidential clemency at [some] point,” said a Dhaka Supreme Court lawyer who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity for fear of political reprisal.

“The BCL members work as foot soldiers of the ruling party," the lawyer added, referring to the student organization's notoriety in recent years after some of its members were accused of killing, violence and extortion.

In 2018, its members allegedly used violence in response to a major anti-government student protests. Also in 2018, during the national elections, BCL and AL activists were accused of invading polling places and rigging them in favor of the ruling Awami League.

"The Hasina-led government will not spare any effort to save these students from the gallows,” said the lawyer.

Officials with the BCL did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Hong Kong-based Bangladeshi rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman said Wednesday’s conviction should be viewed as a temporary damage-control tactic by the government.

“Records suggest the Hasina-led government has made it a practice to ensure impunity for all perpetrators from AL who help determine its political supremacy," said Ashrafuzzaman, a liaison officer of the Asian Legal Resource Centre. "There are numerous instances showing activists of different wings of the AL who got convicted with death sentences but were later granted presidential clemency when there was no scope to get them acquitted through the judicial process.”

Twenty death row inmates, all ruling party activists, convicted in the 2004 murder of Sabbir Hossain Gama, an opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader, were granted presidential clemency in 2010, when AL was in power, Ashrafuzzaman added.

As another example, Ashrafuzzaman mentioned the 2000 murder of opposition BNP leader Nurul Islam. In that case, AHM Biplob, son of a prominent ruling AL-party figure, and four associates were given death sentences. Biplob was also sentenced to life in prison for the 2001 murder of another BNP figure and the 2000 murder of an activist associated with Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist opposition party at the time.

In early 2011, after having absconded for 10 years and seen his father's Awami League return to power, Biplob surrendered to a court. In July of that year, Biplob was pardoned by the president for Islam's 2000 murder after his father filed a mercy petition. In February 2012, Biplob was again granted presidential clemency for the other two murders when his life terms were reduced to a single 10-year sentence.

"In 2018," Ashrafuzzaman said, "the president also granted clemency to Tofail Ahmed Joseph—a former private bodyguard for [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina—and a life-term convict in a murder case.”

It can be “safely assumed” that none of those accused in Fahad's murder will be sent to the gallows as long as Hasina is in office, Ashrafuzzaman added.

VOA was unable to reach any officials from the Hasina administration for a comment on the pardons.

Vows to follow through

Law minister Huq, however, says he is confident the Hasina-led government will cooperate and see that the executions by hanging, a legacy of the British colonial era, are carried out in compliance with Wednesday's sentencing.

“The government ensured all steps in the investigation and trial of the case in a responsible manner. Now justice has been served,” Huq told a press briefing with local media. “No one will be spared after committing a ghastly crime like this.”

Faruk Ahmed, a lawyer defending some of the accused students—three of whom remain at large—said he was unhappy with what he called an “unfair” verdict.

“Some bright students of the country have been handed death sentences despite there was no proper evidence against some of them," Ahmed told local media reporters at the court after the sentencing. "Some masterminds in the case were not named in the police charge sheet.

“We will appeal the sentence in the High Court,” the defense attorney said.

Fahad’s father, Barkat Ullah, said he was happy with the verdict.

“I hope the High Court will uphold Wednesday’s verdict,” Ullah told VOA.

Fahad’s mother, Rokeya Khatun, said she will feel "justice has been served only after the sentences have been carried out."

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.