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Islamist extremists sentenced to death for Bangladesh cafe attack

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Dhaka (AFP)

Seven Islamist extremists were sentenced to death in Bangladesh on Wednesday over a savage attack at a Dhaka cafe in 2016 that killed 22 people, mostly foreigners.

A special anti-terrorism tribunal delivered the verdict in a crowded courtroom in the capital, with judge Mojibur Rahman saying the attackers wanted "to draw the attention of (the) Islamic State" group.

The brazen assault in July 2016 saw young men armed with assault rifles and machetes lay siege to the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe in Dhaka's well-heeled Gulshan neighbourhood. After a 10-hour standoff, military commandos stormed the eatery and freed more than two dozen hostages.

The extremists wanted to "undermine public safety, create anarchy and "establish a Jihad(ist)" state, the judge said, adding that the seven "will be executed by hanging until they are pronounced dead".

Some of the men shouted "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)" and "long live faith of Islam" before they were led to a police van. Two of those convicted wore prayer caps bearing the insignia of Islamic State.

Nine Italians and seven Japanese were among the 18 foreigners to be hacked or shot dead in the attack, while two policemen also died.

All five militants were killed when the military stormed the cafe, which was popular with Westerners.

Eight others -- including mastermind Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, a Canadian of Bangladesh descent -- were killed during raids in Dhaka and its suburbs months after the attack.

Counter-terrorism police said 19-year-old Rohan Imtiaz led the attack.

The attacks were claimed by IS but the government blamed a local militant group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and said their commanders were among the dead.

Police have also blamed JMB for most of the extremist attacks in the South Asian nation since the late 1990s.

- IS link? -

University of Oslo researcher Mubashar Hasan called the verdict "a milestone", saying he hoped it would "give some sort of closure to the victims".

Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga did not comment on the ruling but thanked Dhaka "that the trial on this case was carried out promptly".

Defence lawyer Dalwar Hossain said there would be an appeal, claiming police had extracted confessions through torture.

An eighth man who had been charged was acquitted.

The hostage crisis marked an escalation in extremist attacks following a spate of murders claimed by IS and Al Qaeda of rights activists, gay people, foreigners and religious minorities.

The assault was also seen as a major blow to Bangladesh's image as a moderate Muslim nation and the secular government launched a massive crackdown in its wake that saw more than 100 Islamist extremists killed and nearly 1,000 others arrested.

But Dhaka has repeatedly denied that international jihadist networks have a presence in the country.

The IS-linked news agency Amaq however published extensive details of the attack, including photos from inside the cafe.

Security was tight in the court complex and in the city of 18 million people ahead of the verdict.

It followed the recent arrest of nearly two dozen suspected extremists. Three Islamist extremists were also sentenced to death on Monday over the murder of one of their alleged leaders in 2012.

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