A war crimes court yesterday sentenced a top Bangladeshi Islamist to death for masterminding the slaughter of at least 120 farmers in one of the bloodiest single episodes of the 1971 independence war.
In a ruling likely to further fuel tensions between the secular government and religious hardliners, a special tribunal found Mohammad Kamaruzzaman guilty of mass killing, torture, abduction and crimes against humanity.
He would “be hanged by the neck till death” Bangladeshi presiding judge Obaidul Hassan told a packed courtroom in the capital, Dhaka.
The 61-year-old Kamaruzzaman, who is the assistant secretary general of the opposition Jamaat-e--Islami party, was the fourth person to be convicted by the much-criticized International Crimes Tribunal and the third senior politician.
As the verdict was announced, he could be heard condemning it as the “wrong judgement” from his seat in the dock.
Previous verdicts by the tribunal have sparked widespread violence on the streets of a country that has a 90 percent Muslim population.
Hundreds of secular protesters who had gathered at a central Dhaka intersection for news of the verdict greeted the announcement with loud cheers.
“Because of his heinous role, many people were murdered and many women were raped,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said outside the courthouse, adding: “The nation has got justice today.”
Prosecutors said Kamaruzzaman was a “chief organizer” of al-Badr, a notorious pro-Pakistani militia accused of killing thousands of people in the nine-month war, which saw what was then East Pakistan split from Islamabad.
The genocide charge against Kamaruzzaman stems from the killing of at least 120 unarmed Bangladeshi farmers in the remote northern village of Sohagpur, which has since become known as the “Village of the Widows.”
Three of the widows testified against him at the trial, in which the prosecution detailed how the then-19-year-old led Pakistani troops to the village. The soldiers then marched the farmers to paddy fields, forced them to stand in a line and proceeded to gun them down en masse.
Mohammad Jalal Uddin, a farmer who lost seven members of his extended family in the killing, was delighted at the verdict.
“I lost my father, uncle and other relatives. Their crime was to have taken part in training to join the freedom fight,” said Uddin, who was a student at the time.
“My mother and aunt died without getting justice, but at least I’ve seen justice,” Uddin, who heads the village’s welfare society for widows, said by phone. “We still have 37 widows in the village.”
Defense lawyers rejected the charges as baseless, saying the chance to prove their client innocent was severely curtailed as the court only allowed five witnesses to testify for Kamaruzzaman.
“He was just a lad during the war. It’s a ridiculous suggestion that a 19-year-old could control the Pakistani army,” chief defense counsel Abdur Razzaq said.
The Bangladesh tribunal is not endorsed by the UN and Human Rights Watch has said its procedures fall short of global standards.