The commotion outside the courtroom on August 31, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

DHAKA: A Bangladesh court on Tuesday sentenced to death six Islamist extremists for the brutal murders of two gay rights activists, prosecutors said.

Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a magazine for Bangladesh’s gay and lesbian community, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy were hacked to death in a Dhaka apartment by machete and gun wielding attackers in April 2016.

A special anti-terrorism tribunal ordered the death penalty for six members of militant Islamist group Ansar Al Islam, prosecutor Golam Sarwar Khan said.

Four of the six found guilty are still on the run. Two other suspects in the case were acquitted.

Nazrul Islam, one of the defence lawyers, said appeals would be made.

“My clients are completely innocent. They are not linked with these murders. They were framed unjustly,” he said.

The sentencing is the first time a Bangladeshi court has acted on violence against gay rights activists.

Homosexuality is illegal in the Muslim-majority nation and security was tightened around the court for the sentencing.

Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for the murders, saying the duo were “promoting homosexuality”. Police however blamed homegrown extremists.

Police originally pressed charges against eight Ansar Al Islam members and arrested four. Those on the run were tried in absentia.

Five of those convicted had already been sentenced to death in February for the 2015 murders of a blogger and a publisher who were hacked to death in separate incidents.

Roopbaan, Mannan’s magazine, was only published for two years but became a platform for promoting LGBT rights in Bangladesh.

Mannan’s group had planned to stage a “Rainbow Rally” in April 2016 but police would not allow the event to go ahead, citing security concerns.

Three months after the killings, Islamist militants stormed a Dhaka cafe and killed 22 people, most of them foreigners, before army commandos killed the attackers.

Islamic State claimed that attack as well as several murders of atheist bloggers, publishers and writers between 2013 and 2016.

The government has blamed domestic militants for the violence and launched a crackdown on suspected extremists in which scores of people have been killed by security agencies.