The ongoing war crimes trials have occupied considerable space of Bangladesh’s political discourse for obvious reasons. Unlike other South Asian nations, Bangladesh was born through a bloody Liberation War fought over a period of nine months. In 1971, South Asia witnessed the worst human suffering and state-sponsored violence in the post-colonial era.
Even today, the country finds it difficult to come to terms with its violent past especially the treacherous acts of some conservative religious groups, including Jamaat-e-Islami. These forces owing allegiance to the military junta of Yahya Khan indulged in large-scale atrocities against their Bengali brethren in the guise of protecting the unity of a so-called nation. The present secular government of Sheikh Hasina has fulfilled a historic responsibility by bringing the collaborators of the murderous Pakistani troops to justice.
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Jamaat’s secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed for committing heinous crimes during the Liberation War. A four-member Appellate Division led by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha delivered the final verdict after Mojaheed appealed against his sentence.
The apex court stayed the war crimes tribunal’s death sentence given to Mojaheed for aiding and facilitating the killing of country’s leading intellectuals during the final phase of the war. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-2 verdict clearly noted that the 67 year-old Razakar had planned and executed the brutal murders of intellectuals and under his leadership, al-Badr, an elite auxiliary force of the Pakistan Army, indulged in killing, genocide, kidnapping and looting across the country during the Liberation War.
The Supreme Court, however, acquitted him from the charges of abducting and killing of popular journalist Sirajuddin Hossain. Earlier, the ICT-2 sentenced Mojaheed for killing Hossain. The highest court also commuted his death penalty to life imprisonment for killing nine Hindu civilians in Bakchar area of Faridpur. The ICT-2 awarded him capital punishment for his direct involvement in the murder of innocent people belonging to the minority community.
Mojaheed is the fourth war crimes convict whose case has been resolved by the Supreme Court after the Awami League (AL) Government instituted the war crimes tribunal in March 2010. Mojaheed appealed against the ICT-2 verdict on August 11, 2013. The Appellate Division began the appeal hearing of death-row convict Mojaheed on April 29 this year.
Mojaheed was sentenced to death by the ICT-2 on July 17, 2013 for two out of five charges brought against him. In addition to the murder of intellectuals, he was found guilty on the charge related to the killing of freedom fighters Rumi, Badi, Jewel, Azad and music director Altaf Mahmud at the army camp set up in Nakhalpara, Dhaka, during the 1971 war.
Mojaheed was the sixth Jamaat leader convicted for wartime atrocities. He was arrested on August 8, 2010 and the prosecution submitted formal charges against him on December 11, 2011. The ICT-2 indicted him on June 21, 2012. The prosecution brought two charges of genocide against the Hindus and five charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, forced deportation, abduction, torture and arson committed during the war period. His trial began on July 19, 2012.
Mojaheed led the ruthless al-Badr militia which was specially trained and armed by the Pakistan Army to crush Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. The armed group, which called itself “angel of death”, was notorious for targeting the prominent personalities of the Bengali intelligentsia whom the agents of the Yahya regime viewed as ideologues of the Bengali resistance movement.
According to the prosecution, Mojaheed was the chief architect of the killing of intellectuals, including top writers, journalists, professors, lawyers and physicians. Prosecutor Muklesur Rahman Badal noted that as the president of Jamaat’s the then student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha (ICS), Mojaheed was the supreme commander of al-Badr between October and December in 1971.
The prosecution claimed that al-Badr activists executed the orders of Mojaheed “until the last day”. Reports say Mojaheed declined to surrender even after the Pakistan Army laid down arms on December 16, 1971. The prosecutors added that Mojaheed had taken over the charge of al-Badr, comprising mostly of ICS activists, from Matiur Rahman Nizami in October 1971.
Numerous Liberation War documents and reports depict how Mojaheed, who had begun his political career with Jamaat’s erstwhile student body ICS, fiercely opposed East Pakistan’s secession from the west. He joined the ICS at an early age and became its chief in his native Faridpur district in 1968. In 1971, he was ICS’ general secretary of East Pakistan unit when the war broke out.
Like many other collaborators, Mojaheed went into hiding immediately after Bangladesh had attained independence. He resurfaced in 1977 when the military regime of Ziaur Rahman started rehabilitating the anti-liberation forces in its bids to broaden civilian support base. Reports suggest that he formally joined Jamaat in the late 1970’s and was made a member of its central committee in 1982. He moved quickly to the largest Islamist party’s leadership position to become assistant secretary general in 1989. He was subsequently elevated to the post of secretary general in 2000.
Mojaheed, who is also known for his oratory and organisational skills, made concerted efforts to establish him as a political leader in the country. He contested the parliamentary election several times between 1986 and 2001 without much success. He served as a Social Welfare Minister from 2001 to 2006 in the BNP-Jamaat coalition government headed by Khaleda Zia. He was the second highest-ranked member of Jamaat and an influential leader of the 18-party opposition alliance until his arrest in 2010. Despite all attempts, Mojaheed could not emerge as a mass leader largely due to his anti-people role in 1971.
Mojaheed rejected all the charges brought against him and denied Jamaat’s anti-Bangladesh role in 1971. He has always maintained that there was no Liberation War in the country. Demands for the trial of war criminals were renewed in 2007 when Mojaheed remarked that “anti-liberation forces never existed”. The fundamentalist party called Liberation War a “civil war” which further angered the people.
The Supreme Court ruling evoked mixed reactions in Bangladesh. Many welcomed the judgment while Jamaat termed the trial of its secretary general “farcical”. The prosecution expressed satisfaction over the verdict. Reacting to the ruling, Bangladesh’s Attorney General Mahbubey Aam observed, “There is no bigger crime than to eliminate the nation’s intellectuals”. Scores of pro-liberation organisations, including Ganojagoron Mancha hailed the verdict.
The Jamaat on the other hand rejected the conviction of its leader Mojaheed. The orthodox party perceives that the war crimes trials have been politically designed to eliminate its top leaders rather than delivering justice. The party enforced a 24-hour strike the very next day protesting the ruling of the highest court. Such divergent opinions and ideological schism have persisting in the polity ever since the ICT was established in 2010.
What has alienated Mojaheed from the people was his arrogant attitude towards the judiciary. Reports indicate that he had been in defiant mood throughout the trial process. Mojaheed’s counter-narrative of the glorious Liberation War has found few takers in Bangladesh. His radical views on the birth of an independent nation are tantamount to rewriting history.
Mojaheed now faces the gallows for his dubious role in 1971 unless the case is reviewed by the same court or he is granted clemency by the president. Both seem unlikely particularly the second option. None of the war crimes convict belonging to Jamaat sought presidential pardon as the party does not recognise the present government. Recent reports say Mojaheed asked his lawyers to file a petition seeking review of the Supreme Court ruling.
The verdict of the apex court assumes significance because this is for the first time a former minister will be hanged for committing heinous crimes in the 1971 war. The people of Bangladesh lament that noted Razakars like Mojaheed used government’s cars sporting national flag after becoming ministers in independent Bangladesh—a country whose emergence as the first Bengali nation they had violently resisted more than forty years back.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East India.