A 91-YEAR-OLD former head of an Islamic party in Bangladesh has been sentenced to 90 years for crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 independence war – angering supporters who said the trial was politically motivated and opponents who said he should be executed.
A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in the capital Dhaka yesterday.
The panel said the former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party deserved capital punishment, but received a prison sentence instead because of his advanced age and poor health.
Azam was in the dock when the verdict was delivered while protesters outside rallied to demand his execution. Both the defence and the prosecution said they will appeal.
Azam led Jamaat-e-Islami in then-East Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent through a bloody war. He is among several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted by a tribunal formed in 2010 by the government of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to try those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in the war.
Bangladesh says the Pakistani army killed three million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war, and some ten million people took shelter across the border in India.
Azam led the party until 2000 and is still considered to be its spiritual leader. Jamaat-e-Islami claims his trial and others were politically motivated, which authorities deny.
The tribunal said Azam was guilty of all 61 charges under five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.
He and his party were accused of forming citizens’ brigades to commit genocide and other serious crimes against the pro-independence fighters during the war.
Azam had openly campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh and toured the Middle East to get support in favour of Pakistan. He met Pakistani officials during the war. A mouthpiece of the party routinely published statements by Azam and his associates calling for the fighters who fought against the Pakistani military in 1971 to be crushed. The prosecution in the trial said Azam must take “command responsibility” for months of atrocities perpetrated by his supporters.
Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a leader of the ruling Awami League, said he had expected capital punishment for Azam, but still he was happy that he was finally tried.
The verdict created resentment among the families of those killed in 1971.
“Our wait for the past 42 years has gone in vain. It’s extremely frustrating,” said Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury, the widow of a physician who was killed in 1971. “This verdict has just increased our pain.”
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, has criticised the tribunal saying it is intended to weaken its position. Jamaat-e-Islami is the party’s main political ally.
Ms Hasina’s government says it had pledged before the 2008 election – which it won in a landslide – to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.