Bangladesh Jails Islamist Politician for War Crimes

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July 15, 2013

By Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Fifth Jamaat-e-Islami Leader to Be Convicted, Raising Fears of More Unrest

DHAKA, Bangladesh—A tribunal investigating Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence sentenced a senior Islamist politician to 90 years in prison for alleged crimes against humanity, raising fears of further political instability.

Ghulam Azam, 91 years old, is considered to be the most influential Islamist leader to be prosecuted by the tribunal so far. A former leader of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, he was found guilty Monday on all 61 counts with which he was charged, including inciting, planning and failing to prevent war crimes. He denied all charges.

The 91-year-old former Islamist party leader Ghulam Azam, center, left court Monday after the guilty verdict in his trial.

Tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died in the war, many of them allegedly at the hands of Islamist militias that opposed independence and wanted Bangladesh to remain part of Pakistan.

Zead Al-Malum, one of the prosecutors, called the war-crime tribunal’s 243-page ruling a historic verdict. “Although Ghulam Azam was not physically present during the incidents, as the wartime leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami he is responsible for the heinous crimes perpetrated by the militia that collaborated with the Pakistan army,” he said.

Mr. Azam’s defence team disagreed with the verdict. “This is a perverse judgment,” said Abdur Razzaque, lead attorney for Mr. Azam. “The prosecution has failed to produce any evidence that would link Mr. Ghulam Azam to crimes against humanity. We will appeal.”

Jamaat-e-Islami, anticipating the verdict, called a nationwide strike Monday. The tribunal had already found four other current or former party leaders guilty, out of four tried. Party activists vandalized cars and clashed with police across the country Monday, senior police officials said. At least two people died and dozens were injured in the clashes, police said.

Bangladesh, reeling from a garment-factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,130 people, has seen its garment boom further threatened by political uncertainty arising from bitter divisions over the war-crimes trials.

Three of the four Jamaat-e-Islami leaders found guilty earlier by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal—which operates under domestic law—were sentenced to death. Countrywide strikes and violent clashes with police over the verdicts have left at least a hundred people dead since January, when the first one was handed down. The police say they had to act to maintain law and order.

Noting that all 10 people indicted on war-crimes charges are opposition politicians—eight from the Jamaat-e-Islami—the party and its ally, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, say Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is using the tribunal to target political opponents. The government denies this.

Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. A bloody nine-month war followed, pitting Bengali fighters from areas that would become Bangladesh against the Pakistani military, before the Indian army intervened to force Pakistan to surrender.

Ms. Hasina, daughter of wartime political leader Sheik Mujibur Rahman, set up the tribunal in 2009 to investigate wartime atrocities and bring closure, she said. But so far it has opened up deep divisions. Many middle-class urban residents with secular outlooks support ruling party leaders’ calls for harsh sentences. Islamist parties, which draw support from rural areas, have called the trials a sham.

Some analysts say the trials have worked to Ms. Hasina’s political advantage, shifting the nation’s attention away from opposition criticism that she is standing in the way of fair elections by refusing to reinstate a neutral caretaker-administration system that oversaw past elections. She denies creating any roadblocks to a fair vote.

Parliamentary elections are due early next year. The opposition swept local-council elections in June and July, riding what they say is a wave of public rejection of Ms. Hasina’s policies.

Human-rights groups have said the trials fall short of internationally accepted standards of justice. The government denies this.

A college professor early in his career, Mr. Azam joined the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1954 and rose to become the party president or ameer in 1967. During the 1971 war, he denounced the call for independence in what was then East Pakistan, calling it an Indian conspiracy to split the country. He is accused of creating Islamist militias that helped the Pakistan army unleash a reign of terror on the Bengali population.

Mr. Azam’s supporters say he took a political position in what was a civil war and, as a civilian, had no control over combatants. Even after retiring as head of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh in 2000, he was widely regarded as its spiritual leader.

Source: The Wall Street Journal