Professor Ghulam Azam

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Economist on Bangladesh War Crimes Trial

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THE gallows, not jail, had always seemed like the more likely destination for Abdul Quader Mollah. On September 17th the Supreme Court of Bangladesh made it so. In revising Mr Mollah’s sentence, the Supreme Court also taught a stern lesson to the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a flawed but popular war-crimes court. When it comes to the determination of guilt and punishment of war criminals, the Supreme Court will not be gainsaid.

A bench comprised of five Supreme Court judges had to deal with two appeals in the case of Mr Mollah, a leading member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party. Mr Mollah’s lawyers had appealed against their client’s conviction by the ICT on February 5th on five crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. The judges dismissed the appeal. In addition, they had to decide whether there was merit to the prosecution’s call for a death penalty. Here, the court reversed an earlier acquittal on one charge (the killing of hundreds of villagers) and ruled that on another (the murder of a family) the sentence should be changed: from life imprisonment to death by hanging.

On February 5th Mr Mollah became the first defendant not tried in absentia to be sentenced by the ICT, which is a domestic court set up by prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League (AL) in 2010. The initial sentence, which would have spared his life, was seen by many Bangladeshis as being too lenient. It triggered mass demonstrations calling for the death sentence to be handed down to all war-crimes defendants and, for good measure, that the Jamaat be banned as a political party. (Another court has since ruled that the party is unfit to contest national polls because its charter puts God above democratic process.) The opposition soon framed the trials as a struggle between anti-Islamist forces and the pious. That paved the way for another kind of march on Dhaka, the capital, by Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic splinter group with fundamentalist demands, in May. Then security forces killed as many as 50 of those demonstrators. The effect on the government’s popularity has been devastating.

Three of the charges against Mr Mollah relied on hearsay evidence. The charge for which Mr Mollah will hang was based on the testimony of a single witness, who was an 13-year-old at the time, and no corroborating evidence whatsoever. Mr Mollah was convicted nonetheless, but his guilt proved far harder to establish than his nickname, the “Butcher of Mirpur”, would have suggested.

Bangladesh’s attorney-general, Mahbubey Alam, has said that the verdict is final and there is no room for judicial review. The defence rubbished Mr Alam’s claim and said that it will file a review petition within 30 days of receiving the full verdict. The death penalty cannot be applied before the Supreme Court comes up with a written judgment, and that can take months. Even then Mr Mollah would have the right to seek clemency from the president. It now seems inconceivable that more than two or three of the accused will be sentenced and executed before the elections, which must be held by January 24th.

Mr Mollah is likely to be joined in his predicament by another defendant who is fast running out of legal options. Delwar Hossain Sayedee began his appeals process before the Supreme Court on September 17th. Mr Sayedee is a firebrand preacher, who was sentenced to death by the ICT on February 28th. That ruling resulted in the worst single day of political violence in the history of modern Bangladesh. Just maybe, according to observers of the trial, two other cases might progress to the stage where executions become possible. They are the cases of Ghulam Azam, the Jamaat-e-Islami’s leader in 1971, and of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and one of the closest advisers of its leader, Khaleda Zia.

Mr Chowdhury’s party might someday soon be in a position to have some influence over Bangladesh’s war-crimes trials. The BNP has been silent on what it intends to do with the trials if it wins the election. It fears that the stain of 1971 which still sticks to the Jamaat-e-Islami, its main electoral ally, may cost it votes. But it has a commanding lead in opinion polls and no party has ever won a second term. A BNP victory has come to seem very plausible indeed. That a BNP government would try bringing the trials to an end is a foregone conclusion.

Even with a government minded to do so, however, it would be tricky for anyone to halt the trials; they are still incredibly popular. An opinion poll by AC Nielsen in April 2013 showed that though nearly two thirds of respondents said the trials were “unfair” or “very unfair”, a whopping 86% wanted them to proceed regardless. The public view of the ICT is curious, but not self-contradictory. Annual opinion polls show that the war-crimes trials ranked among the top three “positive steps that the government has taken”, but they consistently fail to make the top-ten list of “issues that need the greatest attention of the government”. Fair or unfair, the trials pale in comparison before such matters of concern as inflation, education, power supply and food security.

