A Chittagong court yesterday handed down the death penalty to 14 people, including ex-ministers Lutfozzaman Babar and Motiur Rahman Nizami and former top intelligence officials, for smuggling 10 truckloads of arms into Chittagong during the last BNP-led government's tenure.
The verdict points to the state machinery's involvement in the smuggling of the huge cache of weapons meant for the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), a separatist group fighting for an independent Assam.
Ulfa military commander Paresh Barua is among those condemned to death.
The 14 convicts were also given life sentences for possessing illegal firearms and ammunition in another case filed over the largest-ever arms haul in the country about a decade ago.
The court acquitted 38 other accused, mostly day labourers, from both the cases -- one filed under the Special Powers Act 1974 for smuggling of firearms and the other under the Arms Act for illegal possession of firearms.
The cases were lodged with Karnaphuli Police Station a day after the arms haul at Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Ltd (CUFL) jetty in the early hours of April 2, 2004.
The arms and ammunition seized included 4,930 sophisticated firearms, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 27,020 grenades, 2,000 grenade-launching tubes, 6,392 magazines and 11.41 million bullets.
Judge SM Mojibur Rahman of Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1 pronounced the long-awaited verdicts in a packed courtroom amid tight security.
“It is a trial court. The verdict is being pronounced on the basis of evidence and testimonies [of witnesses],” said the judge, who started reading out the summary verdicts at 12:28pm.
“We usually hand down 10 to 15 years' imprisonment in a case over recovery of one or two firearms. But the seizure of 10 truckloads of arms is not a usual case … We should not consider it similarly.
It is clearly understood that officials of two important intelligence agencies had rapport and communications with Ulfa leaders Paresh Barua and Anup Chetia. The intelligence officials confessed to it, and that has been reflected in the verdict, said the judge.
The convicts include former director of Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Maj Gen (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury, ex-director general of National Security Intelligence (NSI) Brig Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim, former NSI director wing commander (retd) Shahab Uddin, former NSI deputy director Maj (retd) Liakat Hossain, ex-NSI field officer Akbar Hossain Khan, former additional secretary of industries ministry Nurul Amin, ex-CUFL managing director Mohsin Talukder, and former CUFL general manager (admin) Enamul Hoque.
Three other condemned men are Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, a local arms smuggler, Din Mohammad, who supplied workers for offloading the arms and ammunition, and Haji Abdus Sobhan, owner of one of the two trawlers that carried the weapons from the deep sea to the CUFL jetty.
Of the convicts, 12 were present in court, while Paresh Barua and Nurul Amin are on the run.
The then BNP-Jamaat government tried to cover up the involvement of the culprits in the incident that stunned the nation and raised serious concerns about the country's security.
The names of 11 of the 14 convicts were tactfully dropped from the list of suspects during the investigation in the BNP-led government's tenure.
However, in further probe after a political changeover, all of them were eventually found to have been involved in the arms smuggling.
With some loopholes in both cases, the trial began in 2005. Forty-five people were accused in the smuggling case and 42 in the arms case.
The cases took a new turn after the caretaker government took over in 2007.
The Chittagong Metropolitan Judge's Court on February 14, 2008, ordered further probe into the cases following a petition from the prosecution.
The long-delayed trial started again at the special tribunal on November 29, 2011, and 56 prosecution witnesses testified in the arms case and 53 in the smuggling case.
It took more than two years to complete the proceedings.
Senior Assistant Superintendent of the CID Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, also the fifth investigation officer of the cases, submitted two supplementary charge sheets in June 2011, accusing 11 new suspects that included ex-industries minister and Jamaat-e-Islami Chief Nizami and former state minister for home Babar. All the 11 accused were sentenced to death yesterday.
The court observed that the five people, arrested at the jetty for involvement in the arms smuggling, were released later on directives from Babar, the then ex-state minister for home. “Evidence supports it.”
The judge first pronounced the verdict in the arms case and sentenced the 14 to life imprisonment for possessing illegal firearms and another seven years for possessing illegal ammunition. Both the sentences will merge.
“Since I have given the highest punishment [life sentence] in the arms case, I have decided to award the same persons the highest punishment [death sentence] in the smuggling case, as they were found guilty on the charge of smuggling,” the judge said.
The court also fined them Tk 5 lakh each in the smuggling case.
On claims that Babar and Nizami were implicated in the cases for political reasons, the judge said none of those who gave depositions were involved in politics, as they were either government high-ups or top officials of intelligence agencies.
The prosecution expressed satisfaction at the verdict.
However, family members and counsels for the convicts termed the judgment “politically motivated”, and said they had been “deprived of justice” and would challenge the verdict in a higher court.
Under legal provisions, the convicts have the right to lodge appeals with the High Court, and will also get a chance to file appeals with the Supreme Court if the HC decision goes against them.