Security near the high court in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka was beefed up this morning, prior to a verdict in the trial of Abdus Subhan, a leader of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami. Yet activists still exploded three Molotov cocktails near the courthouse, creating panic among passersby.
The blasts, however, did little to deter the death sentence handed to Subhan by a war crimes tribunal, for committing crimes against humanity, including murder, looting, and abduction, during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
The sentence comes at a time when the country is already affected by a political conflict that has led to more than 70 deaths since January 6. On that day, while under detention in her house, Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and leader of a 20-party opposition alliance, called countrywide protests to press demands for a parliamentary election.
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Subhan, a vice president of Jamaat, one of the opposition alliance members, was convicted of six out of nine charges against him and tribunal chairman Justice Obaidul Hasan sentenced him to be hanged till death.
During the trial, prosecutors told the court that during the 1971 war Subhan was the chief of Jamaat’s Pabna unit and, under his leadership, forces had orchestrated killings, looting, abductions, and other crimes.
“As a leader of Jamaat, he collaborated with the Pakistan army and he carried out [crimes] in the name of Islam,” prosecutor Sultan Mahmud told reporters soon after the verdict was delivered.
Soon after the verdict was declared, Shishir Manir, Subhan’s defense lawyer, claimed that there had “errors in fact and law.”
“We hope to bring the mistakes to notice when we will appeal for the verdict with the higher court,” Manir told VICE News.
Subhan, 79, is the 17th person to be convicted for war crimes in the 1971 war and the ninth Jamaat leader to be convicted of such charges.
In 1971, Jamaat stood against the formation of Bangladesh, which was at the time still part of Pakistan. In March 1971, Pakistani forces cracked down on the populace in present-day Bangladesh, after it had declared independence.
According to Bangladeshi authorities, during the nine-month long bloody war that ensued afterwards, the Pakistani army and their local collaborators killed at least three million people and raped more than 200,000 women. This war crimes tribunal was formed by the present government in 2009.
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There have been fears that this verdict may lead to an escalation of violence at a time when the political opposition is waging nationwide protests through a combination of blockades and strikes. Arson attacks and other violent incidents have already claimed 73 lives in the country.
Yet Dr. Amena Mohsin, a senior academic and a political analyst at the University of Dhaka, told VICE News: “This verdict will not lead to further violence, as it is already at an optimal level.”
She pointed out that in normal circumstances, Jamaat could have called a strike to protest the verdict, but now, “that may not be the case as already the nation is struggling through blockades and shutdowns.”
She also added that: “Subhan is not deemed as a ‘spiritual leader’ like Delwar Hossain Sayedee.”
Sayedee, also a top Jamaat leader, was given the death sentence by the tribunal on February 28, 2013, after being sentenced of eight counts, including murder, rape, and persecution of the country’s minority Hindu community. Over the next week, violence across the nation claimed more than 100 lives.
Later, on September 17, 2014, the highest court in Bangladesh reduced the 74-year-old Sayedee’s death sentence to “imprisonment till death.”