By S. Binodkumar Singh
After forty-three years, justice finally caught up with Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) ameer (chief) Motiur Rahman Nizami (71) as the International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1), one of the two War Crimes Tribunals constituted by the Sheikh Hasina Wajed Government, sentenced him to death on October 29, 2014, for atrocities during the Liberation War of 1971. Nizami was found guilty on eight of the 16 charges brought against him. The four charges which brought him death included involvement in the killing of intellectuals; the murder of 450 civilians; rape in Bausgari and Demra villages in Pabna District; the killing of 52 people in Dhulaura village in Pabna District; and killings of 10 people and rape of three women in Karamja village in Pabna District. He was also sentenced to imprisonment for life on the charges of involvement in the killing of Kasim Uddin and two others in Pabna District; torture and murder of Sohrab Ali of Brishalikha village in Pabna District; torture and killing at Mohammadpur Physical Training Centre in Dhaka city; and killing of freedom fighters Rumi, Bodi, Jewel and Azad at Old MP Hostel in Dhaka city.
Nizami, at that time, was the President of the Islami Chhatra Sangha, the students’ wing of JeI, the precursor of the present-day Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), and was also ex-officio chief of Al-Badr, a paramilitary wing of the Pakistan Army in 1971. As a leader, he not only took part in crimes against humanity, the judgment reads, but also delivered provocative speeches to incite thousands of his followers to commit similar crimes during the Liberation War. However, instead of being punished for the heinous crimes, President Ziaur Rahman permitted Nizami and other leaders of the JeI to revive the party in 1978. The JeI subsequently emerged as the largest Islamist party in the country and Nizami established himself as a key leader, organizing the ICS. He became JeI ameer in November 2000, and also served as the Minister of Agriculture (from October 10, 2001, to May 22, 2003) and Minister of Industries (from May 22, 2003 to October 28, 2006) in the Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Government between 2001 and 2006.
Nizami was first arrested on June 29, 2010, in a lawsuit for hurting religious sentiments. After three days, he was shown arrested for committing crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. Subsequently, on May 28, 2012, he was indicted on 16 specific charges for his involvement in War Crimes. It took around 29 months to go from the indictment to the sentencing, as the verdict was deferred three times in the past.
Earlier, on January 30, 2014, the Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1 had awarded the death penalty to Nizami in the sensational 10-truck arms haul case of 2004, the country’s biggest ever weapons haul case. On February 7, 2014, the verdict on the arms haul case was transferred to the Chittagong High Court for confirmation of its sentences. Nizami filed an appeal with the Chittagong High Court seeking acquittal from the charges and, on April 16, 2014, the Chittagong High Court accepted the appeal. The case is still pending in the High Court.
Meanwhile, as in earlier cases, soon after the verdict, cadres of JeI and its student wing ICS went on rampage across the country. 30 persons, including 28 JeI-ICS cadres and two Security Force (SF) personnel have been injured in violence across the country, thus far. 71 JeI-ICS cadres were also arrested from various parts of the country for bringing out processions. The JeI called for a countrywide hartal (general strike) on October 30, November 2 and November 3
The verdict has attracted some negative international attention. Calling for a commutation of Nizami’s death sentence, the European Union (EU), in a statement on October 29, 2014, declared, “The case of Motiur Rahman Nizami has now reached a stage where an execution of the death sentence constitutes a serious threat.” On October 29, the United States (US) reiterated its support to bringing to justice those who committed atrocities during the Liberation War, but demanded that the trials should be fair and transparent maintaining the international standards.
On the other hand, minutes after the news of Nizami’s death penalty reached the Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka city on October 29, Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform) activists erupted into exhilarated cheers. Showing victory signs, they demanded the immediate execution of the verdict, chanting slogans like “we demand hanging”.
Meanwhile, on November 2, 2014, ICT-2 sentenced JeI central executive committee member Mir Quasem Ali (62) to death after finding him guilty on two charges, one for abduction, torture and killing of 15-year-old freedom fighter Jasim of Sandwip Sub-District in Chittagong District; another for abducting, torturing and killing Ranjit Das alias Lathu and Tuntu Sen alias Raju of Chittagong town in Chittagong District. Quasem, considered one of the top financiers of JeI, faces 14 charges, including murder, abduction and torture committed in Chittagong city between November and December 16, 1971. He was allegedly the chief of the Chittagong Al-Badr and was indicted on September 5, 2013, after being arrested on June 17, 2013.
