Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s leading opposition party the BNP, was this morning sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The on-going war crimes trials of numerous individuals who resisted separation has already caused disorder and violence across the nation, exposing deep divisions in Bangladeshi society. Following Chowdhurys sentencing, security has been increased across the country including in his home region of Chittagong, with potentially violent strikes and protests both for and against the verdict now expected.
Established in 2009 by the then recently elected Awami League (AL), the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been investigating and prosecuting individuals for involvement in genocide and mass killings perpetrated by those who rejected independence and collaborated with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. The 1971 war lasted 9 months, with eventual Indian intervention in favour of the separatists inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Pakistani army. The campaign was marked by brutality, mass murder and atrocities on both sides, but the Pakistani armed forces and their supporters are widely regarded as being among the worst offenders. The ICT has however faced accusations of human rights violations and a disregard of due process in its activities from various international organisations, with opponents within Bangladesh claiming the trials are politically motivated.
12 individuals have so far been indicted by the tribunal. 10 of these are members of Bangladesh’s leading (and now banned) Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while the other two are members of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Salahuddin Chowdhury is the first of the BNP members, and the first sitting MP, to be sentenced by the court. He was found guilty of 9 of 23 charges, including genocide, abduction, atrocities against Hindus and the forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and has been sentenced to death. He is expected to appeal against the decision.
So far, the court has also convicted four members (and two former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a political ally of the BNP. All have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment for killings committed during the war. Another 5 trials remain currently.
The trial has revealed deep divisions at the core of Bangladeshi society that stem from the country’s birth over 40 years ago. Each verdict from the ICT has been marked by large protests both for and against the decisions. Those opposing the verdicts have been led largely by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, with demonstrations frequently turning violent and leading to deaths and the necessitating robust responses from the security forces. Major protests in favour of the trial earlier this year led to widespread disorder across the nation, and the eventual banning of Jamaat-e-Islami party by the Supreme Court.
Anticipating disorder, the Bangladeshi government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the city of Chittagong, Chowdhurys home region from which he has been elected as an MP six times, as well as in the capital city Dhaka. Anger and violent disorder is expected, with the broader politically unstable situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Foreigners in Bangladesh should remain highly aware of the dangerous security situation, and the potential for all political demonstrations to turn violent extremely quickly.