The Supreme Court of Bangladesh on Tuesday cleared the way for the execution of a top Islamist leader for war crimes committed during the country’s independence war in 1971.
Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, 67, is second in command of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh and a member of the opposition coalition.
If his execution goes through, he will be the third man sent to the gallows by Bangladesh’s controversial war crimes tribunal, and the first former minister. Mujahid was social welfare minister from 2001 to 2006 under former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
A four-member bench led by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha upheld the death sentence handed to Mujahid in 2013 by the so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
The tribunal has no international participation. Some rights groups and legal experts say its procedures fall short of international standards.
Mujahid, Jamaat’s secretary-general, has been in jail since 2010, when he was arrested following the ICT’s establishment by the secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
On July 17, 2013, the ICT found him guilty of five of seven charges, including the murders of Bengali intellectuals and minority Hindus while he commanded Al-Badr, an auxiliary force of the Pakistani army, during the war.
On Dec. 16, 1971, Bangladesh’s liberation day, a mass grave was discovered in Dhaka’s Rayerbazar district that contained mutilated bodies of nearly two dozen well-known persons. These included professors, doctors, journalists and writers.
Mujahid helped plan and execute the massacre, and was also involved in the murder and torture of Hindus, the court ruled.
The apex court’s verdict prompted celebration in some parts of the country.
In Mujahid’s home town of Faridpur, about 105 km (65 miles) southwest of Dhaka, residents marched in the street and burned his effigy, demanding his immediate execution.
“I’m overjoyed by today’s verdict. I’m sure others in my community and the common people of Faridpur are also very happy,” Ranjit Nath, the son of torture victim Rakhal Chandra Nath, told BenarNews by phone.
Among its other verdicts, the ICT sentenced Mujahid to five years for torturing Nath in 1971.
Shamsul Islam, a former Jamaat leader in Faridpur district, called the verdict an attempt to crush the party, saying Mujahid was falsely implicated based on politically motivated charges.
Jamaat has called a 48-hour countrywide hartal (strike) for Wednesday morning to protest the Supreme Court’s decision.
“This is a true reflection of a political vendetta as it was based on manufactured charges and false deposition[s],” he told BenarNews.
The government’s chief law officer said the court’s decision underscored the fact that Mujahid had committed a heinous crime, especially in connection with the killings of intellectuals.
“It is perhaps unprecedented in the history that someone can indulge in the annihilation of the intelligentsia of his own country in order to cripple a nation,” Attorney General Mahbub e Alam told reporters.
Khandker Mahbub Hossain, Mujahid’s lawyer, told reporters he would file a review petition within 15 days of the verdict’s publication.
That may delay Mujahid’s hanging for a few weeks, but he appears likely to meet the same fate as his two partisan colleagues – Abdul Kader Molla and Mohammad Kamaruzzaman – who went to the gallows in the past two years.
If the Supreme Court rejects the petition, Mujahid can seek a presidential pardon, which Molla and Kamaruzzaman declined to do.
About a dozen Jamaat leaders have been convicted by the ICT. The arrests, verdicts and executions have sparked deadly protests by Jamaat supporters since 2010.
Jamaat’s leader, Matiur Rahman Nizami, has also been sentenced to death. He is in jail and awaiting a decision by the highest court.