By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On August 7, 2015, Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy alias Niloy Neel (28), a secular blogger and a Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform) activist was hacked to death at his Goran residence in the Khilgaon area of the national capital, Dhaka, in broad daylight. Later in the evening, a group identifying itself as Ansar-al-Islam, Bangladesh chapter of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS), claimed responsibility for the murder in an email sent out to almost all media outlets. The email declared: “Alhamdulillah! Mujahidin of Ansar-al-Islam (AQIS, Bangladesh Branch) carried out an operation to slaughter an enemy of Allah and His Messenger (peace & blessings be upon him), whose name is Niloy Chowdhury Neel.”
Niloy is the fourth blogger to be killed in 2015 by suspected Islamist terrorists. Earlier suspected extremists had killed three secular bloggers and writers in three separate incidents: on May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das (32), a progressive writer, blogger, editor of science fiction magazine Jukti, and an organizer of Gonojagoron Mancha, was hacked to death, using machetes, by four assailants at Subidbazar Bankolapara residential area of Sylhet city in Sylhet District; on March 30, 2015, another blogger and online activist, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu (27), was hacked to death in broad daylight in Dhaka city for his allegedly atheist views; and on February 26, 2015, Bangladesh-born American citizen blogger Avijit Roy (42), the founder of the Mukta-mona.com blog, was hacked to death in Dhaka city. Investigations into these cases later confirmed that that Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteer of Allah Bangla Team), a terrorist outfit linked with AQIS, organized the killing of these writers for their position ‘against Islam’.
These killings are, in some measure, a reaction to the assertiveness demonstrated by the Government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, as a result of which the threat from Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh has been minimized. Significantly, various Islamist terrorist and extremist formations had been operating menacingly across the country before Wajed coming to power in 2009. The Government’s sustained efforts, since, have led to widespread anxiety among the extremists, who now find their very existence under threat.
The speed and efficacy of the War Crimes Trials (WCTs) is another worrying factor for the radicals within Bangladesh, who once enjoyed state support under the predecessor regime led by Begum Khaleda Zia. Significantly, on August 5, 2015, the International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1) fixed August 11 for the delivery of its verdict in the case against two of the three Razakar (an auxiliary force of the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War) leaders – Sheikh Sirajul Haque alias Siraj Kosai and Khan Akram Hossain – for genocidal crimes against Hindus in Bagerhat District during the Liberation War in 1971. The tribunal dropped charges against the third accused, Abdul Latif Talukder, since he had died at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) on July 28, 2015. The trio had been indicted on November 5, 2014, on eight charges. Siraj Kosai was indicted on four charges – for the killing of over 600 Hindus in Rampal; the killing of 50 Hindus in Ranjitpur; the abduction and killing of 19 persons at Besargati and Kandapara; and the killing of seven at Chulkathi. Two common charges were brought against three – for the killing of 47 Hindus; while one charge each was separately laid against Khan Akram and Latif for the forcible conversion of 200 Hindus at Shakharikathi and the killing of freedom fighter Fazlur Rahman Shikder on December 13, 1971, respectively.
On July 16, 2015, ICT-2 had sentenced Forkan Malik (65), a member of the then anti-liberation party, Muslim League (ML), to death for crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. The tribunal found Forkan guilty in three of five charges framed against him. Of the three charges, Forkan was given the death sentence on two – the brutal rape and killing of Golapi Rani Saha, a teenage Hindu girl, at Subidkhali village of Patuakhali District on August 17, 1971; and the rape of Aleya Begum and killing of her father and two other civilians in Kakarbunia village on August 22, 1971. He was given life imprisonment for raping two Hindu women in Subidkhali village and forcing them to leave the village for India on August 20, 1971. However, he was acquitted of two charges for lack of evidence – for killing four people, including two local Awami League (AL) leaders in Mirzaganj upazila (sub-District) on August 12, 1971; and for forcing three Hindu siblings to accept Islam, who later left the country.
On June 9, 2015, ICT-1 had awarded the death sentence to Syed Muhamad Hasan Ali (65) aka “Razakar Daroga (Head of Razakar ‘police’ unit)”, an alleged commander of the Tarail Razakar unit in Kishoreganj District and a member of another then anti-liberation party, Nezam-e-Islami (NeI), for his crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. Hasan was found guilty on five of six charges brought against him. He was sentenced to death on two charges – for killing 12 Hindus and torching 10 houses at Shimulhati village on September 9, 1971; and for killing eight people and the abduction of another 10 in Borgaon village on September 27, 1971. He was sentenced to life terms until death on three charges – for killing a villager, Tofazzal, abduction of two others and burning two houses at Konabhawal village on August 23, 1971; for abduction and murder of Kamini Kumar Ghosh and Jibon Chakravarty and looting the Ghosh house at Araiura village on October 8, 1971; and for the killing of villager Rashid Ali Bepari and the torching of 100 houses at Sachail village on December 11, 1971. The tribunal relieved him of the charge of torching and looting seven houses at Sachail village on April 27, 1971.
