Salahuddin Kader Chowdhury
Oct. 1: A special war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh — set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed in 2010 — today sentenced a Bangladesh Nationalist Party MP to death for charges including rape, torture, murder and genocide during the nine-month war of independence with Pakistan in 1971.
The verdict against Salahuddin Kader Chowdhury, a four-time MP, is significant as this is the first time the tribunal has sentenced a law-maker in connection with the 1971 war crimes, which remains one of the most emotive issues in Bangladesh four decades after the country’s independence.
“The family members of the victims of the war crimes have been waiting for over 41 years for justice… The verdict against Chowdhury, a member of parliament, makes it clear that no one is above the law,” said Shahriar Kabir, executive president of Bangladesh’s Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee and war crimes researcher.
Capital punishment for Chowdhury — who has the right to appeal against the order — comes two weeks after the country’s Supreme Court sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami party, to death after the tribunal had awarded him life sentence.
The tribunal has already convicted six persons of war crimes and sentenced them to death. Four of them are top officials of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a BNP ally, while one is a former party chief and another is an expelled Jamaat member.
While hardliner Jamaat supporters held several protests across the country against the orders of the tribunal and the Supreme Court, the BNP has been guarded on the issue of the sentencing of war criminals.
Though the BNP unit in Chittagong — Chowdhury hails from the area — has called a dawn-to-dusk strike tomorrow in the port town, the party’s central leadership has yet to take a call on how to react to the death sentence against a party MP. There were reports that senior leaders were in a meeting with party chief and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia to decide the next course of action.
Given the Opposition party’s stated policy that war criminals have to be tried, it is going to be a tightrope walk for Khaleda since elections are supposed to be held in less than four months.
“There are several questions about the way the tribunal was set up and the way it has been functioning… We are trying to raise these issues because the general public of Bangladesh have these doubts,” said Maruf Kamal Khan, an aide of Khaleda.
The fact that New York-based Human Rights Watch has criticised the conduct of the tribunals saying they are not up to international standards has helped the BNP in its campaign. The trials by the tribunal has exposed divisions in Bangladesh society.
Kabir’s organisation and others are steering a movement to build public opinion against people who had colluded with the Pakistani Army during the Liberation War and committed crimes against humanity and demand their trial.
“All the accused of war crimes must face trial and the court’s order has to be respected,” said Liberation war veteran Sajjad Ali Zahir, who is also the recipient of the Bir Protik, a gallantry award in Bangladesh. Though there were reports of violent protests in Chittagong and parts of Dhaka, some demonstrators were also seen in Dhaka streets celebrating the verdict handed down to Chowdhury.
During the hearing, Chowdhury — son of a Muslim League leader from Chittagong, who had opposed the formation of Bangladesh — was found guilty of 9 out of 23 charges the prosecution had pressed against him.
Out of over 200 killings in which Chowdhury allegedly had a role, the murder of an 80-year-old philanthropist, Nutan Chandra Singha, in Chittagong, was the most gruesome. “There are records that the Pakistani Army wanted to let off Nutan babu because of his age and his reputation, but Chowdhury did not let that happen and he shot him,” said Kabir.
Anticipating violent protests by Opposition parties, the government beefed up security. Paramilitary Border Guards were deployed in Chittagong.