DHAKA – A Bangladesh court handed death sentences to seven members of an Islamist militant group on Wednesday for their role in an attack on a cafe in 2016 that killed 22 people, mostly foreigners, in the South Asian nation’s worst such incident.
“Charges against them were proved beyond any doubt. The court gave them the highest punishment,” public prosecutor Golam Sarwar Khan told reporters after the verdict, amid tight security at the court in Dhaka.
One of the eight accused was acquitted.
The men were not at the scene when the attack and subsequent hostage situation unfolded at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the posh Gulshan residential area on July 1, 2016, but they were later implicated for their roles in the attack, such as planning, recruiting and supplying weapons.
A defense lawyer said the convicted men would appeal the charges, which include training the attackers and supplying arms, explosives and funds.
After the ruling, they shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) and “We did nothing wrong” from the dock to a packed courtroom, witnesses said.
Two were seen wearing prayer caps bearing the insignia of the Islamic State group; authorities opened an investigation into how the caps reached them while they were in police custody.
The attack on the restaurant, popular with foreigners in Dhaka’s diplomatic area, shocked the nation of 160 million and unnerved businesses, including the vital garment export sector, and foreign investors.
Five young militants, armed with guns, sharp weapons and grenades stormed the cafe, took diners hostage and killed them over 12 hours. Nine Italians, seven Japanese, an American and an Indian were among the dead. The attackers were also killed in a rescue bid by army commandos.
Three of the Japanese victims were specialists in urban and traffic planning for the Tokyo-based construction consulting company Almec Corp.: Makoto Okamura, 32; Yuko Sakai, 42; and Rui Shimodaira, 27. Another Almec employee, Tamaoki Watanabe, was rescued after being shot in the face.
Another victim was Koyo Ogasawara, 56, who worked for the Tokyo-based construction consulting firm Katahira & Engineers International. The other three were Hideki Hashimoto, 65; Nobuhiro Kurosaki, 48; and Hiroshi Tanaka, 80, all related to the Tokyo-based consulting firm Oriental Consultants Global Co.
Khan said the seven men convicted on Wednesday belong to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group that seeks to establish Shariah rule in the predominantly Muslim country.
“The ruling will set an example. It will give a message to militant groups that none of them will be spared,” Law Minister Anisul Huq said.
Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has been cracking down on militant groups to preserve its image as a moderate Muslim nation. After the cafe siege, police raided suspected hideouts and killed dozens of militants believed to have helped mount the attack. Hundreds more were arrested.
“We are happy that justice has been served,” said Shamsuzzaman Shams, whose policeman brother was killed when he tried to enter the cafe to foil the attackers. “We want immediate execution of the ruling.”
But defense lawyer Delwar Hossain said all seven men convicted on Wednesday will challenge the verdict in a higher court. “They didn’t get justice,” he said.
The assault was claimed by the Islamic State group, but the government has consistently denied the presence in the country of any transnational militant organization, such as al-Qaida or the Islamic State, blaming domestic militants instead.
Police said a faction of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, was involved in organizing the cafe attack.
In the year before the atrocity, Bangladesh saw a string of grisly individual murders, including of secular writers and foreigners, claimed by the Islamic State or al-Qaida.