The execution of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war has evoked mixed reactions and stirred heated debate again in Bangladesh and outside.
While some see their hanging as justice finally delivered, others deny they were guilty of the terrible crimes they were accused of or are opposed to the death sentence they were handed out. Still others argue that the trial that culminated in their conviction was deeply flawed.
Besides Mujahid and Chowdhury, others who were handed out the death sentence or life imprisonment by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) include Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Golam Azam and Abdul Qader Mollah. Mainly activists of the JI and the militias it set up during the liberation war, they collaborated with the Pakistan Army and facilitated the terrible violence it unleashed – it is alleged to have engaged in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – to prevent East Pakistan from breaking away.
How many people were killed during this war is bitterly disputed. According to official estimates, three million people of East Pakistan’s then 70-million-strong population were killed and hundreds of thousands of women raped. Most of these were pro-independence Bangladeshi nationalists, secular intellectuals and Hindus.
It was to deliver justice to victims of the liberation war that the Awami League government set up the ICT in 2010. A secular party that led the liberation struggle, the AL had taken in steps to bring the collaborators to justice but its efforts were thwarted for decades.
Several of those convicted by the tribunal have already been hanged. Some like Azam escaped the noose because of their advanced age.
The ICT’s work has deeply polarized Bangladesh and drawn flak worldwide. It has been accused of being politically motivated and criticized for targeting opposition politicians, flawed trials, flaunting of international legal norms and selective dispensation of justice. Indeed, all the convicted belonged to the JI and the BNP, bitter enemies of the AL. The Supreme Court rejected Chowdhury’s petition to allow several high-profile witnesses to depose during his trial.
Besides, while the JI and its militias may have carried out the bulk of the atrocities during the 1971 war, there were vigilante groups close to the liberation forces too that indulged in massacres. The actions of the latter are not being investigated by the ICT.
Victims of the atrocities during the 1971 war say they have waited for over four decades for justice and that while the ICT’s functioning may be flawed, it is delivering them some justice. A flawed justice is better than no justice, they argue.
Secular liberals and Islamists have locked horns for decades in Bangladesh. The conflict between linguistic and religious nationalism was the core issue underlying the 1971 war, which ended in the triumph of linguistic nationalism and secularism. However, within a few years, the Islamists re-asserted themselves and in the decades that followed, clashes between secular liberals and religious radicals have sharpened. The war crimes trials have given this battle a new momentum.
During the Shahbag demonstrations of 2013, thousands of secular Bangladeshis protested the ICT’s awarding of life imprisonment to Mollah and demanded that he be hanged. Demands of protestors quickly broadened to call for death sentence to all war crimes convicts and a ban on the JI and its institutions. The Shahbag protests triggered a counter-mobilization by the JI and other Islamist organizations.
Over the past two years, Bangladesh’s secular liberals have become more vocal in their criticism of the religious radicals. Religious extremist outfits which seem to have proliferated – some claim ties to the al-Qaeda and others to the Islamic State – have hacked to death several secular/ atheist bloggers. There has been a worrying surge in Islamist extremism in the country. Executions of war criminals have triggered a surge in mobilization and violence by the JI and the religious extremists.
The recent hanging of Mujahid and Chowdhury can be expected to prompt them to engage in another round of revenge and retaliation.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at email@example.com
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