Helpfully, from the BNP’s point of view, if it does decide to scotch the trials it need not fiddle with the judiciary or the constitution. According to the constitution the president has the “power to grant pardons, reprieves and respites and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority”.

For now, the conversation as Bangladesh heads towards its elections is focused on whether the BNP will boycott. The party says it won’t run unless the AL agrees to hold polls under a neutral caretaker. But the BNP is desperate to contest. It only persists in griping about the electoral procedures as an insurance policy, in case it fails to secure the victory it expects. The chances of an actual breakdown of the democratic process at or around election time seem (relatively) low at this point. Both parties are keen to contest, the army has no further appetite to intervene, having tried installing a technocratic government, which ruled from 2007 to 2008, already.

The more worrying prospect must be that of a political backlash and perhaps even the rehabilitation of the BNP’s Islamic allies; a less secular Bangladesh; and millions of AL supporters incensed by their government’s utter failure to deliver credible war-crimes trials.


Verdict Expected in Ghulam Azam Trial

It is widely reported that the verdict in the ICT trial is expected today. The flaws of this trial have been detailed on this website and elsewhere by human rights groups and the international media, but to date this has not resulted in any improvement of the legal process against the defendants, including Professor Ghulam Azam. It is with regret that we expect this politically motivated trial to rule against Ghulam Azam, despite a complete failure to provide any evidence to support the allegations of the prosecution.


Ghulam Azam’s role in the Bangla Language Movement

Salman Azami, youngest son of Professor Ghulam Azam has written about his father’s significant role in the language movement. The article is reproduced here from Open Democracy.

As the world celebrates International Mother Language Day in memory of the Bangla Language Movement, Bangladeshis at Shabagh would do well to understand one of its forgotten language soldiers.

The historic Bangla language movement of the mid-twentieth century is an inspirational part of Bangladeshi heritage. The heroics, sacrifices, passion for the mother tongue, and patriotism to the motherland made the powerful rulers of the then Pakistan yield to public demand and accept Bangla as one of the official languages of the country. It is a tragic tale with a happy ending: Bangla eventually achieved the status it deserved, albeit at the cost of valuable lives. Now, 21st February, the day some brave Bengalis laid down their lives for their mother tongue sixty-one years ago, has been recognized and celebrated around the world after UNESCO declared it as International Mother Language Day.

This year the Bangladesh that celebrates the Bangla language is more divided than ever before. The current Awami League led government and its leftist allies have encouraged and supported a protest initiated by a few so-called ‘online activists’, clearly following the government agenda through their demands. Begun in the capital Dhaka, the protest has successfully mobilized a significant number of urban youths to call for death sentences to be handed out to top leaders of the opposition party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. They accuse the party and its leaders of having collaborated with Pakistani soldiers in committing crimes against humanity during the liberation war of 1971 including murder, rape and arson. The party and its leaders strongly deny these allegations and insist that they are all baseless propaganda, fueled over many years by partisan political and media rhetoric in Bangladesh. The government has set up an International Crimes Tribunal and arrested almost the entire leadership of the party including its retired former president Professor Ghulam Azam. Azam was one of the leading figures of the language movement, but has never been officially recognized for his contribution.

A brief history of the Language Movement
Pakistan and India became independent from British rule in 1947 based on a two-nations theory with the Muslim majority areas falling under Pakistan and the Hindu majority areas under India. The Muslim majority region of Bengal, which following Partition was to form East Pakistan, showed overwhelming support to be with the new nation of Pakistan though the Bengalis were geographically, linguistically and culturally many miles apart from their West Pakistani compatriots.

The ruling elites, almost entirely based in West Pakistan, single-handedly decided to make Urdu the only official language of the new country, whereas majority of the population living in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) could not speak Urdu as Bangla was their main language. Urdu was, and still is, a minority language in Pakistan; less than 8% speak it as their mother tongue today. But the ruling class refused to acknowledge East Pakistan’s linguistic right. On 21st March 1948, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah infamously declared in Dhaka, “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan.”

