BANGLADESH WAR CRIMES: VILLAGE OF WIDOWS GETS JUSTICE
In a significant development, on Nov 3 Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader and noted war criminal Muhammad Qamaruzzaman for committing heinous crimes during the country’s 1971 Independence War against Pakistan.
Sixty-two-year old Qamaruzzaman is the assistant general secretary of Jamaat — the biggest Islamist party of Bangladesh. The war crimes tribunal set up by the Awami League (AL) government four years back also awarded capital punishment to two top Jamaat leaders — party chief Matiur Rahman Nizami and key party financier Mi Quasem Ali, in a spate of judgments within a week.
Since its establishment in March 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has sentenced 12 war criminals, mostly belonging to fundamentalist Jamaat which had violently resisted the creation of a Bengali nation in 1971. Out of 10 senior Jamaat leaders convicted so far, eight had been given the death penalty. Among them, three were tried in absentia.
A four- member judge panel headed by Justice S.K. Sinha decided that the tribunal’s death sentence to Qamaruzzaman would stand. The ruling Awami League said the nation got the verdict it was expecting for the war criminal while the defence called the ruling “extremely disappointing”.
Earlier on May 9. 2013, the ICT-2 found Qamaruzzaman guilty of five out of seven charges, including genocide, torture, rape, looting and deportation of unarmed civilians during the 1971 Liberation War and sentenced him to death on two of the charges. The Jamaat leader was also given life imprisonment for killing a civilian and the murder of five. While delivering the sentence, the chief of the three-member panel of ICT-2, Justice Obaidul Hassan observed: “Seeing how he has committed these crimes, it will not be fair if he is not penalised with capital punishment.”
During the trial proceedings, Qamaruzzaman however denied participating in wartime atrocities and said the prosecution was politically motivated. Reports suggest that when the death sentence was announced, he immediately said it was “the wrong judgment…..History will not forgive anyone. History will put everyone in the dock”. The defence counsel was also critical of the judgment.
Qamaruzzaman was arrested on July 13, 2010 and his trial ended on April 14, 2013. The tribunal maintained that the charges brought against the Jamaat leader had been proved beyond a doubt.
He was found guilty of orchestrating what the prosecution described as “one of the bloodiest single episodes in the 1971 war”. The prosecution said he had formed the “killing squad” Al-Badr to collaborate with the Pakistan Army and led them to gun down 183 unarmed farmers in the remote northern village of Sohagpur, which since then was called “Village of widows”.
During his trial, three of the widows testified against him. The tribunal was told how then 19-year old Qamaruzzaman led Pakistani troops to the village located in his native Sherpur district. Most of the able-bodied male members of the village were taken to a paddy field and summarily executed. Another village witness who lost almost all of his family members in the carnage said that their only “crime” was to have taken part in training to join the armed struggle for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
In 1971, Qamaruzzaman was the leader of Jamaat’s notorious student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha (ICS) in Mymensingh and “chief organiser” of Islamic militant group Al-Badr in greater Mymensingh region. He also served as two-time district president of ICS. The prosecution said that after receiving special training from the Pakistan Army, the Al-Badr militants — predominantly ICS recruits led by Qamaruzzaman, launched large-scale atrocities targeting innocent civilians, particularly Hindus, in Mymensingh region.
Working as a journalist after independence, he joined the vernacular weekly Sonar Bangla in the 1980s and subsequently became its editor. He also worked for Jamaat’s mouthpiece the Daily Sangram as executive editor. But the National Press Club cancelled his membership on Feb 13, 2013 under pressure from the Shahbag activists.
Qamaruzzaman’s association with the radical Islamic party continued in the post-1975 period. Former military ruler Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated the anti-liberation forces in the Bangladesh polity in 1976 for political expediency. Qamaruzzaman served as the head of Jamaat’s diplomatic relations and liaison team. He did contest parliamentary elections as Jamaat candidate three times but without any success. He had already lost his credibility for the dubious role he played in 1971.
Bangladesh’s civil society is keenly watching the war crimes trials. The recent Supreme Court ruling has led to a legal debate over the implementation of Qamaruzzaman’s death sentence. The country’s legal experts say he could be hanged within months unless the case is reviewed again or he is granted clemency by the president. However, both the possibilities can be ruled out under the present AL dispensation which is determined to expedite the war crimes trials.
A few opposition leaders have also raised questions regarding the autonomy of the tribunal as it delivered three verdicts within a week after a gap of nine months. The ruling AL refuted such allegation and said the judiciary has been functioning independently. In a public rally in Dhaka on Nov 3, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated her vow to try all suspected war criminals and purge the soil of Bangladesh of its stigma by executing the war crimes convicts in the current term of her government.
Qamaruzzaman will be the second senior fundamentalist leader to be executed for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War of 1971. On Nov 6, Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq said that Qamaruzzaman could be executed as early as next week unless he seeks a presidential pardon.
Meanwhile, the political observers of Bangladesh are concerned over the possibility of fresh unrest in the wake of war crimes convictions. Such convictions of top Jamaat leaders and execution of Bangladesh’s first war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah sparked violent protests by the Islami Chhatra Shibir activists across the country last year. Jamaat announced a nationwide 48-hour strike from Nov 5 to protest the Supreme Court’s decision.
In a democratic society, calling a nationwide strike to protest the ruling of country’s apex court is unthinkable. But then, Bangladesh has been struggling to establish the rule of law since the restoration of parliamentary system in 1991 after prolonged military rule.
Rupak Bhattacharjee has worked as Senior Research Fellow at Kolkata’s Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies and New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management.
NOVEMBER 18, 2014