A government amnesty granting 50,000 Bangladeshi troops immunity from prosecution for excesses during a controversial crackdown on crime has outraged civil rights campaigners, opposition groups and prominent lawyers. Soldiers started returning to barracks at the weekend following the 3.5-month anti-crime drive after Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's government promulgated an ordinance on Saturday granting immunity to security forces over torture and other human rights abuse, and the deaths of as many as 44 detainees. Because of the ordinance, dozens of pending criminal cases filed against troops either by the victims or their families will now be automatically dismissed. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, former premier and leader of the main opposition Awami League Party, has branded the indemnity ordinance a slur on the constitution and the rule of law. The Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance 2003 was approved by a special cabinet meeting, giving legal cover to all acts during the 84-day anti-crime drive. Respected barrister and legal luminary Kamal Hossain said yesterday he would challenge the 'anti-people' ordinance in the Supreme Court. 'It formalises the government's hitherto undeclared policy of torturing and murdering suspects and exposes ordinary people to savage repression by the most powerful wing of the government - the armed forces,' he said. According to Bangladesh's leading English newspaper, the Daily Star, the ordinance was 'eminently avoidable' and 'highly objectionable'. It said the ordinance was against all civilised norms and must be scrapped immediately. Human rights groups say 44 people died in the army's custody or in hospitals after being freed. Relatives claimed that countless detainees were brutally tortured to extract confessions. Soldiers allegedly went on the rampage, destroying houses and farms during raids in remote areas. The US and the European Parliament had urged a quick end to the operation, saying they were aware of rampant rights abuses. The government confirmed the deaths of only 12 suspects and said all of them died of heart attacks in hospital after being handed over to police. As many as 11,280 people, including 2,482 absconding criminals, were arrested and about 2,000 weapons and 30,000 rounds of ammunition were seized. Public and media support for the anti-crime campaign started waning within weeks because of mounting custodial deaths and large-scale arrests of opposition workers. Begum Zia deployed the army in October to help the police and civilian administration after her year-old administration was severely criticised for a dramatic rise in murder, extortion, kidnappings, lynchings and crimes against women by gangs linked to ruling and opposition political parties. Responding to scathing criticism by opposition leaders and constitutional experts, Law Minister Moudud Ahmed said the ordinance would be placed before parliament when it resumed on January 26. 'I will reply to all the charges in parliament and the opposition will have ample opportunity to criticise us and debate the issue,' he said. The measure should easily pass the 300-seat parliament, where Begum Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies have a two-thirds majority. But retired major-general Moinul Hossain Chowdhury said the ordinance would sound the death knell of discipline in the armed forces, which have special provisions for courts martial and summary trials to ensure accountability and punishment for law violators. Human rights activist and lawyer Shahdeen Mallik said the ordinance was against the United Nations charter on torture and physical abuse by the military, of which Bangladesh was a signatory.