A special war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has sentenced the former leader of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami to 90 years in jail. He was found guilty of 61 charges, including murder and torture in the year 1971.
Ghulam Azam, 91 years old, was head of Jamaat-e-Islami when Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan after a 9-month war in 1971. He led the party until the year 2000 and is now considered to be its spiritual leader.
Ahead of the sentencing, there was an outbreak of violence in the capital city Dhaka, with local media reporting at least two deaths when pro-Islamists clashed with police and paramilitary troops.
Shortly after the sentence was handed down, news agency Agence France-Presse quoted Judge A. T. M. Fazle Kabir as telling the crowded tribunal on Monday, July 15, "It has been proved that Ghulam Azam was the architect of the militia groups including Peace Committee, Al Badr, Rajakar." The tribunal had originally sought the death penalty for the man termed the "mastermind" behind the massacre of intellectuals at the end of the war.
Supporters of Bangladesh's largest opposition party, the BNP, called out a nation-wide general strike in response to the sentence. They claim the tribunal is being used as a weapon by the ruling party to destroy the opposition.
Azam's lawyer told DW he did not agree with the ruling because "there is no evidence to convict Ghulam Azam in this case." He also refuted a comment made by the court regarding Jamaat-e-Islami, which said the party was a criminal organization. "But no such charge has been brought against Jamaat-e-Islami. We think the tribunal went beyond authorization and passed this judgment with emotion. So we will definitely file an appeal against it and we think the judgment will be set aside by a superior court."
It is thought that over three million people were killed and over 200,000 women were raped by the Pakistani army during the war with the help of pro-Pakistan collaborators and militias inside Bangladesh, namely members of Jamaat-e-Islami. The organization is active in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India and was founded by Muslim theologian Abu Aala Maududi in 1941.
The tribunal was set up in the year 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during Bangladesh's birth in 1971. Since January this year, the tribunal has sentenced five top former leaders of the party. In late February, vice president of the Islamist party Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced by the court to death. This led to riots in Dhaka, in which over 40 people were killed over days of clashes between Islamists and police as well as supporters of the tribunal who demand capital punishment for all those on trial. It is feared Azam's sentencing could lead to similar outbreaks of violence across the city.
Waiting for justice
Monday's verdict has angered both opponents of the tribunal and its supporters. The latter believe Azam should have received the death penalty.
"We have been waiting for this verdict for the last 40 years," Muntasir Mamun, a professor of history at the University of Dhaka, told DW. "The main point is, the court termed Jamaat-e-Islami a criminal organization and has held the members responsible for their wrongdoings in 1971."
"We wanted the death sentence for him," Mamun explained. "The court even said he deserved the death penalty. But due to his age and other ailments he has been given 90 years of imprisonment. So in a way, it is ok, we accept it. But yes, we are a bit disappointed."
Ferdousi Priyabhashini, a renowned Bangladeshi sculptor, intellectual and victim of the alleged war crimes 1971, published a book in 1999 titled Tormenting Seventy One. In it, she recounts "vivid descriptions of torture, rape and other brutal activities of the Pakistani army, but also statements of victims and experiences of reliable eyewitnesses."
In an interview with DW on Azad's case, she echoed criticism of the sentence, saying, "My whole life, I wanted to see him hanged. 90 years of imprisonment is nothing but a joke. When the next Government comes, they can easily take him out of the country in the name of health or treatment.''
"People who are against capital punishment should understand what happened to Bangladesh in 1971," she continued. "At least 3 million people were killed ... That would have not happened without the help of persons like Ghulam Azam. It was his 'blueprint,' following which thousands of people were killed and raped."
Criticism of tribunal
In Bangladesh, as well as outside, there is criticism of the tribunal set up by the ruling secular and center-left Bangladesh Awami League. At the beginning of this year, Human Rights Watch voiced concern over the court, saying it was operating under legal provisions that fall short of international standards.
Some organizations have raised the question whether there is enough evidence 40 years after the war to ensure fair trials. Critics in Bangladesh have also accused the tribunal of bias and of serving as the prime minister's instrument against opponents in the country's two main opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami.
Regardless of the criticism, Mahbubul Alam Haolader, who fought for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 and who was a joint plaintiff in the court case against Sayedee in January, spoke for the majority of Bangladeshis when he told DW he was nonetheless happy the tribunal had been set up to revisit the brutal crimes committed 40 years ago.