Jinnah’s announcement sparked huge outcry among the already agitated Bengali population of the East who continued their struggle for their language. Demonstrations and processions were organized on 21st February 1952 throughout East Pakistan. The people defied a ban on demonstrations imposed by the government and police fired upon them, killing several. More were killed the following day. These activists would come to be known as the ‘martyrs’ of the language movement and a monument, the Shaheed Minar, would later be erected in their memory. Four years later, on 16th February 1956, the struggle for language rights succeeded: the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the legislation and declared both Urdu and Bangla as state languages.

Bangladeshis take immense pride in the language movement and have been observing 21st February as the National Martyrs’ Day long before UNESCO declared it the International Mother Language Day in 1999. The linguistic identity of Bangla speakers is an intrinsic part of their national identity.

A misunderstood leader
Ghulam Azam was a popular leader during his student life. He became an Assistant Secretary of East Pakistan Cultural Union for the term 1945-1946. He was elected General Secretary of the Hall Union of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall of Dhaka University for the term 1946-47. He was subsequently elected General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students Union for both the 1947-48 and 1948-49 terms. On 27 November 1948, as the then General Secretary of Dhaka University Students’ Union, he presented a memorandum to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liakat Ali Khan at Gymnasium Ground, Dhaka University, demanding Bangla to be the state language of Pakistan.

Azam was actively involved with Tamaddun Majlish, an organisation that played a key role in the language movement, and founded a branch of it in Rangpur. Due to his role in the language movement he was arrested three times, in 1948, 1952 and 1954. In 1955 he lost his job as a faculty member at Rangpur Carmichael College for his leadership role in the movement. Although his job was reinstated after a strong student protest, he declined as he had decided to join Jamaat-e-Islami by then and leave his academic career.

Ghulam Azam ‘s contribution to the language movement has been completely ignored and his role as a student leader has been struck from history. The record of the two years he was the General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union is missing in its official board.

Deeply passionate about his land of birth, Azam was actively involved in democratic movements along with leaders like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He opposed the 1971 liberation war, because he believed it would not solve the problems of the Bengali people but rather transfer power from Rawalpindi to New Delhi. He has asserted that he tried his best to save innocent Bengalis from the Pakistani army’s abuse when the other national leaders taking part in the Liberation War fled to India.

Despite politically opposing the secession from Pakistan, Azam embraced Bangladesh as his country when it became independent and strove to serve it. His opponents claim that he lobbied against independent Bangladesh while in exile after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman cancelled his citizenship. In fact he lobbied for Saudi Arabia to recognise Bangladesh after former President Ziaur Rahman removed secularism and socialism from Bangladesh’s constitution. He came back to Bangladesh as soon as he was allowed to despite offers of a comfortable life abroad and remained without official citizenship until the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored his citizenship in an historic judgment in 1994.

He conceived the Caretaker Government Formula – the process through which a neutral non-partisan government oversees the parliamentary election, which the current regime controversially abolished. He was also instrumental in forming the Four-party Alliance, which made a landslide victory in the 2001 parliamentary elections. In spite of his contributions, he never held any public office and led a very simple life.

Shahbagh: a sham struggle
Very few Bangladeshi politicians have contributed so much with so little official recognition. In contrast, Azam has been subject to nonstop propaganda, slander and character assassination. History has been distorted for political convenience. The youth of Bangladesh now flocking to Shahbagh have never met him, nor have they any idea who the actual Ghulam Azam is. All they have witnessed is partisan and unethical media reporting.

The Bangladeshi people have previously successfully striven against powerful oppressive establishments. From 1948 to 1952 they struggled against an oppressive regime; in 1969 they spontaneously took part in the uprising against autocratic rule; in 1971 they fought and laid down their lives against a powerful army; and in 1990 they took to the streets to free the country from a corrupt dictator. When some call the current Shahbagh ‘festival’ as a movement, they insult the glorious history of previous movements. Bangladeshis are known for their emotions, which had been positively used in the past. However, this time the emotions have been cleverly exploited by the ruling regime, and it has done nothing but divide the country.

