Bangladesh Court Upholds Death Sentences for Two Opposition Figures

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2015.11.18
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151118-BD-execution-62 Demonstrating outside the Supreme Court in Dhaka, secular activists and veterans of Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 call for death sentences to be upheld against two senior opposition figures, Nov. 18, 2015.
AFP

Bangladeshi authorities Wednesday suspended some social media services and placed security agencies on high alert for possible violence, after the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for two opposition politicians convicted of crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.

The authorities interrupted internet services and suspended Facebook, Viber and Whatsapp –online tools that allow people to send messages to one another – 30 minutes after the court rejected the defendants’ appeals. The move came six days after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament that the government might shut down social media because online tools could be used by terrorists and criminals to commit crimes.

The appeals were filed on behalf of defendants Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, secretary general of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic-based party, and Salahuddin Qauder Chowdhury, a former parliamentarian with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and top aide to party leader Khaleda Zia.

The two men face execution within days unless they petition President Abdul Hamid and he grants them clemency. Activists with Jamaat have called for a 24-hour strike, starting Thursday, to protest the ruling.

Between 2001 and 2006 when the BNP was in power, Mojahid served as the country’s social welfare minister, and Chowdhury was then-Prime Minister Zia’s adviser on parliamentary affairs. The BNP and Jamaat remain allies in Bangladesh’s opposition bloc.

Both men were convicted by a war crimes tribunal for atrocities committed 44 years ago, while fighting on the pro-Pakistani side when the people of Bangladesh – which was then called East Pakistan – fought a war to break free from Pakistan.

“The appellate division of the Supreme Court has rejected their review petition. The apex court has upheld the capital punishment judgment of the International Crimes Tribunal. So, there is no bar to execute them,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told reporters after Chief Justice S.K. Sinha turned down appeals filed by the defendants’ lawyers.

Later, the attorney general told BenarNews that the defendants’ only option was to petition the president for clemency within seven days.

“The only option they have is to seek mercy to the president. If the president turns down the mercy petition, the jail authorities will execute them according to the jail code,” Alam told BenarNews.

“If they decline to apply to the president, they would be hanged in line with the jail code,” Alam said.

After the court handed down its decision, defense lawyer Khandker Mahbub Hossain spoke to journalists.

“I have fought and lost. Now, it is the decision of the convicts whether they would seek clemency from the president; I have nothing to do,” he said.

Secularists rejoice

Activists with Gonojagoron Moncho (Mass Awakening Platform), a grassroots secular movement that began more than two years ago, reacted with jubilation.

The activists believe that militant Islamist elements associated with Jamaat have been responsible for violent acts committed since February 2013, particularly the killings of five secular bloggers and a publisher.

The ruling Awami League party has also accused Jamaat and the BNP of being connected to those killings and other recent terrorist acts. Jamaat members have been branded as pro-Pakistani.

Two Jamaat leaders, Abdul Kader Molla and M. Kamaruzzaman were sent to the gallows in December 2013 and April 2015, respectively, after being convicted of alleged crimes against humanity in 1971.

“The violence and killings will stop immediately if they are executed soon, because the anti-liberation [elements] have been carrying out the attacks to derail the trial of the war criminals,” Imran H. Sarker, the spokesman for Moncho, told reporters Wednesday at Shahbag Square, the public gathering space in Dhaka where the movement was born in early 2013.

‘Really worried’

Soon after news broke of the Supreme Court’s ruling, motorized traffic on Dhaka’s notoriously clogged streets thinned because of fears of an anticipated violent backlash.

Police mounted checkpoints and other units could be seen patrolling areas around the Bangladeshi capital and checking people’s bags.

“People are really worried whether anyone throws petrol bombs on us,” stock broker Rashidul Islam, who was traveling from Mirpur to Motijheel – Dhaka’s commercial hub – told BenarNews.

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