Professor Ghulam Azam

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Why detain Ghulam Azam after 40 years?

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This article first appeared in the Saudi Gazette.

The injustice meted out to Prof. Ghulam Azam, former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, is unjustifiable on all counts and totally unacceptable. A well-known respectable figure in the Islamic world, Azam is renowned for his piety, righteousness, honesty and trustworthiness. He is now implicated in crimes against humanity that were allegedly committed 40 years ago. This is not only surprising and astounding but also highly condemnable. How can anybody justify detaining a 90-year-old man who retired from politics more than 10 years ago, throwing him into an isolated prison cell and putting restrictions on who can visit him?

Ghulam Azam was the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in East Pakistan. It is well known that Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami, headed by Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, was always with the opposition, and therefore, its leaders, including Azam, were detained several times during the time when Pakistan was united.

When the political crisis erupted in Pakistan after the 1970 general elections, the military ruler Yahya Khan announced the postponement of convening the National Assembly and that resulted in civil disobedience being declared by the Awami League, which scored a sweeping victory in East Pakistan in the elections. These developments followed a military crackdown on protesters and a series of political detentions, and that resulted in a nine-month-long civil war, which ended with India’s military intervention that was decisive for the establishment of the independent state of Bangladesh in place of East Pakistan.

Ghulam Azam took a political stance in support of a unified Pakistan and vehemently opposed division of the country. He was also against the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan. When the war with India broke out, Ghulam Azam was in West Pakistan.

After the defeat of the Pakistan army in the war and its surrender to Indian troops, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released from jail and returned to Dhaka to take over the leadership of the new independent state. He promulgated a war crime law, and as per the law, 195 people were charged with war crimes. All of them belonged to the Pakistan army and they included no Bengali civilians. Then, Mujibur Rahman issued a general amnesty for all of them saying: “I want to show that Bengalis know how to forgive.”

Regarding the war crimes of Bengali civilians, the new government enacted a law to punish those who extended support to the Pakistan army. Subsequently, more than 100,000 civilians were arrested. None of these people remain under detention with charges of committing crimes against humanity. All of them, except for 752, were released following a general amnesty announced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Of the 752 people, none were political figures.
But now, after 40 years, a number of prominent figures – all of them leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, including Ghulam Azam – have been detained. This move has elicited massive condemnation from international human rights organizations as well as from eminent lawyers from a large number of Western countries.

Ghulam Azam has been a victim of political vendetta several times. In 1993, he was detained for 16 months by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party government. Later, he was released after the Bangladesh Supreme Court pronounced the following unanimous verdict: “There is nothing to directly implicate the petitioner Ghulam Azam in any of the atrocities alleged to have been perpetrated by the Pakistani army or their associates – the Rajakars, Al-Badr or Al-Shams. Except that the petitioner was hobnobbing with the military junta during the war of liberation, we do not find that the petitioner was in anyway directly involved in perpetuating the alleged atrocities during the war of independence.”

But now this issue has once again been raised after 40 years during which time there were no criminal cases registered against any of those who remain under detention. This was the situation during the periods of the successive governments, including the incumbent Awami League government, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2002. No one was implicated in any crimes against humanity. What then is the justification for the detention of such a respectable figure as Ghulam Azam after a gap of 40 years?

— Dr. Ali Alghamdy is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at __

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