By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On September 3, 2016, Bangladesh executed the ‘chief financer’ of Jammat-e-Islami (JeI), Mir Quasem Ali, found guilty of War Crimes during the 1971 Liberation War by the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2). His execution took place at Gazipur District’s Kashimpur jail. Ali had been accused of involvement in a “reign of terror” in the city of Chittagong and was found guilty in eight of the 14 charges, including the abduction and killing of teenage freedom fighter Jashim Uddin Ahmed at the Dalim Hotel, one of Al-Badr’s torture cells in Chittagong city. Apart from the hotel, Quasem and his aides ran torture camps in Dowsta Mohammad Panjabee Building and Salma Manzil in Chittagong city.
While upholding Quasem’s death penalty, the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, S K Sinha, who was also heading the bench in the case, observed that there was no doubt that Mir Quasem was the ‘chief’ of the Al-Badr unit in Chittagong. Al-Badr was one of several vigilante militias of the then JeI students’ wing – the Islami Chhatra Sangha – formed to assist the Pakistan Army in its campaign of genocide, rape, arson, loot, and forced exile of Bengalis who supported the freedom struggle.
Elaborating on the dreadful acts of violence committed at Al-Badr’s Chittagong headquarter by Quasem, ICT-2, in its verdict of November 2, 2015, observed:
The evidence presented proves it beyond reasonable doubt that the harrowing dynamics of terror, violence, torture impeccably demonstrate that the system of cruelties and terror even transformed to brutal murder of many detained civilians in the ‘death factory’ of AB [Al-Badr] force headquartered at Dalim Hotel… Accused Mir Quasem Ali had been in steering position of the Al-Badr detention and torture camp… The accused was an indispensable cog in the ‘murdering machinery’ implanted at Dalim Hotel.”
Further, upholding the lCT-2 verdict, the Supreme Court on March 8, 2016, noted:
The accused [Quasem] not only organised the force at Chittagong, he had commanded the force and directly participated in the perpetration of most barbarous acts unknown to human civilization. He does not deserve any leniency on the question of sentence on consideration of the nature and gravity of offence.
Quasem, did not seek Presidential pardon after the final petition for a review of his death sentence before the Supreme Court was rejected on August 30, 2016. Quasem was arrested on June 17, 2012, from the office of Naya Diganta, a newspaper of the Diganta Media Corporation, of which he was chairman. ICT-2 sentenced him to death in 2014 after finding him guilty on ten of 14 charges brought against him by the prosecution. The judges sentenced Quasem to death on two charges for killing Jashim, Ranjit Das and Tuntun Sen at the Dalim Hotel. He was given total 72 years in prison on eight other charges of torture, abduction and confinement. Mir Quasem appealed to overturn the verdict while his defence claimed he was in capital Dhaka when the atrocities were committed. Later, the Supreme Court bench in March 2016 acquitted him of two charges including the killings of Tuntun and Ranjit, resulting in the final verdict where he was found guilty on eight of 14 charges.
Quasem was elected a member of the Pakistan Chhatra Sangha’s provincial working council and on November 6, 1971, became the general secretary of its East Pakistan wing. Under his command, local collaborators of the Pakistan Army let loose a reign of terror to suppress the freedom struggle in Chittagong.
Post independence, and with the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, rightist elements gradually regained their strength in Bangladeshi politics, allowing Quasem to resurface. He became the founding President of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, a rechristened Chhatra Sangha, on February 6, 1977. He pumped billions into JeI from the mid-1980s to put the radical Islamist political formation on a firm financial footing in Bangladesh. An executive council member of the Jamaat, he was a director of the Islami Bank and chairman of the now-closed Diganta Media Corporation. He was also a founder of Ibn Sina Trust and director of the non-government organisation – Rabita al-Alam al-Islami.
Quasem is the sixth person to be executed by War Crimes Tribunal since December 2013. Previously, Abdul Quader Mollah, JeI Assistant Secretary General; Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, JeI Secretary General; Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, JeI Assistant Secretary General; Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, BNP National Standing Committee member; and Motiur Rahman Nizami, JeI Chief, were executed for crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War.
The Sheikh Hasina Wajed led-Government constituted ICT-1 on March 25, 2010, with the objective of bringing the perpetrators of War Crimes to justice. Subsequently, ICT-2 was established on March 22, 2012, to speed up the War Crimes Trials. So far, the two ICTs have delivered 26 judgments. Fifty (50) persons have been convicted and 28 of them sentenced to death for the crimes they committed during the Liberation War.
Various pro-liberation groups, including Gonojagoron Mancha, which champions the demand for capital punishment for war criminals, and the people of Chittagong hailed the execution. Even so, in anticipation of possible protests, the Government deployed thousands of extra Police and border guards in the major cities of Bangladesh. Previous convictions and executions by the war crimes tribunal have triggered violence in which about 200 people, many of them members of Islamist parties, were killed.
Unsurprisingly, as before, Pakistan came out with a strong reaction against the execution, remarking that Quasem was executed “for the alleged crimes committed before December 1971, through a flawed judicial process”. In protest, the Bangladesh foreign office summoned the acting Pakistani High Commissioner, Samina Mehtab. and deplored Islamabad’s statement as amounting to “direct interference” in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. Additional Foreign Secretary Kamrul Ahsan, who summoned Mehtab, stated, “Pakistan’s statement is completely a direct interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs.” Dhaka further observed, “By openly siding with the Bangladesh nationals convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, Pakistan once again acknowledged its direct involvement and complicity in the mass atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.” Significantly, Turkey was the only other country to express “sorrow” over the execution. Bangladesh protested, declaring: “Such reaction over the execution of a war criminal is tantamount to interference in matters pertaining to Bangladesh.”
Significantly, Bangladesh is going through a time of violence and extremists activities, with Islamist extremist trying to destabilize the Awami League-led government and to disrupt the ongoing war crimes trials. According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 97 persons, including 42 civilians, four Security Force (SF) personnel and 51 terrorists have been killed from January-August, 2016. During the corresponding period, 33 persons were killed, including 12 civilians and 21 terrorists (with no SF fatality) in 2015; and 29 civilians, 9 SF and 22 terrorists, aggregating 60 persons killed in 2014. Moreover, the unprecedented hostage incident of July 2, 2016 in Holey Artisan Bakery, in which 22 civilians including 18 foreigners and six Bangladeshis were slaughtered by a group claiming Daesh [Islamic State] affiliation, underpins Bangladesh’s vulnerabilities. On July 9, 2016, an unnamed Government official disclosed that more than 100 young persons in the age group of the terrorists who attacked the Holey Artisan café had gone missing since January 2015, and many of them are suspected to joined terrorist formations in the country, or to have travelled, or attempted to travel to Syria to join Daesh.
The commencement of trials against War Crime perpetrators provided an opportunity, once thought lost, to claim justice for millions of victims of the genocide of 1971, and to establish truth that was denied to the nation for 40 years. Bangladesh is currently experiencing forceful cross-currents, with the ongoing war crime trials and the activities of terrorist outfits on its soil. The divergent pulls reflect the tension between the idea behind the creation of Bangladesh, principally based on ideologies of secularism and democracy, and their constant abuse by a succession of regimes, both military and political. The success of the war crime trials reiterates the true idea behind the formation of Bangladesh.
Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management