KILLERS OF BANGLADESH INTELLECTUALS MAY EVADE JUSTICE
On Dec 14, 1971, just two days before the Pakistan Army surrendered, Bangladeshi collaborators at the behest of the military junta of Yahya Khan annihilated 18 prominent Bengali intellectuals. But that was not a single act of violence unleashed by the religious fanatics on the intelligentsia.
During the nine-month civil war, hundreds of scholars, teachers, lawyers, journalists, doctors, artists, writers and engineers had been systematically abducted and summarily executed in efforts to weaken the new nation intellectually.
A Bangladeshi study claims that a total of 1,111 professionals consisting of 991 academicians, 13 journalists, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers and 16 others, including writers, artists and engineers were killed during the 1971 War of Independence. Since 1972, the country has been observing Martyred Intellectuals Day on Dec 14 every year.
In a landmark judgment on Nov 3, 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-2 sentenced former youth activists of fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami — Choudhury Mueen Uddin and Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan, to death in absentia for the killing of leading intellectuals. The tribunal found the two guilty of organising the abduction and killing of 18 intellectuals — nine Dhaka University professors, six eminent journalists and three physicians.
While delivering the sentence, Chairman of the three-judge panel, Justice Obaidul Hassan said 11 out of 11 charges against them were proved in course of the trial. According to the verdict, the men encouraged, provided moral support and participated in the murder of intellectuals who had supported Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. The tribunal judgment said Choudhury and Khan were “operation in-charge” and “chief executioner” respectively, of the Al-Badr militia created by the Pakistani military junta to exterminate the secular intelligentsia of East Pakistan believing that they were the main brains behind the mass revolt by the Bengalis.
The tribunal described the killings as “elitocide”. The judgment observed that the killings were a “premeditated and secret plan” to liquidate “the best and most notable intellectuals belonging to different professions”. Many Bangladeshis believe that the intellectuals had been systematically wiped out to make the new nation “brainless”. Before announcing the historic verdict, the tribunal noted that the “calculated killing of intellectuals in 1971 will ever torment the Bengali nation”.
On May 2, 2013, the prosecutors brought formal war crimes charges against Choudhury and Khan. The ICT-2 indicted both of them on 11 counts of crimes against humanity. Both Choudhury and Khan were the leaders of the notorious Islamic militia Al-Badr manned by the student activists of Islamist Jamaat which was firmly opposed to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. Archival media documents reveal that the two Al-Badr leaders acted like secret killers.
Choudhury and his henchman abducted the intellectuals from their residences during Dec 12-14, 1971 and murdered them at Rayer Bazar and Mirpur. Some of the witnesses pointed out that he himself used to slit their throats. One of the accomplices revealed that the Al-Badr mastermind took away all the money and important documents from the Islamic militia’s head office in Dhaka after the victory of Bangladesh.
Choudhury worked as a reporter in now-defunct Purbodesh newspaper in 1971. He was also implicated in the murder of some journalists. He allegedly kidnapped a senior colleague of the same newspaper.
Choudhury fled Bangladesh immediately after the defeat of Pakistani forces. Reports suggest he escaped first to Nepal and then made his way to Britain via Pakistan. Both Choudhury and Khan were most wanted following the liberation of Bangladesh.
Choudhury, now in his 60s, has been staying in Britain since then. He has emerged as a prominent Muslim community leader in Britain over the years. He is the founder of Muslim Council of Britain. In the late 1980s, Choudhury played a key role in the formation of a religious extremist organisation, Islamic Forum of Europe — Jamaat’s European wing, seeking the establishment of a Shariah state in Europe. He is also a leader of the London-based Jamaat organisation, Dawatul Islam, and special editor of Jamaat publication — weekly Dawat.
Choudhury denied the charges brought against him saying, “Yes, I supported the unity of Pakistan, but supporting the sovereignty of a nation is one thing and getting involved in criminal activity is quite another.” He declined to appear before the tribunal, saying “the tribunal in Bangladesh is a joke, it’s a sham trial”. His London-based lawyer too said the tribunal lacks “all credibility”.
Ashrafuzzaman Khan alias Nayeb Ali was a member of the Central Committee of Jamaat’s student wing — Islami Chhatra Sangha. He is alleged to have helped in drafting a list of intellectuals who were eventually kidnapped and murdered in the final days of the Liberation War. Several reports say Khan himself shot dead seven teachers and medical officers of Dhaka University at Mirpur on Dec 14, 1971.
The names of many victims were mentioned in a diary recovered from his home after he fled the country. Some reports claim he went to Pakistan and worked for Radio Pakistan. Later on, he moved to the US. Presently, he lives in New York and has not commented on the allegations. Media reports say 65-year old Khan has been involved in the conservative Islamic Circle of North America. He has been playing a leading role in the Islamic movement in New York City.
The trial of the alleged killers of the intellectuals generated wide interest among people in Bangladesh. Hundreds of people, including relatives and friends of the victims, former freedom fighters and activists of various pro-liberation organisations gathered outside the court on the judgment day, cheered the ruling and organised victory processions in the capital city.
Considering the popular demand of implementation of the tribunal’s judgment, the Awami League government decided to extradite the two Bangladeshi-born war criminals. The then law minister said the government officials were negotiating with the UK and the US to bring back two war convicts to the country. But it may be noted that the British government generally does not deport a person facing death penalty and it is unlikely that the tribunal’s death sentence will ever be executed.
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.
DECEMBER 14, 2014