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U.N. rights chief says Bangladesh trials unfair

By Robert Evans

GENEVA (Reuters) - A trial in Bangladesh, which brought death sentences for 152 border guards accused of murder and arson in a mutiny in 2009, failed to meet international law standards, United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Wednesday.

Citing allegations that many of the defendants in the mass trial, which ended on Tuesday, had been abused and tortured while in jail, she also called for a full independent investigation into how the accused were treated.

"The crimes committed during the mutiny were utterly reprehensible and heinous," the former South African high court and International Criminal Court judge said in a statement.

But she added: "Justice will not be achieved by conducting mass trials of hundreds of individuals, torturing suspects in custody and sentencing them to death after trials that failed to meet the most fundamental standards of due process."

The government has in the past denied such allegations from non-governmental human rights groups, but diplomats said it would be more difficult to brush off strictures from the widely-respected Pillay.

Some 850 people had been accused in the 2-year trial of involvement in a bloody rampage over living conditions that broke out in Dhaka, the capital, and spread to other towns, leaving 174 people dead and many injured.

The mutiny shook the then newly-elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which ended the revolt by negotiating a settlement. A junior minister in Bangladesh said on Tuesday it had been part of a plot to overthrow and kill her.

The special court also sentenced to life imprisonment 160 of the mutineers, from a para-military force then known as the Bangladesh Rifles and now called Border Guard Bangladesh. They included a leader of the BNP main opposition party.

A total of 171 of the mutineers, whose main complaint was that their regular army commanders were better paid and housed, were acquitted, while the remainder of the some 4,000 defendants were given jail terms of up to 10 years and fines.

Pillay said the trial had been "rife with procedural irregularities, including the lack of adequate and timely access to lawyers". She called for an independent investigation of the alleged torture and deaths among the mutineers.

"The conviction and sentencing of each of the suspects must be reviewed individually, and any evidence obtained under torture must not be admitted in court," Pillay declared.

At the same time, she voiced concern about the conduct of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up by the Bangladesh government in 2010 to try people accused of atrocities during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

The ICT, she said, should be an important means to tackle impunity for those atrocities and provide redress to the victims, but its proceedings had to meet the highest standards if they were to enforce the rule of law.

The Tribunal has sentenced 7 people to death, but Pillay called on the Bangladesh government not to carry out the sentences due to concerns about the fairness of the trials.

(Reporting by Robert Evans, Editing by Patrick Lannin)

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