A 91-year-old former chief of an Islamic party in Bangladesh was sentenced to 90 years in jail yesterday for crimes against humanity during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, angering both supporters who said the trial was politically motivated and opponents who said he should be executed.
A panel of three judges from Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka. The panel said the former Jamaat-e-Islami Party leader deserved capital punishment, but received a jail sentence instead because of his advanced age and poor health.
Azam was in the dock when the verdict was delivered while protesters outside rallied to demand his execution. Both the defense and the prosecution said they will appeal.
Azam led Jamaat-e-Islami in then-east Pakistan in the war when Bangladesh became independent. He is among several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted by the tribunal formed in 2010 by the government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to try those accused of collaborating with Pakistan in the war.
Dhaka says the Pakistani Army killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war.
Azam led the party until 2000 and is still considered to be its spiritual leader. Jamaat-e-Islami claims his trial and others were politically motivated, which authorities deny.
Ahead of the verdict, one person was killed in the town of Shibganj, after paramilitary troops fired at Jamaat activists hurling homemade bombs, local police chiefs told reporters.
A low-level official from the ruling Awami League Party was beaten to death by suspected Jamaat supporters in the southwest of the country, the police chiefs also said.
Shops and businesses closed in a day-long strike called by Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s main Islamist party and a key part of an opposition coalition, to protest the verdict.
In the capital, several thousand secular protesters gathered to reject the verdict as too lenient.
The tribunal found Azam guilty of 61 charges under five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.
He and his party were accused of forming citizens’ brigades to commit genocide and other serious crimes against pro-independence fighters.
Azam had openly campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh and toured the Middle East to get support for Pakistan. He routinely met with Pakistani authorities during the war. A mouthpiece of his party routinely published statements by Azam and his associates calling for crushing the fighters who fought against Pakistan in 1971.
The prosecution in the trial said Azam must take “command responsibility” for months of atrocities perpetrated by his supporters.
Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a leader of the Awami League Party, said he had expected capital punishment for Azam, but was still happy he had finally been tried.
The verdict created resentment among the family members of those killed in the war.
“Our wait for last 42 years has gone in vain. It’s extremely frustrating,” widow Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury said.