Uptick in Bangladesh Death Penalty ‘Dangerous Phenomenon,’ Rights Activists Say

Jesmin Papri
Uptick in Bangladesh Death Penalty ‘Dangerous Phenomenon,’ Rights Activists Say Police escort defendants from a court in Rajshahi, in northwestern Bangladesh, after nine were sentenced to death and 22 to life in prison for their roles in the killing of a student leader eight years ago, Dec. 9, 2021.

An uptick in the use of the death penalty in Bangladesh is a “dangerous phenomenon,” human rights activists said, as at least 46 people have been sentenced to the gallows in the past week for their roles in different murder cases across the country. 

On Thursday, nine people were condemned to death row for killing a ruling party’s youth-wing leader in 2013, while three others were sent to death in another case. They are among almost 2,000 death row inmates in Bangladesh. 

“Thirty-three laws of Bangladesh contain the provision of a death sentence. At the same time, the maximum punishment can also be a life sentence. The courts can prefer that,” said Nina Goswami, a program director for a rights group, Ain-O-Salish Kendra.

She said judges in the past handed down capital punishment in very few cases.

“Now that the criminal activities have changed to more despicable forms, the judges prefer death sentence instead of life in prison. This is a dangerous phenomenon,” she told BenarNews.

“Whenever a serious crime happens, people raise the demand for capital punishment, this means people want the death sentence. People’s desire for vengeance has gone up, as the nature of criminal activities has also gradually turned more horrendous.”

A Dhaka lawyer who practices before the Supreme Court said the lowest trial courts likely erred in applying the sentence.

“My hunch is that lack of proper application of laws leads to the surge in capital punishment ordered by the trial courts,” lawyer Shishir Manir told BenarNews. “I think one of the major reasons is the people in charge of applying the laws have not been utilizing proper judicial protocols.

“Most of the capital punishment orders from the trial courts are either commuted or rejected in the High Court. This demonstrates that the trial courts’ death sentence judgments were not proper,” Manir said.

The Department of Prisons reported that 1,933 men and 54 women were on death row as of Sept. 19.

In Bangladesh, death sentences are carried out by hanging. The most recent executions were carried out on Oct. 4 when Jashore district authorities hanged two people convicted in a rape case.

A joint study by the University of Dhaka and the Bangladesh Legal and Services Trust, a human rights group, found the country’s jail authorities executed 101 people between 1991 and 2020.

Nine sentenced in student’s killing

On Thursday, a trial court in the northern city of Rajshahi sentenced nine people to death and 22 others to life in prison for killing Shahin Alam, a leader of the ruling party’s student union and apprentice lawyer, about eight years ago.

The same day, a district court in northern Joypurhat district handed down death sentences to three people who killed a person over land disputes 14 years ago.

On Wednesday, a Dhaka court sentenced 20 students to death and five others to life in prison for the 2019 murder of Abrar Fahad, another student at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. The victim had criticized the government for signing a water-sharing deal with India on his Facebook post. 

The students, members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League, had used cricket bats and other objects to beat Abrar to death in a residential hall. 

“This incident has stunned the whole nation. The maximum punishment has been given to the accused to prevent the recurrence of the brutal murder,” ruled Judge Abu Zafar Md. Kamaruzzaman of the Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal.

Similarly, on Dec. 2, another Dhaka court sentenced 13 people to death over the murders of six teenagers at Amin Bazar, on the outskirts of the capital city, 10 years ago during a trip when a mob of villagers accused the students of being robbers and lynched them. Nineteen others were sentenced to life in prison. 

The same day, the district court in northern Gaibandha district issued a death sentence to a man for killing his wife.

Between Dec. 2 and 9, courts in Bangladesh handed down 46 death sentences and life sentences to 47 people.

In Bangladesh, capital punishment can be sought for anyone older than 16, even though in practice it does not apply to people younger than 18, according to a report by Bangladesh rights organization Odhikar and the International Federation for Human Rights.

Crimes punishable by death, as set out in the Penal Code of 1860 and Special Powers Act of 1974, range from high state crimes including waging war against Bangladesh and abetting mutiny, to murder, assisted suicide of a child, hoarding goods or dealing on the black market, counterfeiting and smuggling, the 2010 report said. 

Bangladesh’s legal system guarantees that any person sentenced to death can appeal before the High Court. After that, people can go to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court if dissatisfied with the High Court’s decision.

Defendants can then appeal to review the verdict at the Supreme Court. If the review appeal is rejected, the judgment will stand as final.

The Constitution does allow people to ask for a pardon from Bangladesh’s president when all legal avenues are exhausted. If the president rejects the pardon request, the execution order is carried out.

As soon as the trial court sentences defendants to death, they are shifted to condemned cells where they must stay until they are executed, their sentences are commuted or the Supreme Court acquits them.


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