Bangladesh Tribunal Tries Alleged Criminals From Independence War

Kamran Reza Chowdhury

2015-12-07
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151207-BD-nizami-620 Motiur Rahman Nizami sits inside a van as he rides to prison, after the International Crimes Tribunal court in Dhaka sentenced him to death, Oct. 29, 2014.
AFP

Following three executions this year alone, Bangladesh keeps pushing the death penalty for men linked to crimes committed during its war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

A Bangladeshi institution known as the International Criminal Court (ICT) has been condemning men like Motiur Rahman Nizami to die mostly since its establishment five years ago.

Nizami, an accused war criminal and leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a faith-based party allied with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), may head to the gallows very soon.

He is one of at least 17 people charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed 44 years ago by Pakistan’s army and its local collaborators in Bangladesh, which was then known as the province of East Pakistan. The ICT handed Nizami a death sentence in October 2014, but his case is now on appeal to the nation’s Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Nizami’s chief lawyer will claim before the high court that his client did not receive due process through the ICT – a complaint echoed by attorneys for other men who were executed after the tribunal tried and convicted them.

“I will make my submission [Tuesday] highlighting how my client was not given a fair trial. Actually, the prosecution has not fairly presented evidence of war crimes,” attorney Khandaker Mahbub Hossain told BenarNews on Monday.

If the Supreme Court rules against Nizami, he could be the fifth person executed for war crimes and the fourth executed this year, depending on the speed of the process. He is one of at least six men sent to death row through ICT convictions.

Nizami’s hearing comes after Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior BNP leader, and Jamaat Secretary-General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid were both hanged on Nov. 22, days after they lost their appeals to the Supreme Court.

Officials with Jamaat and the BNP have accused the ruling Awami League of using the ICT as a pretext for eliminating leaders in the opposition bloc by branding them as war criminals. The BNP, for its part, says it is not opposed to trying war criminals, but it argues that the ICT process does not meet international legal standards and Chowdhury was denied a fair trial.

A leading prosecutor, however, challenged that claim.

“The BNP-Jamaat never defined the term ‘international standard.’ They should know that Bangladesh is the only country in the world where the war criminals were given the right to appeal and file review petitions to the highest court, and even the opportunity to seek the president’s clemency,” Rana Dasgupta, the chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunals, told BenarNews.

Trials against war criminals delayed for decades

Bangladesh’s war of independence began on March 26, 1971, hours after Pakistan’s army launched a blitzkrieg in East Pakistan, which killed thousands of people in Dhaka and other major cities. The conflict ended when 90,000 Pakistan soldiers surrendered on Dec. 16, 1971.

The Awami League government, which took power then and rules Bangladesh today, established the Collaborators Ordinance of 1972 to try those accused of having collaborated with the Pakistani army. By the next year, parliament had repealed the ordinance and replaced it with the International Crimes Tribunal of 1973 to try the alleged war criminals.

Bangladesh founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, banned religion-based parties. Rahman was assassinated along with most of his family members on Aug. 15, 1975.

Military ruler Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who took control of the government in a coup that toppled Rahman, released the alleged war criminals and returned political rights to Islamists.

The Awami League, which pledged to try war criminals, returned to power with more than two-thirds majority in the December 2008 general election. Under Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh adopted a resolution that led to the formation of the war crimes tribunal in March 2010.

Since then, Mojahid and his deputies in Jemaat, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman and Abdul Quader Molla, were executed for alleged war crimes. The tribunal named former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam as the mastermind of mass killings targeting Bangladeshis in 1971, but considered his age – 91 – when sentencing him to life in prison, where he died on Oct. 23, 2014.

Another top-ranking Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, was sentenced to life, while fugitive Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad faces execution.

Death sentences were ordered for Nizami, Mir Quasem Ali, former MP Abdus Subhan, A.T.M Azharul Islam and fugitive Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin. Former BNP government minister Abdul Alim died in prison after receiving a life sentence.

The tribunal has also sentenced to death Mobarak Hossain, a leader of the ruling Awami League, and Syed Mohammad Kaiser, a leader of the Jatiya Party, now the main opposition party in parliament.

A sitting MP, Abdul Hannan of the Jatiya Party, and his son face trials on war-crime charges.

‘They are known to everyone’

According to the chief prosecutor Dasgupta, in 2009 and 2013 the government added provisions for appeal to make war crimes trials more transparent and democratic.

The moves have drawn support from Bangladeshi human rights activists, who support death sentences for war criminals.

“The BNP’s allegation that the government has been eliminating the opposition on the pretext of trying the war criminals is not correct. All the persons arrested for war crimes such as Ghulam Azam, Motiur Rahman Nizami, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, Ali Ahsan Mojahid and others were listed in the national document on Bangladesh’s war of independence,” Khushi Kabir, a leading human rights and development activist, told BenarNews, referring to a list of suspected war criminals that was compiled soon after independence.

People became united around the issue of the death penalty after Abdul Quader Molla flashed a victory sign following his sentencing to life in prison in February 2013, Imran H. Sarker, spokesman for Gonojagoron Moncho (Mass Awakening Platform), a grassroots movement that demands capital punishment for all war criminals, told BenarNews.

The Supreme Court overruled the tribunal, ordering Molla’s execution in December 2013.

“You talk to any common people in the street, they will answer that the arrested persons were razakars (war criminals). They are known to everyone. The war criminals thought that they would never be tried,” Sarker said.

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