Bangladesh hangs opposition leaders for war crimes

Protesters call for the death penalty to be upheld in Dhaka.
Protesters call for the death penalty to be upheld in Dhaka.AFP

DHAKA (AFP) – Two senior Bangladeshi opposition leaders were executed early Sunday for war crimes committed during the 1971 independence war with Pakistan after their last-ditch pleas for clemency were rejected, a minister said.

“Both of them have been hanged. The execution took place at 00:45am (1845 GMT Saturday),” Justice Minister Anisul Huq told AFP after Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury lost their final bid to escape the gallows.

Hundreds of police had been stationed outside Dhaka Central Jail where scaffolds had been prepared to execute the two by hanging.

The first sign that the executions had taken place came when four ambulances were driven away from the prison in the old quarter of the capital Dhaka.

After news of the execution broke, supporters of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League took to the streets to celebrate and also unfurled national flags near the prison.

The 67-year-old Mujahid was sentenced to death for war crimes such as the killing of the country’s top intellectuals. He is the second most senior member of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Chowdhury, 66, was convicted for atrocities such as genocide during the 1971 war when the then East Pakistan split from Islamabad. He is a six-times ex-lawmaker and a top aide to Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed the two men’s final appeals, upholding the death sentences originally handed down by a controversial domestic war crimes tribunal in 2013.

Huq said the two had sought clemency on Saturday from President Abdul Hamid after exhausting all legal appeals to avoid execution but their pleas were turned down.

Sons of the two convicts, however, questioned whether their fathers had in fact sought mercy, saying they did not believe the government’s statements.

The pair were among more than a dozen leaders of the opposition alliance convicted by a tribunal set up by the secular government in 2010.

The convictions triggered the country’s deadliest violence since independence, with some 500 people killed, mainly in clashes between Jamaat-e-Islami activists and police.

There are fears the executions could spark fresh unrest in the Muslim-majority nation, which is reeling from a string of killings of secular bloggers as well as the murders of two foreigners in recent months.

Jamaat called a nationwide strike on Thursday, declaring Mujahid’s original trial “farcical” and “aimed at eliminating” the party’s leadership.

International rights groups and legal experts have also criticised the trial, saying it fell short of international standards.

On Friday New York-based Human Rights Watch asked Bangladesh to halt the “imminent executions” of Mujahid and Chowdhury, citing “serious fair trial concerns surrounding their convictions”.

The opposition says the tribunals are designed to settle scores rather than deliver justice but the government insists that the trials have been fair and were needed to address the country’s bloody history.

Hasina, whose father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the leader of the independence movement, says that three million people were killed in the nine-month conflict, many butchered by pro-Pakistan militias.

Independent researchers however say the overall death toll was much lower.