Judicial Murder and Executions in Bangladesh: How Should the International Community Encounter Such Heinous Repression?

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Abdullah Al Ahsan

After Abdul Quader Molla’s execution in Dhaka Central Jail on 12 December 2013, the incumbent Dhaka regime has put to death another top Bangladesh Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) leader, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, in the same prison on 11 April 2015. A number of other topmost leaders of the party are currently in death row while their appeals against the death sentences are pending in Bangladesh Supreme Court.

Both Molla and Kamaruzzaman were accused of committing crimes against humanity during a war between India and Pakistan that took place in what is now Bangladesh in 1971. As a result of the war, East Pakistan became separated from (West) Pakistan and emerged as Bangladesh.

The Conflict Began as Struggle for Self-determination

Being marginalized by mostly non-Bengali bureaucratic-military-political leadership, the people of erstwhile East Pakistan fought for self-determination, which resulted in atrocities perpetrated by (West) Pakistani army as well as by the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters). Pakistani soldiers killed tens of thousands of Bangladeshis though the actual number of casualties is still debatable, and the Mukti Bahini butchered innumerable (West) Pakistani civilians known as Biharis living in Bangladesh at that time. Biharis were non-Bengali speaking Muslims who migrated to East Pakistan after 1947. However, since histories are always written by the victors, the killings of the Biharis by the Mukti Bahini are not even part of the narrative.

During the war of 1971, the elders of the JI maintained a political and ideological stance of the unity of both the wings of Pakistan, as they feared the impending dominance and hegemony of India and its implication for a Bangladesh ceded from Pakistan. Bangladeshis now believe that what JI leaders feared in 1971 is the reality today. However, over time that political stance of JI has been demonized, particularly since 2010 its leaders have been made scapegoat for the murders and atrocities committed by the Pakistani army.

Mockery of Judicial System

Since the current government came to power in early 2009, the 1971 issue has resurfaced and taken a dramatic turn. Although the ruling party shared many political events and ideas with JI in independent Bangladesh, in order to weaken the opposition alliance, this government has targeted the main two opposition parties, BNP and JI, and implicated a number of their leaders mostly from JI with crimes committed during the 1971 war.

While the ruling gentry launched a political and legal campaign to punish JI leaders, the dominant international and domestic media opposed to JI politics started bringing back to public memories the horrific scenes of atrocities of the 1971 war and then associate JI leaders with them. The analogy that comes to mind is like focusing on the Holocaust tragedies and wrongly pointing finger at the Palestinians. Perhaps, the remoteness of JI leaders from the crimes of the 1971 war in Bangladesh is the same as that of the Palestinians from the Holocaust genocide.

The most serious contempt of the judicial process is the way the so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been organized and functioning. No international observer was allowed to witness the judicial process, many defense witnesses disappeared and a Skype-scandal surfaced in 2012. An Economist article has described the sham process well. Numerous Human rights institutions including the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International have expressed strong reservations about the process.

Innocent Victims

During the 1971 war, Abdul Quader Molla was a 23-year old student at Dhaka University and was staying at one of the University’s dormitories. Because of the war, he had to vacate the dorm and went to his home district Faridpur. After the war, he came back to Dhaka University, completed his formal education, and later taught at Dhaka University’s Udayan School and then at the nearby Rifles Public School and College located at BDR (now BGB) headquarters. He also worked for a public institute, the Islamic Foundation in Dhaka. Later he worked as a journalist and became one of the topmost leaders of JI.

At the time of the 1971 war, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman was a 19-year old college student. Later he completed his degrees in Mass Communication and Journalism from Dhaka University and stood first in master’s examination. He later became the leader of JI’s student organization, Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, worked as a journalist and gained fame as one of most competent young politicians of the country.

