On Thursday 12th December Bangladesh hanged the Islamic leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, despite pleas from, among others, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. CNN reported that two UN human rights experts called on Bangladesh to halt the execution "because of concerns that Mollah did not receive a fair trial". On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for a stay claiming that the trial had not met stringent international standards for the death penalty. Similar appeals were made by international politicians, and human rights and legal groups, who argued that the legal process was deeply flawed.
But the government, which is accused of using political vendettas against the Islamic opposition as general elections approach on 5th January, defied calls from the international community. Human rights groups have accused the International Crimes Tribunal (the ICT - which, despite its name, is a domestic court) formed by the Bangladesh government of denying Mollah a fair trial and the right to appeal. "The execution of ... Mollah should never have happened," said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International's Bangladesh researcher.
Sixty-five-year-old Mollah, a senior leader of country's Jamaat-e-Islami party, was convicted by the ICT of atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. The ICT was set up in 2010 by the ruling Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, to investigate abuses committed during the conflict. Although the crimes tribunal was termed 'international' no lawyer from outside was ever allowed to observe or oversee its trials.
At his trial earlier this year, Mollah was described by prosecutors as the "Butcher of Mirpur", a suburb of Dhaka where he is alleged to have carried out his crimes. Mollah always vehemently denied the charges. Four other leading figures of Jamat have also been convicted by the ICT and face the death penalty.
Bangladesh is dangerously divided over the government's attempts to try these alleged war criminals. Many welcomed the ICT and have continued to publicly support the hanging, but others (in Bangladesh and abroad) oppose it and call it political opportunism. The ICT itself has come under huge criticism for its apparent bias; a 2012 ICT Skype controversy, that leaked Skype conversations and emails between the head judge and a Bangladeshi lawyer based in Brussels, has severely tarnished its image.
Critics have accused the government of using the ICT to eradicate Sheikh Hasina's political rivals rather than deliver credible justice. Previous Awami League governments did not do anything like this when they were in power during the early 1970s and late 1990s.
Bangladesh has seen its worst political violence and social anarchy in recent years and the country is more divided than ever. In its June 2012 report "Bangladesh: Back to the future" the respected International Crisis Group painted a very bleak picture of the country. The judiciary is known to be politicised, police have become more brutal against opposition activists and the country has come to a stalemate over its future. Elections are too close to call. Meanwhile, the much-reported Shabag protesters have been publicly demanding death sentences for alleged war criminals from the public square of Shabag in the capital Dhaka.
In early May this year the killings of an unknown number of peaceful opposition protestors from a newly formed religious group, Hefazat-e-Islam, shook the country. The exact number of casualties was never known, the government did not initiate any independent inquiry. The Asian Human Rights Commission called it a 'massacre of demonstrators' and said, "(on that fateful night) major news channels in Bangladesh have been silenced. Two private television channels that were showing live pictures of the attacks on the demonstrators were immediately closed down."Bangladesh Police said 22 people died, but Hefazat claims the figure wasat least 2,000; European diplomats say as many as 50 people were killed.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Odhikar, a reputable human-rights group in Bangladesh, reported that hundreds of people died during a "killing spree" by a force of 10,000 made up of police, paramilitaries and armed men from the ruling party. Bodies were strewn about the streets of Dhaka's commercial district. Odhikar's Secretary General was arrested in last August for bringing out the report.
Mollah's hanging casts a dark shadow on Bangladesh's future. To many people in Bangladesh and abroad this is a betrayal of justice. His lawyer Toby Cadman has called it a 'judicial murder' by the Bangladeshi government. With the first ever hanging of a political opponent the country of 160 million people may plunge into further instability and anarchy.
The world's micro-finance guru, Bangladesh's Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus, made an insightful comment on the state of Bangladesh after the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people perished. He said: "The collapse of the building is just a precursor to the imminent collapse of all our state institutions... If we don't face up to the cracks in our state systems, then we as a nation will get lost in the debris of the collapse. ... We will have to find ways to fix the institutions to protect them from complete collapse."
Bangladesh, sadly, appears to be heading towards a national collapse.
By Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari
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