|Abdul Quader Mollah,
called “the Butcher of Mirpur” by his detractors, flashes the victory sign in February. (AFP picture)
Sept. 17: The Supreme Court of Bangladesh today sentenced a prominent hardliner to death for “crimes against humanity”, sparking loud cheers from the young generation that built the Shahbagh Square movement demanding capital punishment for those guilty of war crimes.
The charges against Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami party, date back to the 1971 War of Liberation that Bengal can never forget.
Mollah was convicted of beheading a poet, raping a minor and shooting 344 people during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, charges that earned him the nickname “Butcher (koshai) of Mirpur”.
Rooted in that painful era, the Mollah case had acquired a modern-day resonance and set a showdown between moderates and extremists in Bangladesh.
That defining struggle reached a critical point this afternoon.
“The appeal filed by the state has been allowed, while the appeal filed on behalf of Abdul Quader Mollah has been rejected,” Chief Justice Md. Mozzammel Hossain, who led a five-member appellate division bench of the Supreme Court, announced.
On February 4 this year, Mollah was sentenced to life in prison after a war crimes tribunal — set up by the Awami League government — found him guilty of the war crimes during the country’s nine-month struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
When Mollah emerged from the court that afternoon, he smiled and flashed a victory sign, an odd reaction for a man just sentenced to life in prison.
The two fingers — and the lenient sentence — triggered a demonstration in Shahbagh Square, an intersection in the heart of Dhaka, demanding harsher punishment for Mollah.
In a week, the protest had grown into one of the biggest mass demonstrations in Bangladesh, drawing parallels with the 2011 Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square.
The spontaneous uprising prompted the parliament to change the law to allow the government to appeal rulings by the tribunal. Mollah had also appealed against the tribunal’s order and the Supreme Court passed its judgment after hearing both the appeals.
The death sentence to Mollah, who was the assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, set off rioting in the streets and prompted the party to announce a two-day general strike across the country beginning tomorrow.
But there were reports of celebrations from different parts of the country.
“This is a very significant judgment as this is the first one that has gone through the whole judicial process…. The Sheikh Hasina government should get the credit for this,” Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the Daily Star, the country’s leading English language newspaper, told The Telegraph over phone from Dhaka.
Senior Awami League leaders were prompt to take credit as the countdown to the next battle between the two Begums — Hasina and Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Khaleda Zia — has already started with the general elections four months away.
“The people of Bangladesh are happy…. They are relieved because a killer has got the punishment he deserved. Our leader Sheikh Hasina had promised to prosecute war criminals and she has delivered,” said Mohammad Nasim, a member of Awami League’s presidium, the highest decision-making body of the ruling party.
Mollah’s legal team decried the ruling as an “unprecedented decision”. “It is unprecedented that the sentence has been changed to death from life imprisonment,” Tajul Islam, a defence lawyer, was quoted in the Bangladeshi media.
While lawyers from the prosecution said the latest court ruling left no room for further review, the defence said it would seek an appeal.
Law minister Shafique Ahmed, however, was quoted as saying by the media that only clemency from the President could save Mollah.
While the legal fraternity in Bangladesh was busy debating whether there was a scope to review the decision, the death sentence intensified demands for capital punishment for other war criminals — most of whom are Jamaat-e-Islami functionaries — who supported the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War.
“More than 35 per cent of the country’s population are in the age group of 25 to 30 and they want the strictest punishment against people accused of war crimes…. The trial is on for 16 to 17 such criminals in the tribunal, while there are grave charges against more than 550 senior Jamaat leaders. The demand is, they should also face conviction,” said A.S.M. Samsul Arefin, a war crime researcher and Liberation War veteran.
In this politically charged environment, the leaders of the BNP — the main Opposition party, which had an electoral tie-up with the Jamaat-e-Islami — chose to be guarded in their reaction to the verdict. There was no official reaction from the party.
Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, a senior BNP leader, told this newspaper that anybody who has committed a crime had to be held accountable in a “fair trial process”.
“Several questions have already been raised about the trial process,” said Chowdhury, also a Liberation War veteran.
As the UN has not endorsed the Bangladesh tribunal and the New York-based Human Rights Watch has said its procedures fell short of international standards, the Opposition is expected to try to draw international attention to the death sentence that is certain to become one of the most important issues in the national election.