When an oppressive regime is providing free food, drinks, wifi and police/CCTV protection to one demonstration while brutally killing their opponents for practicing their democratic right to protest, then any sensible person can understand the reality of what is happening. A corrupt government is running a political show trial to summarily execute their political enemies. This is an insult to the families of the 1971 war victims who deserve a fair trial so that the real perpetrators are punished.

Lives are at stake in Bangladesh, but despite outcries by countless major international human rights organizations innocent people are being witch hunted for lynching. If the international community fails to ensure proper judicial process in the War Crimes Tribunal and judicial murder takes place, then we will all witness the death of democracy and fundamental human rights in Bangladesh.

On the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the great language movement it is time that Bangladeshis acknowledge their true patriots and use their emotions in the right direction. It is time that everyone realises what is the best way to repay the sacrifices of the martyrs of the language movement and the liberation war: to unite the country and build its future rather than divide it and lead it towards a propaganda-fed civil war.

ICT defence witness kidnapped

It is reported that on the 5th November 2012, a defence witness named Shukho Ranjan Bali was forcibly removed by a group of men as he entered the ICT tribunal premises. One of the men claimed the group was from the ‘detective branch’ and would take the witness to their offices on the instruction of a ‘higher authority’. Although the defence team appealed for help, there was no effort from the uniformed officers present to intervene in the abduction of the witness.

Since this incident, there has been no information about the whereabouts of the witness, which is a matter of deep concern for his family. A writ petition has been filed in the High Court challenging the legality of Ranjan’s detention. 


Why detain Ghulam Azam after 40 years?


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 __

Bangladesh’s 41st Independence Celebrations: A Marred Anniversary

This article appeared on The Platform on 31st March 2012 and was written by Mahin Khan. 


Last Monday, 26th March 2012, marked the 41st anniversary of the Bangladesh’s declaration of independence from Pakistan in 1971. The country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League (AL), publicly celebrated the nation’s most anticipated anniversary in Dhaka withmuch fanfare. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Washington DC, the prestigious National Press Club invited Dr Mohammad Nakibur Rahman, the son of the incarcerated Bangladeshi opposition leader, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and International Criminal Lawyer representing the opposition, Toby Cadman, to discuss one of the less savoury manifestations of the war memory today—the controversial International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh.

On the pretext of war crimes allegations, the AL government in Bangladesh has rounded up the leadership of the most significant opposition parties, detaining them in a manner that has been characterized by the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Dententions as arbitrary and in breach of international law. These opposition leaders face the death penalty if found guilty by the ICT. Between growing criticism from proponents at the shortfalls and incompetence of the prosecution to ever increasing opposition from the international community at the questionable legal framework of the ICT and political opposition at the partisan bias it displays, the tribunal has come under mounting pressure. The way the Bangladeshi government has been conducting itself and the ICT over the past two years since its establishment has caused concern from all sides that justice will not be done.

Opposition leader’s son speaks out

The Washington press conference Dr Rahman expressed his grave concern that his father’s life was in danger as consequence of the persecution he is being subject to and the tribunal’s seeking the death penalty for those accused. He then proceeded to describe his father, as he has known him, as singularly humble, of gentle temperament and kind-hearted, stating that he had seen his father spend “sleepless nights worrying about other peoples’ welfare.”

Rahman noted that before 2008, there had never been any charge of illegal activity against his father, and that his exemplary public record had been impeccable. This changed with the ascent of the AL to government in 2008. The opposition leader suddenly began to be accused by the government of blasphemy, sedition, and finally, war crimes, all for reasons of “government vengeance”. Eventually, his 70 year old father was arrested, detained indefinitely, and subjected to torture. Rahman’s family have not been spared persecution either—he states that his mother and sister are routinely harassed when visiting his father, forced to wait long hours, and at times denied visitation altogether. His youngest brother, a 22 year old studying abroad, was denied the renewal of his Bangladeshi passport to return home by the regime and remains “stateless,” stranded abroad for several months. Rahman closed his remarks by asking people to seek out the truth about 1971 based on facts beyond the hearsay based propaganda currently in vogue.

