Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Updated: November 02, 2014 10:11 PM GMT
A former freedom fighter shouts slogans demanding the death penalty for Islamist leader Mir Quashem Ali and other alleged war criminals in Dhaka on Sunday (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Courts in Bangladesh have issued death sentences for two more top Islamist leaders for their actions during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, stoking fears of further violent protests.
A war crimes court in Dhaka on Sunday found Mir Quashem Ali guilty of war crimes including murder, rape and arson. The three-judge tribunal ruled that Ali orchestrated the abduction, torture and killings of civilians and top intellectuals as a commander of Al-Badr, a Gestapo-style Islamic militia created by the Pakistan military. Now 62 years old, Ali is a principal financier of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Supreme Court on Monday upheld a death sentence of another top Jammat leader, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman. The 61–year-old had been sentenced for war crimes last May, but his lawyers appealed the verdict.
Both judgments come after the war crimes court pronounced a death sentence for Jamaat leader Motiur Rahman Nizami last week — a ruling that triggered angry protests from Jamaat supporters in different parts of the country. After the verdict, Jamaat immediately called for a three-day strike, during which party supporters clashed with law enforcement.
Police say they have arrested at least 15 Jamaat supporters since the Nizami verdict and are prepared to quell any additional violence that may be sparked by the recent rulings.
“Police and border guards have been put on high alert and we have been instructed not to spare anyone who resorts to violence,” said Mozammel Haque, police chief of northern Bogra district, a Jamaat stronghold.
Following Monday’s verdict, Jamaat called its supporters to stage another protest on Wednesday and Thursday. Local media reported that Jamaat supporters had smashed vehicles in Dhaka and neighboring Gazipur district on Sunday.
Defense lawyers for Mir Quashem Ali said they were dismayed by Sunday’s ruling and would appeal to the Supreme Court.
“The court’s judgment is frustrating because we have submitted all the documents to prove his innocence, but the judges have ignored them,” Saifur Rahman, Ali’s lawyer, told reporters in Dhaka on Sunday.
However, the decision elated many former independence fighters and secularists.
Johurul Jalal, 60, fought for independence and said he was pleased with the ruling against Mir Quashem Ali.
“I will be happy to see him walk to the gallows, but I would have been happier if I could have killed him during the war,” he told ucanews.com.
“He has been a chief financier for Jamaat and invested millions of dollars to get international lobbyists to stop the war crimes trial in Bangladesh.”
The government and state prosecutors also welcomed the verdict.
“Mir Quashem Ali used to say there was no war of independence in 1971, rather it was an ‘internal conflict’ of Pakistan. His statement has been proved wrong and the nation has come out of a culture of impunity,” Zead Al-Malum, a state prosecutor, told ucanews.com after the verdict.
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.
Established in 2010 by the ruling Awami League government, the two-court domestic war crimes tribunal has sentenced eleven politicians, mostly from Jamaat, to death or to life imprisonment. Top leader Abdul Quader 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”.