A series of trials for war crimes still matter politically, but less than before
IT IS rare to be sentenced to death twice over. On October 29th Bangladesh’s self-styled International Crimes Tribunal told Motiur Rahman Nizami (pictured), leader of the country’s main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, that he would hang. The tribunal convicted the 71-year-old of murder, rape and looting as a pro-Pakistani militia leader during the country’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. Mr Nizami’s sentence came on top of a separate one from a criminal court in January, ordering his execution after he was convicted over a big haul of arms, destined for insurgents in India’s north-east, that was discovered in 2004, when he was in government.
The tribunal was set up in 2009 by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, but Mr Nizami’s was the first war-crimes verdict since Sheikh Hasina’s re-election as prime minister in January. The verdict came a week after the death in custody of 91-year-old Ghulam Azam, another high-profile defendant at the tribunal. He had preceded Mr Nizami as leader of Jamaat, which promotes a Saudi Arabian strand of Islam in nominally secular Bangladesh. He also ran Jamaat back in 1971. Mr Azam’s funeral in Dhaka, the capital, on October 25th drew tens of thousands of followers. His last wish had been for either Mr Nizami or a third war-crimes convict, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, to conduct final prayers. It went unfulfilled.
The Awami League strives to keep the public memory of the war of independence alive. Pakistani soldiers were the main perpetrators of an appallingly bloody campaign against Bangladeshis seeking independence as well as others, notably Hindus. Pakistani perpetrators have been always beyond the reach of the courts. So their Bangladeshi collaborators, including Mr Azam and Mr Nizami, have been prosecuted in their stead.
Both had opposed independence and assisted Pakistan’s army. Jamaat’s student wing supplied members to pro-army militias that committed atrocities, abducting and killing academics and journalists. The war-crimes court accused Mr Nizami of “Gestapo-like attacks”. His lawyers said the verdict was “not based on evidence” and vowed to appeal, a process that could take two years.
Before their trials, the men had enjoyed extraordinary immunity. After spells in Pakistan and England, Mr Azam was protected by two successive dictators who ruled until 1990 and welcomed his religious brand of politics. Even after democracy returned, Khaleda Zia—the widow of one of those dictators, Ziaur Rahman, and heiress to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—struck an electoral alliance with Jamaat. It was in a BNP government that Mr Nizami served as minister.
Mrs Zia’s bitter rival, Sheikh Hasina, has relished having the upper hand. The Awami League had promised war-crimes trials before its landslide election in 2008. By the time of this year’s election, many leading suspects from the war had been sentenced and jailed, and one executed, despite deep flaws in the way the tribunal was run, with concerns about its independence. The Supreme Court is now weighing various appeals.
But now the trials’ political usefulness for the League is diminishing—and they may even become a factor in political instability. As it is, more than 100 people have died in violence related to the trials. Sheikh Hasina might now prefer to advance her credentials as a wise, legitimate and moderate leader by leaving a flawed tribunal to grind forward only very slowly. After all, she wants Bangladesh to bolster its international reputation. This month it won a seat at the UN Human Rights Council. Accusations of a sham democracy, which were lively when Mrs Zia was boycotting the last election, have fallen quiet.
As it is, some of the older prisoners before the tribunal may not live long enough to be executed, given a lengthy appeals process. Three have now died in custody. Mr Sayedee, whose death sentence was commuted in September, will presumably never leave prison. And the timing of verdicts and sentencing appears to be alive to political sensitivities. High-profile ones do not seem to fall due when foreign dignitaries happen to be paying a visit to Bangladesh. More commutations may now be favoured.
Sheikh Hasina, in the United Arab Emirates this week, also judges how the war-crimes trials are seen in the Gulf. Most important is Saudi Arabia, the biggest destination for Bangladesh’s millions of migrant workers and a source of subsidised oil. Its rulers do not want Mr Nizami or other accused too obviously ill-treated. It thus suits Sheikh Hasina to keep up the notion that the legal process is beyond political interference. For the time being it may, in other words, be convenient to observe a less active war-crimes process.