Thus far, the two ICTs conducting the War Crimes Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, have indicted 18 leaders, including 13 JeI leaders, three BNP leaders and two Jatiya Party (JP) leaders. Verdicts against 12 of them (including Nizami and Quasem) have already been delivered, in which nine persons have been awarded the death sentence (including Nizami and Quasem), while three have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Remarkably, in the first-ever execution in a War Crimes case, JeI Assistant Secretary Abdul Quader Mollah (65), who earned the nickname Mirpurer Koshai (Butcher of Mirpur), was hanged on December 12, 2013, at Dhaka Central Jail, against his conviction on charges of atrocities committed during the Liberation Wars of 1971. Of the six other convicts who were awarded death sentences, three – Al-Badr leaders Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan and Chowdhury Mueenuddin, and JeI leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – were awarded sentences in absentia. The verdicts against JeI leaders Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, and BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, are currently pending with the Appellate Division.
Significantly, former JeI Chief Ghulam Azam (92), who led the JeI during the country’s Liberation War in 1971, died at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) in Dhaka city after suffering a stroke on October 23, 2014. Azam had served a year and three months of his 90-year jail term for crimes against humanity. Protest rallies by opponents of JeI were held during his funeral at Baitul Mokarram National Mosque in Dhaka city, demanding that his body be sent to Pakistan for burial there. Ziaul Hasan, chairman of Bangladesh Sommilito Islami Jote, an alliance of progressive Islamic parties, observed, “The janaza (mourning procession) of a war criminal can never be held at the national mosque.”
The verdict against the JeI chief is a body blow to the organization. The Government is already considering banning JeI, which was debarred on August 1, 2013, from contesting elections. Awami League (AL) Joint Secretary Mahbub-ul-Alam Hanif on October 29, 2014, noted, “The verdict has once again proved that JeI was involved in war crimes with a political decision.” With its very existence now under threat, JeI attempts to retaliate violently are imminent, and likely to vitiate the security environment of the country.
Compounding the problem are the recent activities of other Islamist extremist and terrorist groups, particularly the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). On September 22, 2014, the Detectives Branch (DB) of the Police claimed that 25 top leaders of JMB and seven other Islamist outfits, including Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Jamaatul Muslemin, Majlish-e-Tamuddin, Hizbul Zihad, Hizbut Tahrik, Jamaatil Muslemin and Dawatul Jihad, discussed a regrouping plan at a meeting in a remote char (riverine island) area at Sariakandi sub-District in Bogra District on May 5, 2014. More recently, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested JMB’s chief coordinator Abdun Noor and four of his close aides from the Sadar sub-District Railway Station in Sirajganj District on October 31, 2014. 49 primary detonators, 26 electronic detonators, four time bombs, 10 kilograms of power gel, 155 different kinds of circuits, 55 jihadi books and a power regulator were recovered from the JMB cadres. During preliminary interrogation, the JMB operatives confessed that they were planning to carry out large-scale bomb attacks across the country, particularly in Dhaka city.
Remarkably, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), currently investigating the October 2, 2014, Burdwan (West Bengal, India) blast case, on October 28, 2014, uncovered a suspected plot by JMB to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and carry out a coup. The JMB had also planned to assassinate BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia. Earlier, on October 27, 2014, Indian investigators had revealed that the JMB module in Burdwan had managed to transport six consignments of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to Bangladesh, to be used for terrorist activities in the country.
The War Crimes Trials, and the cumulative verdicts against leaders of extremist parties and groups that have been at the core of destabilization in Bangladesh over the past decades, have been crucial in turning the country around after years of mounting chaos that had brought it to the very brink of failure. This process needs to be sustained, indeed, accelerated, despite the backlash of extremist entities, if the gains of the recent past are to be consolidated.
S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management