By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - A special court in Bangladesh on Tuesday sentenced to death more than 150 people among hundreds of border guards accused of murder and arson during a mutiny at their headquarters in 2009.
Some 850 people had been accused of involvement in the bloody rampage that broke out in the capital, Dhaka, and quickly spread to a dozen other towns, killing 74 people.
Prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain Kajol told Reuters the court sentenced 152 people to death.
"The court announced the death sentence to them for the heinous killing of the country's brave sons," he said.
Amid tight security, the court also sentenced 160 mutineers to life terms, including a former lawmaker of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and acquitted 171 soldiers. The rest got jail terms of up to 10 years and fines.
Grievances over different facilities for army and border guards led to the mutiny, Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman said in comments accompanying the verdict.
"It also aimed to tarnish the image of the army in the outside world, where it has built up a reputation in performing U.N. peacekeeping duties," he added.
The mutiny shook the stability of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's newly elected government, which ended the revolt by negotiating a settlement.
The then chief of the roughly 48,000-strong paramilitary force was among those killed in the 33-hour rampage. Others included 57 top- and middle-ranking army officers deputed to the force, as well as several civilians.
After the mutiny, the paramilitary force was renamed the Border Guard Bangladesh instead of the Bangladesh Rifles.
The long-awaited verdict came nearly 5 years after the event. Four of the accused died in jail during the trial, with 20 more on the run and 13 free on bail while 813 remain in jail.
Bangladesh's handling of the trials has drawn criticism from rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has said the use of torture and other abuse to extract statements while in custody violated standards for fair trials.
The government has previously denied such accusations.
Political grievances were behind the life term given to one leader of the opposition BNP, party official Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, though he declined to comment on the verdict.
Defense lawyer Aminul Islam vowed to appeal against the judgment. "The verdict is nothing but a bid to gain political benefit," he said.
Prosecutor Kajol said the government would also appeal, against Tuesday's 171 acquittals.
The trial began in August 2011, with 801 force members and 23 civilians among those charged in 2010 after an investigation lasting more than a year.
About 4,000 people have already been found guilty of involvement in the mutiny, all in mass military trials. They have been jailed for up to seven years.
Junior law minister Kamrul Islam expressed satisfaction at Tuesday's verdict.
"It was a plot to overthrow the newly elected government and also to assassinate the prime minister," he told reporters.
Hasina, daughter of the country's founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, narrowly escaped the brutal fate of her father and other family members, who were killed in 1975 by a group of army officials while she and her only sister were abroad.
(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)