Islamist’s death sentence sparks fear of violence in Bangladesh

Motiur Rahman Nizami found guilty of war crimes, supporters promise protests
Islamist’s death sentence sparks fear of violence in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi people cheer over the death sentence of top Islamist leader Motiur Rahman Nizami (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

A Dhaka court on Wednesday sentenced the chief of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, sparking fears of fresh violence.

The war crimes court found Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty of eight out of 16 counts of war crimes including murder, rape, arson and looting. The three-judge tribunal is one of two special domestic courts in Bangladesh prosecuting people accused of war crimes.

Head judge Enayetur Rahim sentenced Nizami to "hang by the neck until his death" for orchestrating the killing of top doctors and intellectuals during the conflict as head of a ruthless militia.

Nizami, 71, was the head of Al-Badr, a Gestapo-style militia created by the Pakistan military that is blamed for the abduction, torture and killing of about 200 top intellectuals who supported the nation’s freedom movement.

The ruling Awami League government and state prosecutors welcomed Wednesday’s verdict.

“The government is happy with the judgment and we are ready to tackle any adverse situation in the coming days,” Law minister Anisul Haque told reporters in Dhaka.

Haider Ali, a state lawyer, told the decision sets a positive precedent.

“This verdict has established rule of law in the country because Nizami has been handed down what he deserves,” he said outside the court.

Defense lawyers, however, said they found Wednesday’s verdict frustrating and planned to appeal.

“We are completely dismayed over the court’s decision. We have quizzed state witnesses and successfully refuted all their arguments,” said Tajul Islam, a defense lawyer.

“This is an emotional judgment from the court and we cannot accept it. We will appeal against it in the Supreme Court and hopefully we can prove that he is innocent,” he added.

Elation, anger

As the news of Nizami’s verdict spread, hundreds of secularists and former freedom fighters waiting inside the court premises burst into cheers.

“The court has done what the nation expected. We hope the government will make the verdict effective quickly,” Sanjib Kumar, 69, a Hindu and former fighter told “This verdict makes the nation free from a serious shame which existed for a long, long time.”

But the court ruling also stokes fears of violence by Nizami’s supporters. Jamaat called a three-day nationwide strike starting on Thursday in protest of the verdict.

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Security has been beefed up in Dhaka and across the country since Tuesday to quell any possible violence. Police said security forces have been put on high alert.

“We are fearing fresh violence over the verdict. Security has been tightened across the country and in some risky districts, border guard soldiers have been deployed beside police,” said Muhammad Sayedul, a junior officer with Dhaka Metropolitan police.

In 1971, the eastern portion of Pakistan broke away to become an independent Bangladesh following a nine-month war.

Jamaat opposed Bangladeshi independence and its leadership stands accused of aiding the Pakistan army in committing war crimes through Islamic militia groups. Independent researchers estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people died during the war.

Wednesday’s judgment came out nearly three years after Nizami was first arrested and put on trial.

Established in 2010, Bangladesh's war crimes tribunal has sentenced ten politicians, mostly from Jamaat, to death or to life imprisonment. Top leader Abdul Kader Mollah was hanged in December after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. Several other leaders are also being prosecuted.

The ruling Awami League Party says the war crimes trials are necessary for national healing. But Jamaat and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a longtime ally and the country’s second-largest political party, say the trials are a “tool for political vendetta”.

International rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have criticized the tribunal for being “procedurally flawed” and “falling short of international standards”.

Additional reporting by AFP

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