With the execution of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mujahid on the eve of the 21st of November, controversy surrounding the war crimes trials in Bangladesh has attained new dimensions. Not only did they face gross injustice, but as will be elucidated later on in this piece, the defendants were victim to dirty tricks and cheap propaganda by vested quarters as well.
Earlier, on the 18th of November, the Apellate division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh rejected review petitions by the two politicians against the death sentences imposed on them by the International War Crimes Tribunal, a local court set to try perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the war of independence of the country in 1971.
The trials have however have been rife with controversy, and local and international human rights bodies and renowned legal experts like Geoffrey Robertson QC have raised concerns on the proceedings and various aspects of successive trials since their inception in 2010. The latest verdicts against Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mujahid are no different.
A seven-time MP with an illustrious political career, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury was a sitting MP from the port city Chittagong in Bangladesh. He was the son of the well known Bengali politician Fazlul Quader Chowdhury who served as the 5th speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan from East Pakistan from 1963-65.
All charges, and subsequently death sentences against Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury hinge on the claim that he was at Chittagong during the 13th and 19th of August, 1971. As reported by David Bergman, the defense argued that Chowdhury was not present in Chittagong on these two particular dates (or indeed throughout the 9 month war).
However, the tribunal not only limited Chowdhury’s defence to 5 witnesses against the 41 witnesses by the prosecution, it also did not take into account sworn affidavits submitted to the court by several individuals, among them 5 prominent Pakistani witnesses who say that Chowdhury was in Karachi in April 1971, the time of occurrence of the four offences he has been accused of.
The court simply ruled them as been inadmissible, vaguely stating that they had not been “submitted correctly”.
The verdict against Ali Ahsan Mujahid is another classical case of a miscarriage of justice. An illustrious politician, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid is the Secretary General of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic political party in Bangladesh. He was Minister for Social Welfare during the tenure of the 4-Party Alliance government led by BNP-Jamaat from 2001-2006.
He was sentenced, on the basis of assumption and hearsay, of being guilty of the conspiracy to murder all intellectuals in 1971, a bizarre statement by its own right considering that there was no concrete evidence presented to substantiate such a claim. Mujahid was convicted on four charges along with the death sentence for “killing intellectuals”.
An in depth analogy of the trial reveals that fundamentally problematic hearsay statements were used to indict the defendant, such as the statement of Rustom Ali Mollah. A 14 year old guard at the time, Rustom claimed that he had seen Mujahid at the gate of the Physical Training Institute, 3-4 months after the beginning of the liberation war, conversing with an army officer from far off.
Although he confessed that he had never seen or heard of Mujahid beforehand and that he heard the other guards saying Mujahid was here along with others, his evidence was used to ‘prove’ that Mujahid had been scheming with the Pakistani army and was involved with the “intellectual killing” at this institute later in 1971.
The only other witness in this charge is Jahir Uddin Jalal, who was 13 years old at the time, and gave hearsay evidence, claiming that Rustom the guard had told him that Mujahid came to the Physical Training institute in Mohammadpur, Dhaka. On cross examination, Rustom the guard claimed that he did not know who Jalal was.
An interesting point to note here is that the father of Rustom Ali the guard, Mohammad Rohom Ali Molla, is still alive and was also working at the Center, also as a guard, at the time. Yet the father was not called to be witness. Similarly, the erstwhile principal of the very same institute, Muhib Ullah Khan Majlis and his son, the present day principal, Tareq Iqbal Khan Majlis (he was a class 8 student in 1971), were not brought to the tribunal as witnesses as well.
Moreover, the investigation officer did not take the statement of any teacher or staff, who were employees of that college during that time in 1971 or bring them as witnesses.
Despite the clear discrepancies highlighted above, the court wasted no time in handing down the two prominent opposition politicians the death sentence. The trials, and in particular, the recent verdicts have been widely criticized by many rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, NWPJ, ICJ, prominent politicians like Lord Carlyle and Tom Brake and intellectuals such as Toby Cadman or Grahame Lucas, all of who had asked the Bangladesh government to stop the executions.
Furthermore, on the day of their execution, both politicians were subject to sleazy tactics and propaganda on part of those vested interests, notably the government. Earlier, the government shut down social media communication tools Facebook, Viber and whatsapp among others from the 18th of November, the same day the review appeals were rejected.
On the 20th of November, local news media surprisingly reported that both men had appealed for Presidential clemency, a fact that the families of both vehemently denounced as false and fake. No further explanation was given by the government, which hurriedly announced that the “clemency applications” had been rejected, and oblivious to all concerns, proceeded to carry out the executions after 12 midnight on 21st November.
Apparently, as far as the Bangladesh government was concerned, it had successfully weathered all criticism by simply choosing to ignore them. Blinded by myopically construed political interests, it had chosen to disregard all valid concerns surrounding fair trial standards and create another dangerous precedent by carrying out a miscarriage of justice instead.