By JULHAS ALAM
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A Bangladeshi court sentenced 19 people to death and the son of the opposition leader to life imprisonment on Wednesday over a deadly 2004 attack at a political rally held by current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The grenade attack killed two dozen people and wounded about 300 others. Hasina narrowly escaped, having been whisked away by party members to a waiting car from a dais in front of the headquarters of her Awami League party near where several grenades exploded.
Judge Shahed Nuruddin delivered the verdicts — interrupted twice by power cuts — at the court in Dhaka for 49 defendants facing multiple charges stemming from the attack.
Nuruddin said the attack was intended to eliminate the Awami League’s leadership, including Hasina.
Lutfuzzaman Babar, one of two former Cabinet ministers among the 19 condemned to death, told reporters after the verdict that he was innocent. “God knows everything. I was not behind it,” he said.
Tarique Rahman, the oldest son of opposition leader Khaleda Zia, received a life sentence for each of two conspiracy charges stemming from the attack. He lives in London and was tried in absentia. Eighteen others were also sentenced to life imprisonment, and 11 received six months to two years in prison.
Rahman’s conviction could help Hasina retain power in elections due in December. Zia, 73, a former prime minister, has been serving a prison sentence on a corruption conviction since February but was transferred to a state-run hospital on Saturday for what her party says are multiple medical problems.
Armed guards stood outside the courtroom in the old part of the capital on Wednesday to quell any protests, but the streets were calm.
Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq welcomed the verdict and pledged he would try to bring the fugitives back, but the opposition immediately rejected the ruling.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of Zia’s party, termed the verdict politically motivated and said it was a “naked manifestation of political vengeance” by the ruling party.
Zia’s party also announced a week of protests, including nationwide rallies starting Thursday.
Nuruddin said the parties had 30 days to appeal the verdict.
Zia was convicted of embezzling about $250,000 in donations meant for an orphanage trust established when she first became prime minister in 1991. Rahman was also sentenced to 10 years in prison in connection with the case.
Zia faces more than 30 other charges, ranging from corruption to sedition, which her party has denounced as a government effort to keep her out of the elections.
The government has denied the allegations.
Zia was the country’s prime minister three times — twice for full five-year terms and once for a brief period.
Bangladeshi politics are deeply divided, with rivals Hasina and Zia, both from political dynasties, alternately ruling the country since 1991, when democracy was restored.