A special court in Chittagong today handed death penalty to 14 including Jamaat chief and then industries minister Motiur Rahman Nizami and then state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar for smuggling in 10 truckloads of firearms in 2004.
The condemned convicts include five intelligence officials, including former DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) director Maj Gen (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury, former National Security Intelligence (NSI) director general Brig Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim and deputy director Maj (retd) Liakat Hossain.
The court also awarded death penalty to Paresh Barua, military commander of Indian separatist group United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) which was allegedly going to receive the arms.
Of the condemned victims, who have also been awarded life term imprisonment in another case filed under the Arms Act, Paresh Barua and former additional secretary of industries ministry Nurul Amin have been absconding since the arms cache recovery.
"The verdict has been delivered on receiving permission from High Court division," Judge SM Mojibur Rahman of the Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1, said.
The other condemned convicts are: ex-NSI field officer Akbar Hossain Khan, former CUFL general manager (admin) Enamul Hoque, ex-managing director of CUFL Mohsin Talukder, former NSI director Wing Commander (retd) Shahab Uddin, smuggler and prime accused Hafizur Rahman, Abdus Sobhan and Deen Islam.
The huge cache of arms and ammunition which included 4,930 sophisticated firearms of different types, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 27,020 grenades, 2,000 grenade-launching tubes, 6,392 magazines and 11.41 million bullets were recovered on April 2, 2004 at the jetty of Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Ltd (CUFL).
The arms and ammo were reportedly meant for Ulfa.
Ahead of the verdict, security was beefed up in the port city, especially in and around the court building, which is roughly 10 kilometres away from the CUFL jetty on the Karnaphuli river where the seizure was made in 2004.
Around 12:28pm, the tribunal started reading out the summary in presence of the 11 accused, including Nizami and Babar.
Two cases one under the Arms Act for illegal possession of firearms and the other under the Special Powers Act, 1974 for smuggling firearms --were filed with Karnaphuli Police Station the following day of the arms recovery.
Earlier on Monday the High Court cleared the way for a trial court to deliver verdict in the cases by rejecting four petitions--to interrogate first investigation officer and change the court--of the accused.
Earlier, four accused were taken to Chittagong Central Jail from Dhaka and Kashimpur jails.
Sagir Mia, senior jail super of Chittagong Central Jail, told The Daily Star earlier that Nizami and Babar had reached Chittagong from Kashimpur jail at 7:00pm yesterday.
Brig Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim and Maj Gen (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury arrived in Chittagong Central Jail from Dhaka Central Jail on Tuesday night, he said.
During the trial proceedings earlier, the prosecution claimed to have proved the charges and sought the highest punishment of the accused, while the defence sought the acquittal of their clients, saying the state lawyers had “failed” to prove the charges.
In an unusual instance, the first charge-sheet was submitted in the arms case by hastily wrapping up the investigation in two months, while the charge-sheet in the smuggling case was submitted in four months.
The trial of both the cases started in 2005 with several loopholes as the probes overlooked some important factors such as who had brought the arms, from which country, what was the destination and how was a jetty of a state-owned body used for unloading the weapons.
Besides, only small fry, mostly labourers, truckers and trawler drivers were implicated, leaving out the big shots as the then BNP-led government allegedly tried to cover up the involvement of the state machinery, including its ministers and high officials of intelligence agencies.
However, after the 1/11 changeover in 2007, the Court of Chittagong Metropolitan Judge on February 14, 2008 ordered further investigation following a prosecution petition and the cases took a new turn.
Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, senior assistant superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department and the fifth investigation officer of the cases, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets in June 2011, accusing 11 new suspects including Babar and Nizami.
Paresh Barua, Brig Gen (retd) Rahim, Maj Gen (retd) Rezzakul who was later appointed as the DG of NSI, were also charged in both the cases.
All 11 new suspects, except Ulfa leader Paresh and Nurul Amin are now behind bars. With their inclusion the number of the total accused rose to 50 and 52 in the arms and smuggling cases respectively.
Of them, 12 in the arms case and 13 in the smuggling case have been absconding.
The long-delayed trial finally began at the Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1 on November 29, 2011 and 56 prosecution witnesses testified in the arms case and 53 in the smuggling case.
After proceedings lasting over 35 long months, Judge SM Mojibur Rahman of the tribunal on January 13 set the date of verdict in the cases.