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Opinion: The executions must be stopped

Lucas Grahame Kommentarbild App
Grahame Lucas
November 19, 2015

Bangladesh is set to hang two more senior opposition leaders for crimes allegedly committed during the 1971 war of independence. But the executions must be stopped for the good of the country, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed (L) is taken to the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 17 Juy 2013 (Photo: EPA/STRINGER +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Stringer

Let me make one thing clear from the outset. I do not approve of or support the politics of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party or those of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a former member of parliament for the opposition Bangladesh National Party. Their arch conservative, religiously inspired politics and ideals are not mine nor do they - I will hazard a guess here - find support amongst liberally-minded people anywhere in the world.

The crimes of which they have been found guilty and condemned to die for are damning indeed. They were sentenced to death on charges of genocide, religious persecution, abduction and torture during the bloody 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Their appeals to the Supreme Court have been summarily rejected. The executions could take place at any time.

There can, however, be little doubt that the trial has been deeply flawed. The United Nations, the European Union and human rights organizations have condemned the proceedings. Toby Cadman, a barrister and founder of the international Forum for Democracy and Human Rights, told DW: "The prosecution has been unable to prove any elements of the charges against the defendants. The fact remains that these convictions are based on multiple hearsay evidence and from witnesses who have been shown to be unreliable, with no supporting evidence supporting them."

DW's Grahame Lucas
DW's Grahame Lucas

'Not justified'

According to the defense, the men's appeals to the Supreme Court were dismissed after only the briefest of deliberations. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission set up by the US Congress has expressed serious concerns, pointing out that lawyers representing Mujahid were intimidated and arrested.

Former US Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp described the imposition of the death sentences as "not justified" and has called on the Bangladeshi government to commute them. US Senators Jack Reed and John McCain, who ran for the US Presidency in 2008, have slammed the trial because of its "procedural bias" against the defendants which led to them being denied alibi witnesses.

These convictions and the appeals process are unsafe and do not in any way meet the standards of international law. Moreover, the death sentences and pending executions represent a massive and irreversible miscarriage of justice. But the condemned can expect no mercy. The executions will bring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a step closer to achieving her goal of destroying the political opposition and bolstering her position in the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh.

Executions will trigger unrest

The party and its supporters will duly applaud and celebrate. That is to a certain extent understandable. After all, the country has waited over forty years for the perpetrators of some terrible crimes to be brought to justice.

According to the government, three million people were killed in 1971 and over 200,000 women raped. But a terrible chapter in a country's history cannot be closed with another terrible violation of human rights.

The executions will most likely trigger severe unrest and further divide an already deeply troubled society. Jamaat has called a nationwide strike for Thursday. In the past, similar verdicts triggered violence that left hundreds dead on the streets.

PM Sheikh Hasina pledged at the 2009 election to bring the perpetrators of the 1971 war crimes to justice. The ongoing deliberations of the so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) show her ruthless determination to close the 1971 chapter at any price and on her terms.

Chaos is spreading

She appears blissfully unconcerned about the consequences and is thus unlikely to listen to the West's warnings. After all, the US supported Pakistan back in 1971 and thus opposed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and Hasina's much loved father. Why should she listen?

But the writing is already on the wall. Islamists and the nationalist opposition (BNP) in Bangladesh see themselves as being under siege. There are persistent rumors that the so-called "Islamic State" is gaining a foothold in the country. Bloggers, who support the country's liberal and secular tradition, are being murdered by Islamists on the streets. The Hasina-led government stands idly by and watches the chaos it has helped to create spread further.

While the idea of closing the 1971 chapter was both honorable and necessary, Hasina has chosen the wrong path. She should have looked to South Africa and its Truth Commission. That might have led to reconciliation. Instead, by setting up the ICT and pushing through politically inspired verdicts against opposition leaders, she has demonstrated that her understanding of the rule of law is badly flawed.

There can be no question of the judiciary being independent. The proceedings at the ICT will not close a chapter in the country's history. It has made Mujahid and Chowdhury martyrs to the Islamists and the BNP. Their supporters will take their revenge.

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