x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Former Islamist party chief gets life for war crimes

A 91-year-old former chief of an Islamic party in Bangladesh was sentenced to 90 years in jail yesterday for crimes against humanity during the country's 1971 independence war.

A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital.
A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital.

DHAKA // A 91-year-old former chief of an Islamic party in Bangladesh was sentenced to 90 years in jail yesterday for crimes against humanity during the country's 1971 independence war.

The verdict angered supporters, who said the trial was politically motivated, and opponents who said he should be executed. Media reports said at least three Islamists were killed in clashes yesterday.

A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital. The panel said the former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party deserved capital punishment, but received a jail sentence instead because of his advanced age and poor health.

Azam was in the dock when the verdict was delivered while protesters outside rallied to demand his execution. Both defence and prosecution said they would appeal aginst the sentence.

Azam led Jamaat-e-Islami in East Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent as a result of the war. He is among several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted by a tribunal formed in 2010 by the government of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to try those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in the war.

Bangladesh says the Pakistani army killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war, and about 10 million people took shelter across the border in India.

Azam led the party until 2000 and is still considered its spiritual leader. Jamaat-e-Islami claims his trial and others were politically motivated, which authorities deny. The party called for a nationwide shutdown after the tribunal announced on Sunday it would have the verdict by yesterday.

Violence has followed previous verdicts, and news outlets including the Daily Star newspaper said at least three Jamaat-e-Islami activists were killed in parts of Bangladesh yesterday. Two were beaten to death by opposition activists in south-west Kushtia district as they tried to block a road. One was killed in north-west Chapainawabganj district when paramilitary border guards opened fire after a bomb was thrown at police.

Police clashed with party supporters in Dhaka while party activists set fire to vehicles that tried to defy the strike call, the Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper reported.

Police fired rubber bullets to disperse an opposition procession in Dhaka's Jatrabari area, and some photographers and cameramen were injured, the newspaper said.

Azam was found guilty of all 61 charges in five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.

He and his party were accused of forming citizens' brigades to commit genocide and other serious crimes against the pro-independence fighters during the war.

Azam had openly campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh and routinely met with Pakistan authorities during the war. Statements by Azam and his associates calling for crushing the fighters who fought against the Pakistani military in 1971 appeared regularly.

The prosecution in the trial said Azam must take "command responsibility" for months of atrocities perpetrated by his supporters.

Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a leader of the ruling Awami League, said he had expected capital punishment for Azam, but still he was happy that he was finally tried.

The verdict created resentment among family members of those killed in 1971.

"Our wait for the last 42 years has gone in vain. It's extremely frustrating," said Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury, the widow of a physician who was killed in 1971. "This verdict has just increased our pain."

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by a former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, has criticised the tribunal, saying it was created to weaken the opposition. Jamaat-e-Islami is the main political ally of Mr Zia's party.

Ms Hasina's government says it had pledged before the 2008 election - which it won in a landslide - to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.