Chittagong (Bangladesh) (AFP) - A Bangladesh court sentenced Thursday the leader of the country's largest Islamist party and 13 others to death over a huge 2004 arms smuggling racket, sparking fears of new political unrest.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, 70, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was convicted over the racket involving 10 truckloads of arms seized by police at a Bangladesh port a decade ago.
"We're satisfied with the verdict. This is an unprecedented case and all those accused have got due justice," prosecutor Kamal Uddin Ahmed told AFP from the southern port city of Chittagong.
Prosecutors said Nizami helped unload the weapons at the port that included 4,930 sophisticated firearms and 27,020 grenades destined for a rebel group across the border in northeastern India.
Nizami, who was industries minister at the time, was among 50 people charged with smuggling, arms possession and other offences over the racket thought to be the largest of its kind in Bangladesh history.
A former home minister and former chiefs of the country's two main intelligence agencies were also among the 14 sentenced to death for their roles in the racket, the prosecutor said.
A leader of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Paresh Baruah, was also handed the death penalty in absentia over the racket, which was meant to help the group's decades-long separatist struggle.
Baruah has long been on the run.
The verdict follows deadly unrest that erupted in the weeks leading up to this month's controversial general elections, including strikes, transport blockades and other protests mostly blamed on Jamaat activists.
Security was tight in Chittagong where the judge handed down his long-awaited decision following a trial that lasted for years.
Extra police and elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers were deployed in key areas as a precaution, amid concerns activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami party could take to the streets to protest the decision.
"We have deployed around 1,000 police and RAB officers to ensure security," Chittagong police chief Shafiqul Islam told AFP ahead of the verdict.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has vowed to bring stability after the crippling opposition protests that have left around 180 dead since October.
Jamaat activists also led deadly protests last year against war crimes trials underway against some of its leaders over alleged atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
Nizami, who is also one of a dozen Jamaat leaders facing trial for war crimes, has been in custody over the arms smuggling case since 2010.
Nizami, who has led Jamaat for more than a decade, was an influential minister in the former government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which was allied with Jamaat.
The parties were thrown out of power after suffering a huge defeat in December 2008 elections.
The secular Awami League-led government led by Hasina, which regained power at the January 5 elections amid an opposition boycott, has pursued the arrests of the major figures in the case since coming to government.
The verdict was expected to boost ties between Bangladesh and India, which earlier this month backed Hasina's controversial election victory, and has long wanted the case resolved.
Prosecutor Ahmed said Thursday's verdict proved a "collusion" within senior ranks of the former BNP-led government, intelligence agencies and the ULFA.
Police discovered the weapons as they were being unloaded at a jetty of a state-owned fertiliser factory that Nizami's ministry controlled.
The weapons, most of which were made in a Beijing factory, also included 300 rockets, 2,000 grenade launching tubes, 6,392 magazines and 1.14 million bullets, according to Ahmed.
Defence lawyer Kamrul Islam Sazzad told AFP that they would appeal, rejecting the verdict as "politically motivated" and aimed at "pleasing India". - AFP