By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Six men were sentenced to death in Bangladesh on Tuesday for killing eight people during a bank robbery in Dhaka last year that police blamed on Islamist militants, the public prosecutor said.
Although no group claimed responsibility for the robbery, police blame two outlawed groups, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which have been active in a recent surge of Islamist militant violence in Bangladesh.
Since early last year, almost 30 people have been killed in militant attacks, some of which were claimed by Islamic State and al Qaeda. The government denies either network has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming home-grown groups instead.
Public Prosecutor Khandaker Abdul Mannan said the defendants had confessed to being members of Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen during the trial.
"They committed a heinous crime. They killed innocent people," Mannan told reporters outside the court after the sentencing.
The men were sentenced to death by hanging. One suspect was still on the run, Mannan said. Another man was sentenced to life imprisonment and two others were handed three-year jail terms. Two more were acquitted.
The gang set off crude bombs as it fled a branch of state-run Bangladesh Commerce Bank on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital, with takings of 700,000 taka ($8,900). They had killed the manager to get the key to the vault.
Of the nine people killed, one was a robber who was chased and beaten to death by customers and bystanders.
Defense lawyer Faruq Ahmed said his clients would appeal the verdict and that they had been denied justice.
"The video footage of the robbery was not produced before the court," he said.
The authorities blame Ansarullah Bangla Team for a series of attacks since February last year in which five atheist bloggers, a publisher and two gay rights activists were hacked to death.
The hardline Islamist groups want to impose strict Islamic law on Bangladesh, whose population of 160 million are mostly moderate Muslims.
The government has launched a security crackdown that has seen dozens arrested. At least five Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen members, including the alleged mastermind of the robbery, have been killed in shootouts since November, according to the police.
Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen has laid low since six of its leaders were hanged in 2007 for attacks that included 500 bombs exploding almost simultaneously on a single day in 2005, some in Dhaka.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Raissa Kasolowsky)