Hours after the incident, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters that a nationwide alert has been issued to recapture them and an investigation launched to ascertain how the event took place.
The government has issued a red alert at all the entry and exit points of the country and asked the law enforcement agencies to beef up their surveillance at the border areas so that the convicts can’t leave Bangladesh, he said.
Kamal said the government had issued a directive asking police not to produce death row convicts in-person in courts and it will be probed why the order was not followed in this case.
“We have launched a massive manhunt to recapture them and their helpers,” a police spokesman told newsmen at the scene.
Bangladesh Police also announced a reward of Taka 20 lakh (approx $19,428) for tip-offs leading to the convicts’ recapture.
Police and court officials said Moinul Hasan Shamim alias Samir alias Imran and Abu Siddiq Sohel- who were among four operatives of the outlawed terrorist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) being escorted to transition prison room following an indictment hearing in a different case- escaped the court premises with the help of some unidentified motorcycle-borne men.
Police said Shamim and Sohel were sentenced to death last year for killing 42-year-old Bangladesh-born US secular blogger Roy and his publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, who was also in his early 40s.
According to police and eyewitnesses, the convicts fled the court premises on motorbikes as their accomplices sprayed some chemical on policemen escorting them and created a smoke screen.
The eyewitnesses said the spray temporarily blinded only two policemen, suggesting that the convicts in the high-profile murder cases were being treated just like any other ordinary prisoners.
“The prisoners were just handcuffed, their legs were not shackled, a usual protective measure for dangerous criminals or militants,” a court official said.
CCTV footage aired by TV channels showed two bikers wearing helmets carrying the two militants through a narrow road in front of the Dhaka Metropolitan Judges Court complex, while a plainclothesman was chasing them.
Roy, an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalism, was hacked to death with machetes by ABT militants just after he left a book fair at the Dhaka University on February 26, 2015. His wife Rafida Ahmed was also injured in the attack. The terrorist group also hacked to death his publisher Dipan in November the same year at his office at Dhaka’s Shahbagh area.
Dhaka’s Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal court sentenced five militants to death in the Roy murder case, while eight Islamists were sentenced to death for killing Dipan.
Bangladesh witnessed an alarming rise of militant activities in 2015 when four “atheist” bloggers were murdered with authorities attributing the attacks to homegrown terrorists while Islamic State at that time had claimed responsibility for three attacks.
A 2016 cafe attack was the worst of the militant assaults when 22 people, including 17 foreigners, were killed, sparking a global uproar while a court subsequently sentenced seven of the eight suspects to death.
But it prompted the South Asian country with Muslim majority population to virtually declare a total war against Islamists engaging Army, paramilitary and elite police units that saw a series of countrywide raids on militant hideouts and deaths of dozens of extremists.