A Dhaka court on Wednesday sent 20 former Buet students to the gallows in a case of bludgeoning fellow student Abrar Fahad to death, setting a record of maximum number of death sentences in a single murder trial in recent times.
All the charge-sheeted 25 accused were handed down punishments. Five of the accused were given life terms for killing Abrar Fahad – a second year student of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).
Twenty-two of the convicts are now in jail, while three have been absconding since the trial began, said Public Prosecutor Abu Abdullah.
"The maximum punishments for the accused are to ensure that such a brutal murder does not happen again," the court said in the judgement.
"On suspicion of being a Shibir [Jamaat-e-Islami's student wing Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir] member, Abrar was beaten to death by spreading rumours," said the court.
Buet Sher-e-Bangla Hall resident Abrar had criticised the government over a water-sharing deal with India on Facebook. He was subsequently taken to the room of a Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) leader on the night of 6 October 2019 and beaten to death.
The incident sparked fury among the university's students and led to the authorities imposing a ban on student politics in Buet. The accused were also expelled from Buet.
The accused, after hearing the verdict standing in dock, hugged each other in the courtroom. The death row convicts were taken to condemned cells from the court.
In an immediate reaction, both the prosecution and Abrar's parents expressed satisfaction over the judgement and hoped the High Court would uphold the verdict.
The defence lawyers, however, said they will appeal.
"The masterminds who were behind the killing are not mentioned in the judgement. Besides, statements of many witnesses were not heard properly during the trial," defense lawyer Faruk Ahmed told journalists.
According to lawyers, the appeal alone may take three to five years to get disposed off due to a case backlog, which means the death row convicts will have to stay at the condemned cells for a long time even before the High Court hearing takes place.
In 2013, eight Chhatra League men of Jagannath University were sentenced to death for hacking a tailor Biswajit Das after suspecting him to be an opposition activist. In 2017, 26 people were sentenced to death for killing seven individuals in Narayanganj.
In 2019, a Feni court sent all 16 accused to the gallows for setting madrasa student Nusrat on fire and killing her. A record number of 152 accused were sentenced to death in 2013 for the 2009 BDR mutiny – a "pre-planned carnage" that killed 74 army personnel and civilians.
Mohammad Sahabuddin, another defence lawyer, told The Business Standard, "Abrar killing was not a pre-planned murder. None of the accused had a motive to kill."
He commented, "Too many death sentences and life imprisonments for the youths are not acceptable."
Outside of the courtroom, parents of the convicts said they have sympathy for Abrar's family. But they questioned if the crime committed by their offspring was so grievous that the youths deserved to be hanged or to remain the rest of their days behind bars.
Rabiul Islam, father of a death row convict Morshed Amartya Islam, said the judgement had surprised him. "I myself handed over my son to the police. But the court delivered too many execution and life imprisonment orders."
He said the killing was "accidental" since none of the accused were "professional criminals", rather "each of them was a meritorious student".
Abu Taher, father of Muhtasim Fuad who got life imprisonment, said, "My son did not get a chance for correction. Did the overall verdict give a positive message to society?"
Give the devil his due: Court
In the verdict, Judge Kamruzzaman quoted an Indian court on capital punishment, which stated, "We feel that we should not hesitate to use the Sword of Justice with the utmost severity, to the full and to the end, if the gravity of offence so demands."
The court also cited the Akbar Ali vs State case verdict, a decision from the High Court, which says, "In sentencing any accused, aggravating factors cannot be ignored and, similarly, mitigating circumstances have also to be taken into consideration. An age-old adage says – give the devil his due."
In a reaction to the verdict, Law Minister Anisul Huq said, "Justice has been delivered in this case. Through this verdict, the state has been able to prove that there is rule of law in the country."
He further said, "The documents of the verdict will be sent to the High Court within the next seven days. The government will extend all-out cooperation for the prompt disposal of the case."
The death row convicts are Mehedi Hassan Rasel, Anik Sarker, Mehedi Hassan Robin, Ifty Mosharaf Sakal, Moniruzzaman Monir, Meftahul Islam Jiyon, Majedur Rahman, Muzahidur Rahman, Tabakhairul Islam Tanvir, Hossen Mohammad Toha, Shamim Billah, Nazmus Shadat, Muntasir Al Jemi, Mizanur Rahman, Mahmud Setu, Shamsul Arifin Rafat, Morshed Amartya Islam, Ehtesamul Rabbi, Morshed Uzzaman Jishan and Mujtaba Rafeed.
Sentenced to life terms are Muhtasim Fuyad, Akash Hossain, Mowaz Abu Horaira, Omit Shaha and Istiaq Hassan Munna.