Bangladesh, which is increasingly descending into another cycle of violence and repression, appears on the cusp of executing yet another opposition leader for alleged crimes committed 45 years ago. This time it is Mir Quasem Ali, a senior leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami Party. Seven other individuals have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
Although Quasem had been living openly as a businessman in Bangladesh for years, he was sentenced to death in 2012 by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Independence War after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who returned to power in 2009, established a war crimes tribunal to look into abuses during the 1971 war. Five other geriatric suspects have been hanged for their part in the conflict, which began when what was then East Pakistan broke away from its bifurcated mate, which is now Pakistan. The bitter partition is believed to have taken as many as half a million lives.
Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first president, who was assassinated in 1975, allegedly by suspects connected to Jamaat-e-Islami. She has been in a decades-long vendetta with Begum Khalida Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman and the head of the Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party,
The hangings have taken place against the backdrop of a new epidemic of killings of liberal activists, secularists, foreigners and members of religious minorities that the government has blamed on Islamists. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, the bloody-minded Middle Eastern group, has claimed credit for several of the attacks, including one on a bakery in July in which five militants killed 29 people including 20 hostages including 18 foreigners and two locals. Five of the gunmen were killed.
Although the ISIS claimed responsibility for the incident and released photographs of the gunmen, the home minister charged that the suspects were members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and were not affiliated, which critics regarded as an attempt to put the blame on the government’s political opposition.
In the midst of this tightening atmosphere of mistrust and fear, a panel of United Nations human rights experts has urged the Bangladeshi government to annul Quasem Ali’s death penalty and retry him in a court system that complies with international standards.
“Mr. Ali’s trial and appeal processes were reportedly marred with irregularities and failed to meet international standards on fair trial and due process for the imposition of the death penalty,” noted the UN experts on extrajudicial executions, independence of the judiciary, torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.”
The Supreme Court was scheduled to review the case on Aug. 24, but has since delayed the case until Aug. 28 amid charges by the UN human rights experts that Bangladesh is disregarding serious violations of fair trial and due process guarantees.
It is unlikely that Mir Quadem Ali is going to be given a new trial. Jamaat is a major ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by Khaleda Zia, who heads the ruling Awami League. The two women have traded periods in power for two decades amid continuing conflict, nationwide strikes and escalating violence. The Awami League, which has held power since 2009, outlawed Jamaat, as the party is known, ruling that it was unfit to contest in national polls.
Critics say the executions relate more to the struggle between the Awami League and Jamaat’s ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
“Our Prime Minister set up the war crimes tribunal in 2010 amidst opposition from various corners including the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which was once an ally to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (led by Begum Khaleda Zia),” Haroon Hassan, a Dhaka based political analyst, told Asia Sentinel as the move toward the hangings began early in 2015. “They alleged that our present government is scoring political mileage with the war crimes trials.”
The UN human rights experts also expressed alarm at reports that Ali’s son and part of his legal defense team, Ahmed Bin Quasem, a lawyer practicing before the Bangladeshi bar, had been abducted from his home on Aug. 9 by Bangladeshi security forces, two weeks before his father’s review hearing.
“We understand that no information has been given on where he is being held, by whom or under what suspicion or charge. We urge the authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of Mr. Quasem,” the UN experts said.
Abducted, apparently by the security forces at about the same time was Hummam Quader Chowdhury, the 33-year-old businessman son of the late Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who was also hanged for his part in the 1971 events. Hummam was taken from his car near a traffic light close to the magistrate’s court in Old Dhaka on Aug. 8.
Bangladesh’s security and intelligence forces have all denied knowledge of the detention of the two men despite the fact that Bangladesh’s authorities have informed the US Embassy in Dhaka of their detention. Far too often in Bangladesh, disappearance into the arms of law enforcement is tantamount to permanent disappearance.
The UN experts have pointed out that the Bangladesh requires the police to bring the men to court within 24 hours of detention, and only detain them further following a magistrate’s order, none of which has happened.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring