DHAKA: Bangladesh’s highest court upheld on Wednesday the death sentences of two opposition leaders convicted “for atrocities during the 1971 war”.
The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the final appeals of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury clears the way for them to be hanged as early as next week if the president does not grant them clemency.
“The judgments fulfilled the desire of the whole nation. There is now no legal bar to execute them,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said.
Mujahid, 67, is the second most senior member of the country’s biggest religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, and Chowdhury, 66, is a top aide to Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
They are among more than a dozen leaders of the opposition alliance who were convicted by a controversial war crimes tribunal set up by the government in 2010.
Authorities shut down internet-based messaging and voice-call services in an effort to prevent parties from mounting protests
The convictions triggered the country’s deadliest violence since independence, with some 500 people killed, mainly in clashes between Jamaat activists and police.
There are fears the latest verdicts could spark fresh unrest in the country, which is reeling from a string of killings of secular bloggers as well as the murder of two foreigners in recent months.
Authorities immediately shut down Facebook and messaging and voice-call services Viber and WhatsApp in measures aimed at preventing Jamaat supporters from mobilising to protest against the rulings.
“We’ve ordered the shutdown after we were instructed by the government,” Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Shahjahan Mahmud said.
The Jamaat-i-Islami called a nationwide strike to protest against the court ruling, declaring Mujahid’s original trial “farcical” and “aimed at eliminating” the party’s leadership.
The ruling came as unidentified assailants shot and seriously wounded an Italian priest in the northern district of Dinajpur on Wednesday.
No one immediately claimed responsibility, but it bore the hallmarks of previous attacks on foreigners that were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government insists IS has no presence in Bangladesh. It blamed Zia’s BNP and its ally Jamaat for the attacks, which it says were part of a conspiracy to create chaos.
The tribunal found Mujahid guilty in 2013 of leading a militia that killed secular intellectuals including writers, journalists and professors during the final days of the war in 1971.
“Mujahid ordered the killing of my father and other freedom fighters. I am happy that finally we’ve got justice,” Shawan Mahmud, daughter of top musician Altaf Mahmud said.
Chowdhury, a five-time former lawmaker and scion of a top political family, was found guilty of genocide, torture and rape.
Prosecutors had described him as a merciless killer who murdered more than 200 Hindus.
The tribunal has divided the country, with the opposition branding its trials a sham aimed at eliminating their leaders rather than meting out justice.
International rights groups and legal experts have also criticised it, saying its procedures fall short of international standards.
Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2015