Dirty Politics in Bangladesh

Right after Bangladesh became separated from Pakistan and emerged as an independent nation in 1971, Awami League (AL) under the leadership of the current PM’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ruled the country until he was assassinated on 15 August 1975. During that four-year rule, while political opponents marginalized and politically ostracized JI leaders for their support for a united Pakistan, nobody ever brought any accusation of war crimes against them. Nor was there any lawsuit against them in any court of the country.

What is more, during the anti-Ershad movement in the late 1980s and then again during the anti-BNP movement in the early 1990s, AL collaborated with JI leaders, and Molla and Kamaruzzaman were members of various all-party committees. Suddenly, after AL came to power in Bangladesh for the third time in 2009, the government and JI’s political detractors drummed up media attention and started parading JI leaders as war criminals.

The media propaganda against JI leaders, especially Molla and Kamaruzzaman, closed eyes to a number of ifs, such as: If Molla and Kamaruzzaman were war criminals, they would not have been able to study at the country’s premier seat of learning – Dhaka University. More so, if Molla committed crimes against humanity in 1971, he would not have been employed to teach at schools in the heart of Dhaka city or to work for the Islamic Foundation, a government funded institution, right after independence. If JI leaders were war criminals, how come the PM and her party leaders sat together with them many times to launch joint political movements in the 1980s and 1990s? If they were war criminals, why did it take 40 years to bring charges against them given the fact that AL was previously in power right after independence and then again in 1996-2001? If there were any predictors of criminal tendency in the mental makeup of JI leaders, how come they never committed any such crimes before or after the 1971 war?

Unprecedented Repression

In today’s Bangladesh, because of widespread repression and political killings done by government forces, the voices of JI people are largely unheard. Neutral media is totally silenced: Perhaps, the dominant and predictable Islamophobic narrative in international politics makes it convenient for the current PM to pursue a path of executing leaders of an Islamic group with charges of war crimes. While the trial, imprisonment and subsequent executions are taking place as part of AL’s political expediency to weaken the opposition and thus to elongate her rule, they are also earning her government some tacit applause and cheer from various international quarters with Islamophobic tendencies. Since history is being written by the victors again, this narrative is completely buried beneath a landslide of political rhetoric and journalistic fabrications.

However, JI leaders’ resolve to remain in the country and not to move away to safe places, their determination to face the charges legally (however flawed the legal system is) and finally Molla’s and Kamaruzzaman’s composure, serenity and smiley faces while walking to the gallows stand very tall against the tsunami of the media malpractice of branding them as perpetrators of war crimes.

The authorities are apparently trying to push toward extremism. But victims seem to have learned from experience: generally JI and other Islamic groups have not taken law in their hands. Especially two groups of people have remained impervious to all media propagandas against Molla and Kamaruzzaman: people of their local areas and their party affiliates. The government forces have had to use brutal force to prevent thousands of local people from attending their funerals even though they were conducted hours before sunrise. Molla’s and Kamaruzzaman’s dauntless courage, amazing self-confidence and formidable strength of character even in the run-up to their executions have increased manifold the loyalty, intrinsic motivation and commitment of their party affiliates. By holding their head very high at the expense of their lives, Molla and Kamaruzzaman left a strong moral for JI people. JI as a political party may not be effaced by the executions of its leaders, as in all likelihood it will emerge as a much more mature and formidable force. However, the real loser is Bangladesh, as she has already lost two of her best sons.

How Should the International Community Encounter Such Heinous Repression?

Unfortunately Bangladesh is not alone in repressing dissident political opinion; Egypt is a glaring example of repression of public opinion. The only difference is that because of corrupt journalism events in Bangladesh do not get place in international press. But with more than 160 million people and a huge number of Bangladeshis working outside, events inside the country will definitely have an impact outside. The Prophet (sm) had taken patient and non-violent approach toward such events and the same approach must be adopted today and this approach will definitely bring lasting positive results.

The writer is a Professor of Comparative Civilization at ISTAC, INTERNATIONAL ISLAMIC UNIVERSITY MALAYSIA (IIUM)

Source: Turkey Agenda