Elite police officers stand guard at the special court in Dhaka [AFP]

Shackled and crammed into a specially-built Dhaka court, more than 800 Bangladeshi soldiers accused of murder, and other serious crimes, have appeared in pre-trial proceedings in the country's capital.

The soldiers are alleged to have been involved in a mutiny-turned-massacre in February 2009 that claimed the lives of 74 people, including 57 senior officers, over a 30-hour period.

The accused soldiers formed part of the now disbanded Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), previously responsible for patrolling the country's borders.

The cause of the violence, which began in Dhaka, is uncertain but resentment by soldiers against BDR senior officers - who did not come from within the BDR - is widely seen as the main factor.

It is alleged that the soldiers were angry about their superiors' refusal to increase their pay and improve working conditions.

The accused face charges ranging from murder to conspiracy, looting military weapons and arson.

Those accused of murder face the death penalty if convicted.

'Unique case'

The handcuffed defendants, who include about 20 civilians, shuffled silently into the huge courtroom on Wednesday after being transported from jail in a fleet of prison vans.

The temporary court building was erected on land normally used as a playground, with long benches installed to accommodate the hundreds of accused soldiers.

The proceedings are being heard by judge Jahirul Haq, who will hear testimony about the mutiny in which the BDR soldiers turned on their commanders, hacking them to death, torturing them and burning them alive before hiding their bodies in sewers.

"This case is unique, there has been nothing like it anywhere in the world," Haq said. "We can assure everyone that we will make sure of 100 per cent justice."

Haq adjourned the case until February 3, saying "on that day we will read out the charges against all the defendants in full".

Military-run courts

The rebellion quickly spreading to an estimated 40 border posts throughout the country.

The soldiers' actions briefly threatened the new government of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, which had been elected only one month previously.

Wednesday's pre-trial hearing came after hundreds of other BDR soldiers involved in the mutiny were earlier convicted on minor charges in special military-run courts.

The soldiers appearing on Wednesday were formally charged in July last year, after police investigators interviewed over 9,000 border guards and civillians and detained more than 2,000 people suspected of being involved in mutiny.

The mutineers stole an estimated 2,500 weapons and broke into an annual meeting of top BDR officers before shooting them at point blank range.

Major General Shakil Ahmed, the head of the BDR, was among those killed.

More than 1,200 people are likely to be called to testify in court, including government ministers and senior army officers.

Source: Agencies