Bangladesh on Saturday put to death Mir Quasem Ali, a leader and funder of its largest faith-based party, for war crimes allegedly committed during the nation’s war of independence in 1971.
“Mir Quasem Ali has been hanged at around 10:30 p.m. at the Kashimpur jail,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews on Saturday night.
Quasem, 63, was the sixth senior opposition figure and the fifth from the Jamaat-e-Islami party executed for war crimes since the Awami League-led government established a war-crimes tribunal known as the International Criminal Court (ICT) six years ago.
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 at a prison camp in Chittagong commanded by Quasem, who would have been 18 at the time.
On Tuesday, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court’s appellate division upheld Quasem’s death sentence.
He was given the choice to seek presidential clemency but declined.
Quasem, a member of Jamaat’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 Jamaat and its student wing.
Authorities on Saturday called family members to see Quasem for the last time. Thirty-eight relatives entered the Kashimpur jail at around 4:10 p.m. and stayed for around two hours, according to jail superintendent Prashanta Kumar Banik.
“He does not fear death. He is dying for Islam. This death is similar to martyrdom,” Khandker Ayesha Khatun, Mir Quasem Ali’s wife, told reporters Saturday at the jail gate.
But a woman who said her husband was tortured by Mir Quasem Ali’s unit was furious about the characterization of him as a martyr.
“Mir Quasem Ali’s men raided our house, tied my husband Saifuddin Khan and five of his friends with a single rope and pushed them into a truck like cattle. They all were taken to Dalim Hotel and beaten mercilessly,” Nurjahan Khan, wife of politician Saifuddin Khan, told BenarNews on Saturday.
“He is a killer, a war criminal,” she said.
The brutal nine-month war through which Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan remains a source of bitter divisions 45 years later.
At the time, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan opposed Bangladesh’s birth and its leaders and members joined hands with the Pakistan army to save Islamic Pakistan, terming the war an “Indian aggression.”
Bengali guerrillas with direct military help and later intervention from India defeated the Pakistan army, and 90,000 army personnel surrendered in Dhaka on Dec. 16, 1971.
The Awami League government in 1972 voided the political rights of all faith-based parties in the newly created country.
But the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding president, on Aug. 15, 1975, brought a boon for Jamaat and religion-based parties. Bangladesh’s first military ruler, Major General Ziaur Rahman, released all jailed Islamist party leaders facing war crimes charges in its aftermath.
“The rehabilitation of Jamaat in politics and releasing its leaders who committed war crimes was a catastrophic event in the history of the country. The war criminals should have been tried long ago,” Afsan Chowdhury, a journalist and researcher, told BenarNews.
But international rights activists have said ICT prosecutions fail to meet fair trial standards.
In March, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for a new trial, citing senior Bangladeshi justice officials who said that prosecutors and investigators had produced insufficient evidence against him.
“It is critical that the Bangladesh government ensures justice for the awful crimes against civilians in 1971, but that requires it to uphold international fair trial standards,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday.
“If there’s even a shadow of doubt about fairness, as in Quasem Ali’s case, the authorities should set aside the death penalty.”