Jamaat leader Abdus Subhan is escorted by police in Dhaka on his way to prison after his death sentence was delivered (Photo by Hasan Raza)
A war crimes tribunal on Wednesday sentenced to death a senior leader of hardline Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami for atrocities committed during the country’s war of independence, raising fresh fears of violence in the Muslim-majority nation.
Abdus Subhan, 79, a Jamaat party vice president, was found guilty on six of nine charges of war crimes, including arson, torture, murder and genocide for his role in the war.
Among the most serious charges brought against him was the torture and killing of 400 villagers in Pabna by Pakistan army and Islamist collaborators under his leadership.
“Subhan is now at an advanced age but it cannot be considered as a mitigating factor for reducing the punishment since the gravity of his offences were extreme,” said Justice Obaildul Hasan, head of the three-judge International Crimes Tribunal-2, one of two domestic courts established by the Awami League in 2010 to prosecute people for crimes against humanity during the war.
State prosecutors have welcomed the verdict.
“It’s been proved in the court that Subhan is a traitor and killer. The judges have termed Jamaat as a terrorist organization in the verdict. We would like see to quick implementation of the verdict,” Barrister Turin Afroz told ucanews.com outside the court after the verdict.
However, defense lawyers said there were “legal and factual mistakes” in the verdict.
“We are aggrieved because this is a wrong judgment and it has been based on some baseless and false allegations. The state’s witnesses and evidence were weak while our witnesses and evidence were strong, but the court has favored the state,” said defense lawyer Shishir Monir, adding that he would appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court.
Nesar Ahmed, Subhan’s son, said his father was innocent. “He is a religious man and he didn’t commit any crime. The court has convicted him for political reasons.”
Muhammad Jalal, who fought during the war as a supporter of independence, compared Jamaat’s actions to those of the terrorist group Islamic State, which has perpetrated a series of recent public beheadings.
“Many innocent people were killed and women were raped under Subhan’s leadership. His group has beheaded many freedom fighters, just like the IS militias,” Jalal told ucanews.com outside the court.
In 1971, the eastern portion of Pakistan broke away to become an independent Bangladesh following a nine-month war.
About three million people were killed during the War of Liberation in 1971 and hundreds of thousands of women were raped by the Pakistan army and its collaborators, according to government estimates. Independent researchers put the number of dead significantly lower.
Some 10 million people fled to neighboring India.
The verdict has raised fears of further political violence in Bangladesh, which currently faces a transport blockade by an opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s second-largest political party and longtime Jamaat ally.
The alliance is trying to dethrone the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League party. It boycotted national polls on January 5 last year after Hasina refused to resign and make way for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls.
The boycott saw the Awami League win by a landslide, with a majority of parliamentarians getting elected without contest in the 300-seat National Assembly.
Nearly 100 people have been killed in political violence since early January last year, when BNP chief Khaleda Zia called on supporters to blockade roads, railways and waterways to force Hasina to call new polls.
Subhan is the 17th person and the 12th Islamist leader to be convicted by the war crimes court, set up by the Awami League government in 2010.
Previous death sentences against Jamaat leaders have plunged the country into deadly violence since 2013 and left more than 500 people dead.
The Awami League says the war crimes trials are necessary for national healing. But Jamaat and the Bangladesh Nationalist 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”.