Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal-1 has found Professor Ghulam Azam, the 91 year old ex-chief of Jamaat-i-Islami, guilty of masterminding atrocities during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
The retired head of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and considered its spiritual leader, Azam was convicted on Monday by ICT-1 on five charges. A death sentence was commuted to 90 years imprisonment. Protests broke out across the country led by Azam’s supporters, with clashes also occuring between protesters and police. Meanwhile pro-government Shahbag protesters have also rejected the verdict, demanding the death penalty.
Lawyers and tribunal officials said that the court found Professor Ghulam Azam guilty on charges of planning, conspiracy, incitement and complicity to commit genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1971 War for Independence from Pakistan. The International Crimes Tribunal-1 had earlier pronounced that all the five charges have been proved.
However, the presiding judge Justice ATM Fazle Kabir observed during his opening remarks that the documentary evidence presented by the prosecution had been inadequate. He further stated “This case is different from others. The accused was never present in any account of atrocities and the main allegation against the accused is ‘superior responsibility’.” The tribunal judges while reading out the verdict said that they had awarded imprisonment keeping in mind Azam’s old age.
Minutes after the Dhaka tribunal handed down the 90-year jail sentence, Gonojagoron Mancha rejected the verdict and began demonstrations, taking up position at Shahbagh intersection. The agitated Shahbagh youth also vandalised two vehicles in the intersection to protest the judgement. Sector Commanders’ Forum said the freedom fighters were “dissatisfied” and urged the prosecution to appeal.
Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami has called a nation-wide strike today. The hartal was called in anticipation soon after the tribunal fixed the date to deliver the much awaited verdict on Sunday.
Meanwhile, terming the verdict as deeply disturbing and unexpected, Ghulam Azam’s lawyers expressed dissatisfaction over the ruling. Defence counsel Toby Cadman stated, “The defence team will immediately start in its preparation to mount an appeal, but with the issuance of this judgment today, the Tribunal has lost all credibility in terms of its independence and impartiality. The total lack of credible evidence presented by the Prosecution has demonstrated that the Tribunal has little interest in bringing an end to impunity and bringing justice to the victims of the 1971 War of Liberation. The Tribunal Chairman demonstrated this unequivocally by stating that ‘the documents which the prosecution have submitted as evidence were not adequate’, but then proceeded to convict Professor Ghulam Azam and pass a sentence of death (commuted to 90 years due to his old age).”
Justice Anwarul Haq, a judge on the panel, began reading out the 75 page excerpt of the 243-page verdict at about 10:55am Monday in the presence of Azam.
“rushing to judgment”
Professor Ghulam Azam was taken to the ICT building from the prison cell of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University a few minutes before 10:00am. Sitting on a wheel-chair, Azam was produced at the tribunal dock at 10:42am. The tribunal started its proceeding at 10:46am with its chairman, Justice ATM Fazle Kabir, reading out a short description of the case.
The two other judges later read out parts of the verdict. Press officials, lawyers and many others from various walks of life were gathered at the tribunal premises from the morning. Meanwhile security forces were on heightened alert around the court.
“The Government is rushing to judgment in order to bring about a symbolic end,” Cadman observed. “Needless to say, we consider this a gross injustice toward our client, Professor Ghulam Azam. This latest decision constitutes a very serious violation of internationally accepted principles of fairness, which, sadly, reflects the conduct of this Tribunal since its inception.”