Earlier, on May 20, 2015, ICT-2 awarded life imprisonment to Mahidur Rahman (84) and Ashraf Hossain Chutu (65), active members of ML who later turned into Razakar leaders, for their involvement in crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. The tribunal found Mahidur and Chutu guilty on two of the three charges leveled against them, awarding imprisonment until death for the abduction of 39 villagers from Chandshikari, Chamatola, Kabirajtola and Eradot Biswasertola under Shibganj upazila of Chapainawabganj District and killing 24 of them on October 6, 1971, and October 7, 1971. They were sentenced to a five-year prison term on the second charge of attacking and burning down houses after looting them in Kabirajtola and Eradot Biswasertola villages on October 13, 1971. The third charge of attacking the houses of Kalumuddin Mondol, Abdur Rashid, Gajal and Ilias Mondol of Sherpur Bhandar village and torturing them on November 2, 1971, was dropped as the duo had already been sentenced under the 1972 Collaborators Act on the same charge.
Thus far, the two ICTs have indicted 27 leaders including 13 from Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), six from ML, four from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and two each from NeI and Jatiya Party (JP). Verdicts against 22 of them have already been delivered – 16 were awarded the death penalty, while the remaining six received life sentences. Of the 16 who received the death sentence, JeI Assistant Secretary Abdul Quader Mollah (65), who had earned the sobriquet ‘Mirpurer Koshai (Butcher of Mirpur)’, was hanged on December 12, 2013, and JeI Senior Assistant Secretary General Mohammed Kamaruzzaman (63), was hanged on April 11, 2015. Eight cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the SC, including that of JeI Ameer (Chief) Motiur Rahman Nizami; JeI Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Abdus Subhan; JeI Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed; JeI Assistant Secretary General ATM Azharul Islam; JeI central executive committee member Mir Quasem Ali; Mobarak Hossain, former AL general secretary of Mogra union and a rukon (union member) of the JeI and Razakar commander; former State Minister of HM Ershad’s Government Syed Mohammad Qaisar; and Forkan Malik, a member of the then-ML. The case of BNP standing committee member Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (66), which was also pending with the Appellate Division of the SC, was decided on July 29, 2015, when the SC upheld his death sentence. On October 1, 2013, ICT-1 had sentenced Salauddin to death after proving his involvement in nine of 23 charges beyond reasonable doubt. However, on October 29, 2013, Salahuddin again appealed to the SC against the verdict, seeking acquittal on all charges. Meanwhile, immediately after the July 29, 2015, SC verdict upholding his death penalty, Gonojagoron Mancha demanded the immediate execution of the verdict. Gonojagoron Mancha spokesperson Imran H. Sarkar argued, “The evil force and conspiracy against the country has been destroyed through the verdict.”
The remaining five death penalties are in absentia, and include Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar, former Al-Badr leader and JeI member; Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan alias Nayeb Ali and Chowdhury Mueenuddin, former Al-Badr leaders and JeI members; Zahid Hossain Khokon alias Khokon, vice-president of BNP’s Nagarkanda unit and a Razakar commander of Faridpur District; and Syed Muhamad Hasan Ali, commander of the Tarail Razakar unit in Kishoreganj District and a member of NeI. Out of six persons who were awarded life sentences, two persons have already died serving their sentence – former JeI Ameer Ghulam Azam (91), who died on October 23, 2014; and former BNP minister Abdul Alim (83), who died on August 30, 2014. JeI Nayeb-e-Ameer Delwar Hossain Sayedee is lodged in Kashimpur Central jail of Gazipur District; Mahidur Rahman (84) and Ashraf Hossain Chutu (65), active members of the then-ML are lodged in Dhaka Central Jail; and former JP Member of Parliament (MP) Abdul Jabbar was sentenced in absentia.
Vowing to execute all war crimes trial verdicts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed declared, on April 15, 2015, “Two war crimes trial verdicts (one against Abdul Quader Mollah and another against Mohammed Kamaruzzaman) have already been executed, Inshaallah, we’ll execute the rest of the verdicts, no matter what barriers come. We’ll move ahead and seek cooperation of all, including the media personalities, in this regard.” Meanwhile, on July 16, 2015, Law Minister Anisul Huq announced, “The two International Crimes Tribunals will be merged into one after their judges’ return to the country from a conference in Argentina.” The six judges of the two tribunals are to attend a two-week international conference in Argentina to share their experience of holding war crimes’ trials and are expected to return towards the end of August. The AL-led Government formed ICT-1 on March 25, 2010, in line with the party’s electoral pledge to try people who committed crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. Furthermore, the Government constituted ICT-2 on March 22, 2012, to expedite the trial process. Each tribunal consists of a Chairman and two other members.
The Islamists have been pushed back decisively in Bangladesh, but latent capacities remain, and a backlash is building up as greater and greater pressure is exerted on them by the state. The succession of brutal killings of bloggers constitute high visibility soft target attacks intended to destabilize the situation and draw recruits into new Islamist formations, even as the older groups lose leadership and cadres to the relentless judicial and enforcement processes initiated by the Sheikh Hasina regime. Enormous gains have been registered by this regime in Bangladesh, but vulnerabilities persist, particularly as the global environment unravels, and Islamist terrorism assumes new and fearsome forms across wide areas of the world.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management