Toby Cadman, an international criminal lawyer specialised in war crimes, was the second presenterat the conference. He began by noting that he would have liked to give this press conference in Bangladesh on this momentous day, but that he is no longer welcome there. On his last visit, he was refused entry on the order of the Home Minister, held at the airport for ten hours, and then unceremoniously thrown out of the country. Cadman stated that a number of allegations had been made against him, including attempting to enter Bangladesh unlawfully and mounting an international conspiracy to undermine the tribunal, all of which are false. As a senior international lawyer with a decade of experience in war crimes tribunals, he asserted that a fair tribunal is absolutely essential to address the crimes that were committed during the Bangladesh independence war, and should have been held forty years ago.

According to Cadman, however, the current tribunal falls far short of international standards of fairness and justice, despite claims to the contrary by senior Bangladeshi politicians and the Prime Minister herself. He pointed out that many prominent voices criticize the tribunal, including:Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights WatchThe UN Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, International Center for Transitional Justice, the International Bar Association,members of the House of Lords in the UK, members of Congress and the House of Representatives. Cadman added, “So, if I’m at the head of an international conspiracy, these are my co-conspirators, and the conspiracy is to ensure that our clients…receive a fair trial according to international standards.”

“an extraordinary tribunal that sits outside of the law”

Cadman was careful not to downplay the genuine enormity of the conflict of 1971, which is the premise of these trials—he suggested that the conflict could be considered one of the worst of its kind in modern history in that part of the world. This means, he added, that the process must be properly adjudicated, yet this is not currently the case. Cadman enumerated a long list of flaws in the legal process, including the fact that, in line with a constitutional amendment, those being tried by the tribunal are not eligible for fundamental universal human rights. Given these flaws, Cadman characterized the ICT as an “extraordinary tribunal that sits outside of the law.” The laws governing the present day tribunal were originally established for a military tribunal that was established in 1973, and Cadman noted that they need to be fundamentally reconfigured for the purposes of a civilian tribunal. Given that the death penalty is being sought, and that those targeted are all opposition political leaders, Cadman emphasized that the process had to be beyond reproach. As the tribunal stands, however, he feels this is far from the case.

In response to an audience question, Cadman admitted that it was indeed very difficult to consider the facts and not say this is a very politicized process, acknowledging that the political opposition and only one side of the conflict is being targeted. He added that the tribunal was established in March 2010, and about four months later the first arrests were made, commenting this was “probably the promptest investigations in war crimes history,” and thereby suggesting that the government already knew its targets, and so impartial investigations were not undertaken. Cadman’s hope, however, is that the Bangladesh government will hear the appeals that he and the international community are making to ensure that the process is made more fair.

The conference made clear the undoubtedly essential and belated nature of the ICT in the aftermath of what may be the most brutal event in South Asia’s modern history. However, it is clear the ICT cannot fulfill its purpose following its current approach. For those concerned about the future of Bangladesh, given the present path it pursues, to raise awareness in the international community about the shortcomings of this tribunal is essential to ensuring a trial that achieves the justice and catharsis it claims to seek rather than the division and conflict it continues to cause. Without significant international pressure, it seems unwise to expect anything like a fair process that is in keeping with international standards.

Toby Cadman Speaks at National Press Club

Barrister Toby Cadman and Mohammed Nakibur Rahman  (son of Motiur Rahman Nizami)  spoke at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC on 26th March. The Jamaat leader’s son spoke of his fears for the lives of the accused who are currently being detained by the Bangladeshi government on allegations of war crimes.

Nakibur Rahman spoke about his father’s character and simple lifestyle, and highlighted the political nature of the allegations. He also stated that his father was deprived of sleep and subjected to torture in custody. He also detailed the harassment suffered by other members of his family.

Toby Cadman focussed his remarks on the lack of international standards in the proceedings of the tribunal.  He also stated that the Bangladeshi government failed to respond to a letter from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary detention and commented that the government is trying to place deadlines on when the trial should be concluded, which places pressure on the tribunal and prevents a fair trial.

Further details can be found here