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Asia

Execution made Mollah an Islamist martyr

Abdul Quader Mollah has been executed for war crimes by a tribunal which has been the subject of widespread criticism and has raised doubts about the rule of law in Bangladesh, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

The execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of the Islamist Jammat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, will satisfy a great many people in the country who want to see a bloody chapter in the country's history closed once and for all and the perpetrators of the atrocities committed in the war of liberation of 1971 punished. In view of the millions who lost their lives and the estimated 200,000 women who were raped, that is in itself perfectly understandable.

DW Bengali Grahame Lucas

Grahame Lucas is head of DW's South East Asia Service / Asia Magazines

However, there can be little doubt that the trial before the so-called International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been deeply flawed. The political opposition suspected that it was designed from the outset to serve Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's personal desire for revenge against the political right and the Islamist movement in the country and to resolve a decades-long conflict between the two major political camps, Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. According to Hasina's opponents, Mollah and his co-defendants were denied a fair chance of defending themselves in accordance with international judicial standards. Both Human Rights Watch and the United Nations share this view.

Justified doubts

The criticism focuses on several aspects of the trial. For instance, there were from the outset justified doubts about the reliability of witness testimony four decades after the event. But the main criticism focuses on the legal and political processes involved. Mollah was originally found guilty on most counts as charged and sentenced to a life term in prison. The case appeared closed.

The prosecution could not appeal against the life sentence because at that time an appeal would only have been possible if Mollah had been acquitted of the charges. What happened next showed that the authorities were willing to respond to mass protests and do anything to get the death sentence - including manipulating the law.

Initially, they amended the constitution to make retroactive legislation permissible in the case of war crimes. They then amended ICT legislation retroactively to make an appeal by the prosecution against the life sentence possible. In the face of intense pressure from the government and the streets, the Supreme Court granted the appeal by the prosecution and imposed the death penalty on Mollah last September.

But Sheikh Hasina's efforts to fulfil her 2009 election pledge, to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, did not stop there. In the past, Bangladeshi courts have always allowed the right to appeal in the cases in which the death penalty has been imposed. This time, however, the attorney general, a close political ally of the prime minister, argued that that all legal avenues open to defense counsel had been exhausted. Mollah was denied the right to appeal, a right which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the end the court was only willing to hear a last minute stay of execution case filed by the defense. It was rejected on the last day of legal hearings before the elections - scheduled for January 5, 2014 - and Mollah was led to the gallows.

Cruel and inhumane vs. double standards

The court's deliberations and the government's conduct have not only been criticized by the conservative opposition and their allies, the religious right at home. They have also caused alarm internationally also in Germany and other European countries, where the death penalty is regarded as a cruel and inhumane punishment. Government supporters in Bangladesh have responded by accusing the West of being influenced by the Bangladeshi opposition and of applying double standards. The message is clear: The West should stay out of Bangladesh's internal affairs not least because it failed to condemn the atrocities committed back in 1971.

What does this tells us about the present state of Bangladesh? Without doubt the trial and the execution of Mollah have cast a long dark shadow over the country's liberal tradition. The motives for setting up the so-called War Crimes Tribunal originally appeared to be honorable. It was argued that it was time to close a chapter in the country's past, to heal old wounds and to mete out justice long overdue. But a trial under these circumstances, the imposition of the death penalty on a key defendant and its speedy implementation without respect for his rights will do nothing to close this chapter in Bangladesh's past. Rather, it shows that the country's understanding of democracy and the rule of law is badly flawed. Moreover, both sides will continue to manipulate the judicial system to their advantage depending on who is in power. If the ends justify the means as in this case, this trial will not close a chapter in the country's history. It has made Mollah a martyr to the Islamists and opened a new ugly chapter in the country's history.