Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Syed Badrul Ahsan - Two Executions in Bangladesh

The early Sunday executions of two politicians convicted of war crimes in Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 are, for Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government, a major challenge overcome. These executions are not the first on Hasina’s watch. Two other convicted war criminals, both belonging to the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, were executed earlier. The difference is that the executions of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid were preceded by a flurry of activity at home and abroad to save them from the gallows.

The government refused to give in to pressure, despite the fact that such pressure came from global bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These groups, along with friends of the two men and their parties, constantly raised questions about the fairness of the trials, even though the government maintained that under the law, the accused had been provided with an open trial followed by the right to ask the Supreme Court for a review. 

The final option, in the event of a rejection of the review petitions, was an appeal for presidential clemency. The government did uphold all these aspects of the law against the overwhelming evidence of crimes committed by Chowdhury and Mujahid in 1971. In Chowdhury’s instance, eleventh-hour efforts by his lawyers to prove that, at the time he was said to have killed Hindus and other Bengalis, he was actually a student at Punjab University in Lahore failed. The failure had to do with the fact that the documents supposedly obtained from the university turned out to be forged, or hurriedly manufactured by the defence.

These two executions are significant. Despite Chowdhury and Mujahid’s role as prominent collaborators of the Pakistani occupation army in 1971, they were able — thanks to a seizure of the state by rightwing forces in the aftermath of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination — to return to open politics. Chowdhury served as a minister in the military regime of dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad and, later, as parliamentary affairs advisor to Khaleda Zia in her last stint as prime minister.
Mujahid, a key leader in 1971 of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing and commander of the fearsome goon squad al-Badr, served as minister for social welfare in Zia’s cabinet. 

Neither Chowdhury nor Mujahid ever expressed contrition for their roles against their fellow Bengalis. Rather, Chowdhury proudly declared publicly that he had been a collaborator of Pakistan and dared the government to act against him. In his days as a minister, Mujahid outraged Bengalis by his statement that there were no war criminals in Bangladesh.

For Bangladeshis, the executions of Chowdhury and Mujahid are a clear sign that the rule of law has been upheld. There were noisy celebrations on the streets of Dhaka and other places. Social media is replete with messages demonstrating clear satisfaction. It’s seen as one more important step towards a return to the original principles of a secular Bangladesh. A key factor in Bangladesh’s social scene today is the revulsion with which the ageing collaborators are treated. This explains why crowds in Dhaka have been roundly condemning Pakistan for expressing concern about the trials. The media, too, has shown its sense of relief, considering the executions a triumph of justice.

Given the indignation the war criminals have aroused among the public, with their refusal to express regret or acknowledge their guilt, it’s unlikely that organisations like the Jamaat can cause any more problems for this government. For the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, instrumental in rehabilitating the collaborators, the hanging of Chowdhury — a member of its standing committee — is a major embarrassment. Of the four war criminals to go to the gallows till date, three were Jamaat leaders. Chowdhury was the only one from the BNP.

In Bangladesh today, the truth is palpable — the irony has finally been replaced by the reality. The irony was the emergence of pro-Pakistan wartime collaborators as influential voices under the successive governments of General Ziaur Rahman, General H.M. Ershad and Khaleda Zia. The reality is a necessary remembrance of the crimes against humanity these collaborators committed. There are others who are yet to answer for their crimes. But these two executions hint at closure for the people of Bangladesh.

The writer is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka.

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