The trial of eight men accused of having a role in Bangladesh’s bloodiest terrorist attack – the July 2016 siege of a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter – began on Monday with their indictment before a special court, officials said.
An anti-terrorism tribunal brought charges of conspiring and aiding in a deadly terrorist act against six defendants in custody and two fugitive ones, in connection with the overnight attack at the Holy Artisan Bakery that killed 29 people, including 17 foreigners. The defendants could face the death penalty or life in prison, if convicted, officials said.
“The court today brought charges against the eight accused persons. According to the Bangladesh justice system, bringing charges means the formal start of the trial,” Mohammad Jahangir Alam Chowdhury, the public prosecutor of the special tribunal in Dhaka, told BenarNews.
The extremist group Islamic State claimed that five of its Bengali members carried out the attack nearly two and a half years ago in which they used machetes to hack to death hostages, but Bangladeshi authorities blamed it on Neo JMB, a faction of a home-grown militant group.
Chowdhury said six of the defendants were produced before the court, and some of their relatives were present. The half-dozen suspects had no lawyers to represent them, Chowdhury said. It is against the law for the state to provide defendants in custody with attorneys but they can apply to the state for free legal representation, he said.
The charges against the defendants were read out, said Ataur Rahman, the court’s bench officer.
“But they all pleaded not guilty, and demanded ‘justice’,” he told BenarNews.
The six defendants who appeared before the tribunal were Jahangir Hossain (alias Rajib Gandhi), Aslam Islam (alias Rashed alias Rash), Sohel Mahfuz, Raqibul Islam Regan, Hadisur Rahman Sagor and Mizanur Rahman (alias Boro Mizan). The other two defendants, Mamunur Rashid Ripon and Shariful Islam (alias Khalid), are at-large.
Shamsuzzaman Shams, the younger brother of Rabiul Karim, a police officer who was killed by gunfire from the militants during the café takeover, said he was glad the trial had finally begun.
Karim’s son was “happy and jolly when his father was alive. But since his father’s killing, he has grown inward. Possibly he searches for the reasons of his father’s death,” Shams told BenarNews.
“We cannot return his father. But if the trial is complete, then we can tell him that those who killed his father were a handful of bad people, and the state punished them for the murder,” he added.
13 suspects slain
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 are alive.
Five of the other suspects were the alleged gunmen who were killed when commandos stormed the café premises to break the siege, which lasted from July1-2, 2016. 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 suspects slain in raids by police included Tamim Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-born Canadian national who allegedly masterminded the plot targeting the café, which was popular with foreigners. The victims included nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian and three Bangladeshis.
An IS propaganda magazine, Dabiq, had claimed that Tamim Chowdhury headed the group’s network in Bangladesh. However, the police’s investigation said it had found no links between the people who carried out the attack in Gulshan, Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, and foreign-based militant groups or their networks.
The purpose of the attack was to portray Bangladesh as a “country infested with militancy,” the police charge-sheet said.
According to Mohammad Jahangir Alam Chowdhury, the prosecutor, the trial will be decided in about six months. The next hearing will take place on Dec. 3, when witness testimony is expected to begin, he said.
“Already we have issued summon orders to the first three persons who will give depositions,” Chowdhury told Benar.