DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — The head of the main Bangladeshi Islamist opposition party was among 14 people sentenced to death on Thursday on charges of smuggling weapons to a rebel group in neighboring India.
Security officials had seized more than 4,000 firearms and 1 million bullets and other military equipment in April 2004 when they were being unloaded from fishing boats. According to case documents, the weapons and ammunition were destined for a former Indian insurgency group called the United Liberation Front of Asom.
The insurgents in northeastern India had fought for greater autonomy for their ethnic groups in Assam state before signing a cease-fire with the Indian government in 2011.
Among those convicted and sentenced to death was Matiur Rahman Nizami, head of the country's main Islamist opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami and the former industries minister in the 2001-2006 Cabinet of then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
Nizami has been under arrest. He is also facing separate charges of crimes against humanity stemming from the country's independence war in 1971.
Defense lawyer Mofizul Haque Bhuiyan said he would appeal the ruling, which he criticized as politically motivated.
Ashok Das, a prosecution lawyer, said the ruling proves that those found guilty used the Bangladesh territory to smuggle military equipment, which was meant to be used by rebels against India.
A former Indian rebel commander, Paresh Barua, was convicted in absentia. Others who were convicted included Lutfuzzoman Babar, a former junior minister for home affairs and two former intelligence officials, who were present when Judge S.M. Mujibur Rahman read the verdict and sentences in a packed courtroom in the southeastern city of Chittagong.
Local media had reported that the smuggled weapons and ammunition, which also included more than 27,000 grenades, 300 rockets and 840 rocket launchers, came from Hong Kong via Singapore on a ship. The consignment was caught by police who intercepted it when the equipment was being loaded on 10 trucks.
Zia is now the leader of the opposition, which includes Jamaat-e-Islami. They have been calling on the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and boycotted the January elections, which Hasina's coalition won amid street fighting and low turnout. Nearly 300 people have died in political violence since last year.