By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The ongoing trial of Bangladesh’s alleged war criminals initiated by Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) in 2010 has pushed the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which violently resisted the country’s independence from Pakistan more than four decades back, to the corner. The party’s almost entire top leaders are either convicted or languishing in jails facing execution. In a landmark judgement on March 8, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld death sentence against front-line Jamaat leader and a business tycoon Mir Quasem Ali for committing heinous crimes during the 1971 Liberation War.
A five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha rejected Ali’s appeal against the International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT)-2 judgement of November 2, 2014. Ali challenged the ruling same month. Although the apex court acquitted Ali of three charges, it maintained the convictions and sentences in six others. The ICT-2 found the 64 year-old Islamist leader guilty of kidnap, confinement, torture and murder of some freedom fighters and their sympathisers, and then dumping their bodies in a river in south-eastern Bangladesh.
The prosecution described Ali as a wartime terror of Chittagong. He was one of the founders of al-Badr—a ruthless militia specially trained and armed by the Pakistan Army to wipe out the freedom fighters and supporters of Bangladesh’s independence. Ali had been al-Badr killing squad’s Chittagong area commander and its third most important leader after Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman and secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid.
Ali’s dubious role in Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan is known across the country. The civil society groups, including veterans of the 1971 war, victims’ families and pro-liberation activists lauded the Supreme Court verdict. The Islamist Jamaat on the other hand, called for a dawn-to-dusk nationwide strike the very next day to protest the judgement.
The highest court’s ruling assumes significance as Ali is believed to be the prime financier of Jamaat and a kingpin of the Islamic fundamentalists’ economy in Bangladesh. Ali not only amassed enormous wealth in the post-1975 period but also assisted Jamaat to build a strong economic foundation in the country. Moreover, he played an instrumental role in the growth and development of numerous Islamic institutions adhering to Wahhabi school of thought after his return to the country from Saudi Arabia.
Ali had gone into hiding following the Pakistani forces’ abject surrender on December 16, 1971 and resurfaced only after the violent political changeover of August 1975. He became the founding president of Islami Chhatra Shibir, Jamaat’s student wing, on February 6, 1977. He was subsequently made a member of the Central Executive Council (CEC), Jamaat’s highest decision making body, in 1985. Ali had all along been an influential member of the CEC and fifth most important leader of the party until his arrest on June 17, 2012.
Ali is one of the wealthiest businessmen in Bangladesh, running firms ranging from print and electronic media to hospitals. He owns Diganta Media Corporation which operates a television channel Diganta TV and a newspaper named Naya Diganta. This media house is aligned to Jamaat and tries to mobilise public opinion against the AL government. According to reports, the Naya Diganta, which was established in 2005 with a corpus of Taka 100 crore, is one of the largest circulated dailies with print edition of nearly 1,25.000 copies. The Diganta TV, which is viewed by 10 million Bangladeshis globally, had been tirelessly campaigning against the trial of war criminals since the AL government established the ICT on March 25, 2010.
In addition to these, Ali has developed considerable stakes in real estate and shipping sectors. This leading businessman of the country supplied billions to Jamaat to build the fundamentalist party’s economic base since the mid-1980s. Some Bangladeshi observers say Ali served as “de facto treasurer” of Jamaat. He was the co-founder and former vice-chairman of Jamaat’s financial arm Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited (IBBL) that had recently been implicated for terror financing. Local reports suggest that Ali has maintained over 1,000,000 shares worth more than $40,000 in IBBL.
Furthermore, Ali was the founder of Saudi Arabia funded Ibn Sina Charitable Trust—an associate organisation of the IBBL. Ali serves as one of the board of directors of this trust. The Jamaat created another subsidiary of the IBBL, Islami Bank Foundation (IBF), which is headed by Ali. His leading position has been highlighted by the Bangladeshi observers since the IBF oversees the overall activities of the IBBL.
Ali is seen by many as Saudi Arabia’s “money man” in Bangladesh for the last forty years. He had been involved with a number of Wahhabi-backed organisations since the late 1970s. Following his homecoming, Ali became the convener of Saudi-based Muslim World League’s branch in Bangladesh, Rabita-al-Alam-al-Isalmi in the early 1980s. Later on, he was elevated to the post of country director of Rabita that had been playing a major role in polpularising radical Islamic thoughts in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh.
This Wahhabi-affiliated non-governmental organisation (NGO) was transferring money to the Islamic militants under the cover of philanthropic activities over the last several decades. Reports indicate that Ali in his capacity as the chief of its Bangladesh chapter collected funds for domestic militants, Rohingya fighters and Afghan Mujahidins. Ali’s role in terror financing was disclosed after his conviction by the war crimes tribunal.
Like many other noted war criminals, Ali is a beneficiary of the prolonged military rule (1975-90). While the country’s first military ruler Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated the anti-liberation forces in the polity, Ali utilised the opportunity to strengthen Jamaat financially over the years. Thanks to the official patronage of the successive military regimes, Jamaat has built a vast economic empire in Bangladesh. The Jamaat’s participation in the coalition government headed by Khaleda Zia (2001-2006) helped the country’s largest Islamist party to consolidate its economic position further. Under the names of various trusts and foundations, the party runs banks, insurance companies, super specialty hospitals, pharmaceutical firms and charities expanding its influence in the Bangladeshi society.
The fundamentalist Jamaat’s role expansion especially terror financing poses serious threat to the country’s security, peace, stability and democracy because the party’s long-term objective is to build a Sharia state in Bangladesh by all means, including violence. The Jamaat’s well entrenched position in Bangladesh’s economy is a matter of concern for the ruling AL. The Sheikh Hasina government has no doubt initiated strong measures to curb Islamic militancy in the recent years but regulation and monitoring of the fundamentalists’ booming economy may not be an easy task.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent policy and strategic analyst writing on issues concerning Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]