Updated at 2:46 p.m. ET on 2019-11-27
A Bangladeshi court convicted and sentenced seven men to death Wednesday for their involvement in the country’s deadliest terrorist attack that left 29 people dead, most of them foreigners, at a Dhaka café in 2016.
BenarNews reporters saw one of the convicted men wearing a prayer cap inscribed with the insignia of the Islamic State extremist group as he left the packed courtroom amid tight security. Another convicted man tried to wear a similar black cap, but a police officer snatched it away.
One of the eight defendants was acquitted of charges that he helped plan the overnight siege by terrorists at the Holey Artisan Bakery café, an attack claimed by Islamic State (IS).
“The anti-terrorism tribunal announced the Holey Artisan attack verdict today and handed down death sentences to seven militants,” public prosecutor Golam Sarwar Khan told BenarNews. “The court gave them the highest punishment.”
He said he was satisfied with the judgment, but vowed to appeal the acquittal of the other defendant.
Judge Mojibur Rahman said the convicts had tarnished the country’s image abroad as he ordered them to be “executed by hanging until death.”
“We reject this verdict,” defense lawyer Delwar Hossain told BenarNews.
Some of the convicted men shouted “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” (the Arabic phrase for “God is great”) after the ruling.
One of the convicts, Jahangir Alam (alias Rajib Gandhi), proclaimed allegiance to IS and threatened more attacks, even as he was dragged into a prison van in handcuffs.
Bystanders hurled profanities at the convicts as officers led them away.
A court official said they would investigate how the two convicts managed to get hold of the IS caps despite the tight security.
“We are not sure how the cap reached the militants inside the court. We will investigate the matter,” Mohammad Jafar Hasan, the deputy commissioner in charge of prosecutions, told BenarNews.
The siege at the café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter shocked the country and led to hundreds of arrests in anti-terror sweeps across the Muslim-majority nation of 161 million people.
Days before Wednesday’s verdict, law-enforcement officials raided suspected militant hideouts across the country. At least 19 men were arrested in three days, police told BenarNews on Monday.
IS claimed that five of its Bengali members carried out the attack at the café on July 1, 2016. Authorities said the attackers used machetes to hack to death hostages and battled security forces with crude bombs and homemade rifles and pistols.
The 29 people who were killed during the siege and a raid launched the next day by commandoes to end it included 20 hostages, who were mostly from other countries.
Nine Italians, seven Japanese, an Indian and an American were among hostages massacred by the five gunmen, who in turn were killed by government forces during the raid on July 2. Two police officers and two bakery staff members were also killed during the siege and rescue operation.
The attack jolted the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which played down the threat of foreign terror groups and has since repeatedly denied the presence of IS in Bangladesh. Instead, it blamed Neo-JMB, a faction of a home-grown extremist group, for the café attack.
Altogether 21 suspects were named in a charge-sheet that police submitted earlier this year, after they completed a two-year investigation into the attack, but only eights suspects remained alive, officials said.
Five of the other suspects were the alleged gunmen who were killed when the commandos stormed the café premises to break the siege. The other eight suspected Neo-JMB members were killed during a counter-terror crackdown launched by Bangladesh in the months that followed the attack.
The militants staged the attack to portray Bangladesh as a “country infested with militancy,” the police charge-sheet said.
On Wednesday, the court handed the death penalty to Jahangir Alam (alias Rajib Gandhi), Aslam Islam (alias Rashed alias Rash), Sohel Mahfuz, Raqibul Islam Regan, Hadisur Rahman Sagor, Mamunur Rashid Ripon and Shariful Islam (alias Khalid), according to Khan, the prosecutor. Mizanur Rahman (alias Boro Mizan) was acquitted, he said.
Delwar Hossain, the defense lawyer, said he would appeal the verdict on the charges that include supplying firearms, explosives and funds.
“We are aggrieved by the judgment,” he said. “The whole charge-sheet is flawed and based on the confessional statement the police collected from my clients through use of force.”
In a statement distributed to reporters after the verdict, the family of Faraaz Hossain, who was among the Bangladeshis killed in the attack, thanked the government for its “zero tolerance approach in combatting the scourge of terrorism.”
“This in turn has galvanized and has united the people of Bangladesh in a shared revulsion to terrorism,” said the statement, which was signed by Faraaz’ brother, Zaraif Hossain.
According to accounts by surviving witnesses, Faraaz Hossain refused to leave other hostages behind when the gunmen singled out the non-Muslims for execution and said that Muslims among them could leave the café.
“Even after being told by the terrorists to leave, for being a Bangladeshi Muslim, Faraaz refused to do so and thereby sacrificed his own life to protect his friends,” Zaraif Hossain said. “What Faraaz did that night truly exemplifies what Bangladesh stands for.”
After the verdict, the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka described the trial as “a landmark case for Bangladesh” and said the ruling gave “some closure to the families of those who suffered from the brutal murders.”
“The United States is honored to have assisted the Government of Bangladesh throughout the investigation of the attack,” the embassy said in a brief statement posted online. “We remain committed to continuing to support Bangladesh in its fight against terrorism, especially in our shared efforts to improve rule of law.”