By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Ever since the Awami League (AL) government of Sheikh Hasina restarted the war crimes trial in Bangladesh as part of its electoral pledges after it assumed power in 2009, most of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami have been convicted, threatening the very survival of the country’s largest Islamist party. In a significant development on January 6, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty given to Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-1 in 2014 for committing heinous crimes, including genocide, rape and orchestrating the killing of leading intellectuals during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan.
The apex court’s Appellate Division dismissed the 73 year-old fundamentalist leader’s appeal against the ICT-1 judgment. Nizami was sentenced to death by the tribunal on October 29, 2014 for his direct involvement in the killings of 450 people and rapes of at least 30 women in four villages of his native Pabna district during the 1971 war. The ICT-1 noted in its verdict that death would be “the only fitting punishment” for the horrendous crimes he had committed.
The misdeeds of notorious war criminal Nizami are known across Bangladesh and the confirmation of his death penalty triggered jubilation among the people. Attorney General Mahbubey Alam expressed satisfaction with the verdict, while the Jamaat reacted strongly to the judgment calling a nationwide strike the next day. The Jamaat, a key ally of major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has slammed the war crimes tribunal as a politically-designed campaign to destroy the party leadership through farce trials. The Jamaat violently resisted the Bengali’s struggle for independence and dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 but the party denies committing atrocities.
It may be added that Nizami is already on the death row for his dubious role as industries minister in the 2004 Chittagong arms haul case. On January 30, 2014, Chittagong’s Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1 awarded death penalty to 14 people, including Nizami for trying to facilitate smuggling in arms across the border. On April 2, 2004, the Bangladesh security forces seized huge arms and ammunition from two vessels at the jetty of Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. under the Ministry of Industries headed by Nizami. The seizure generated furore in Bangladesh and neighbouring India when it was discovered that the weapons were meant for the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom active in North Eastern state of Assam.
After Ghulam Azam, Jamaat’s prime ideologue in erstwhile East Pakistan, Nizami was one of the most important leaders of the anti-liberation forces that had unleashed a reign of terror throughout the country to prevent Pakistan’s break up. According to the prosecution, Nizami as the supreme commander of the ruthless pro-Pakistani militia- Al-Badr – had been engaged in the planning and execution of the murders of hundreds of freedom fighters, including students, teachers, journalists, cultural activists and other professionals during the nine month-long Liberation War in 1971.
The tribunal held Al-Badr responsible for abduction, torture and killing of about 200 intellectuals who had supported the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Many of martyred intellectuals constituted the bedrock of Bengali nationalism which emphasised secular values and ideas over rigid interpretation of Islam. The Pakistani collaborators launched the extermination campaigns at the fag end of the war in their attempts to make the new Bengali nation brainless. The irreparable loss of the leading intellectuals in 1971 still torments the Bangladeshis.
In 1971, Nizami was the president of the Islami Chhatro Shongho, the then student wing of Jamaat that mainly provided cadres to the armed groups opposed to the liberation of Bangladesh. The tribunal verdict mentioned that Nizami had also played pivotal roles in forming and running anti-liberation forces like Razakar Bahini and Peace Committee—both trained and armed by the Pakistan Army to suppress the Bengali rebellion.
Many top Jamaat leaders are subject to public derision for their treacherous acts in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. The trial of the collaborators and war criminals has always been a popular demand in the country. So far, more than 10 leaders of the Jamaat have either been convicted or lodged in jail facing trial. Among them, three leaders— assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Mollah, Central Executive Council (CEC) member Qamaruzzaman and secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid were executed.
Mollah was the first war crimes convict to be executed on December 12, 2013 and thereafter Qamaruzzaman was hanged on April 11, 2015. Mojahid, a close political associate of Nizami, was executed along with former BNP minister Salauddin Quader Choudhury on November 22, 2015. Former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam, was given life term considering his old age and ill health, subsequently died in prison on October 23, 2014. Earlier on February 9 in the same year, senior Jamaat leader AKM Yusuf, the alleged founder of the Razakar and architect of the infamous Dakra massacre, died in the prison before the conclusion of his trial.
Another CEC member of Jamaat and a prominent business tycoon of Bangladesh, Mir Quasem Ali appealed in the Supreme Court challenging the death sentence awarded to him by the ICT-2 on November 2, 2014. The court set February 2 as the date for ruling on this influential fundamentalist leader. Nizami’s was the sixth appeal in the war crimes cases to witness final verdict. Except in the case of Sayedee, whose death penalty was commuted to life sentence, the apex court rejected all other previous review petitions of the war crimes convicts paving way for their execution.
The government could hang Nizami within months unless the apex court reviews its own ruling, or he gets presidential pardon which is unlikely. Bangladesh’s Law Minster Anisul Huq assured of quick disposal of Nizami’s review petition—the only legal barrier for sending him to the gallows. Nizami fled Bangladesh immediately after Pakistan’s ignominious defeat in the 1971 war and returned to the country only after Ziaur Rahman’s military junta decided to rehabilitate the anti-liberation groups in the polity to consolidate his position.
Nizami is a major beneficiary of the prolonged military rule and had a smooth political career after his return to Bangladesh. He was made Jamaat’s assistant secretary general in 1983 and then elevated to secretary general in 1988. He was elected to the Parliament twice—1991 and 2001. Nizami succeeded Azam as the party chief in 2000. He also served as the agriculture minister from 2001 to 2003 and then as the industries minister until 2006 in the BNP-Jamaat coalition government headed by Khaleda Zia.
However, making noted war criminal-turned politician like Nizami a cabinet minister and his movement across the country in government cars sporting the national flag of Bangladesh, whose emergence as an independent Bengali nation he had opposed vehemently more than four decades back, infuriated the people further. The ICT-1 observed in its verdict that Nizami’s appointment as minister was “disgraceful for the nation as a whole”.
The country’s highest court delivered the verdict against the backdrop of growing Islamist violence and religious intolerance in Bangladesh in the last few months. The court ruling on Nizami and the recent executions of Salauddin and Mojahid are likely to aggravate the hostility between the secular-nationalist groups and the religious fanatics and sharpen the ideological cleavage in otherwise a homogenous nation. The international community expressed concern over the trial process which has resulted in further polarisation of the Bangladeshi society and resurgence of religious extremism.
The AL government insists that the trial of war criminals is a historic necessity to bring justice to the three million martyrs and two lakh (200,000) women who sacrificed their chastity for the liberation of the Bangladesh. The Hasina government’s firm resolve to continue the war crimes trial even in the face of international criticism could change the political dynamics of Bangladesh in the coming days.
The Jamaat, which has already been deregistered as political party by the Election Commission, will be more marginalised in the polity once the court rulings are implemented. In such a likely scenario, the party leadership may vent its frustration by patronising the jihadi elements that are determined to annihilate all the liberal and rationalist thinkers of Bangladesh. It remains to be seen how Prime Minister Hasina steers the country out of trouble in 2016.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst with a specific focus on Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]