Bangladesh’s Supreme Court Tuesday cleared the way for the hanging of another senior opposition leader – a main financier of the faith-based Jamaat-e-Islami party – by dismissing his final appeal of a war-crimes conviction.
The execution of tycoon and senior JeI leader Mir Quasem Ali may now be days away after Tuesday’s ruling exhausted his last legal step. The only option left that might spare him from the gallows is for Quasem to ask for presidential clemency, the country’s top lawyer said.
“We are happy that the court has upheld Mir Quasem Ali’s death sentence. We have got justice,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told BenarNews.
If Quasem hangs, he would become the sixth senior opposition figure and fifth one from Jemaat executed for crimes allegedly committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan out of which Bangladesh was born, and since the Awami League-led government established a war-crimes tribunal known as the International Criminal Court (ICT) six years ago.
The five executions of convicted war criminals so far have taken place since 2013. The last one, the hanging of Jemaat party chairman Motiur Rahman Nizami, occurred on May 10.
In November 2014 the ICT convicted Quasem, of wartime-related charges, including the alleged fatal torture of a young pro-independence supporter 45 years ago, while pro-Pakistani forces held him at a prison camp in Chittagong then commanded by Quasem.
Quasem, 63, a member of JeI’s highest policy-making body, has amassed a fortune as the founder of Bangladesh’s largest private bank, Islami Bank. He also started a real estate company, hospitals, shipping lines, pharmaceutical companies and other enterprises, which have created jobs for thousands of members of Jemaat and its student wing.
On Tuesday, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court’s appellate division upheld Quasem’s death sentence.
“This is the verdict of the Supreme Court; so I cannot term it ‘injustice.’ We have to accept it,” Khandaker Mohbub Hossain, Quasem’s chief defense counsel, told reporters afterwards.
Law Minister Anisul Huq said that Quasem would get a death warrant as soon as possible, which would signal that his execution is imminent.
“If he does not apply to the President for mercy, there will be no legal bar to execute him and we will do it accordingly,” Huq told BenarNews.
During the war in which three million people were killed, according to the government’s official statistics, those who went on to become top leaders of the party known today as Bangladesh Jemaat-e-Islami were opposed to independence from Pakistan, when Bangladesh was known as the province of East Pakistan.
In his youth Quasem served as president of the Islami Chhatra Sangha, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan. During the nine-month war in 1971 the group evolved into Al-Badr, a notorious pro-Pakistani force that allegedly committed mass killings and rape.
Four and half decades later, the war remains an issue that has created bitter political and social divisions in Bangladesh, between pro-independence and pro-Pakistani supporters and between pro-secular and pro-Islamic supporters.
The pro-secular side has called for the executions of war criminals and has accused Jemaat of fanning religious extremism, such as a wave of killings of secular bloggers, intellectuals, religious minorities and others since February 2013.
The issue of the war is so sensitive that the leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, was charged with sedition in January for publicly questioning the conflict’s official death toll.
Last week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet approved a law that contains a provision that would make it an offense to spread “propaganda” about the war. The provision threatens life sentences for those who spread false information about the war or who criticize the nation’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Hasina’s father.
“Awami League led the country’s war of independence while Jamaat opposed Bangladesh’s birth,” political commentator Afsan Chowdhury told BenarNews.
“Millions of people witnessed the killing spree of the Pakistan army and their local collaborators like Jamaat. Mir Quasem Ali is one of the killers,” he added.