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Bangladesh Jamaat Leader Sentenced to Death

DOHA, May 9 2013 (IPS) - (Al Jazeera) – A Bangladesh war crimes tribunal has convicted and sentenced the assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party to death for war crimes, raising fears of clashes between the police and supporters of the Islamist leader.

Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, 59, was found guilty on charges of genocide and torture of unarmed civilians during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said on Thursday.

Obaidul Hassan, the head of the three-judge tribunal, said the charges had been proved beyond doubt, and he was sentenced to death. He had previously been acquitted for two of the seven original charges. One of the charges that carried the death penalty was being a commander of a massacre of 120 people.

Defence lawyer Ehsan Siddiky said justice was denied to his client and promised to appeal. Analyst David Bergman told Al Jazeera that there were cheers outside the court when the verdict was announced. “The defence, however, is extremely critical of the judgement and cannot believe so much responsibility is being placed on a man who was just 19 at the time,” he said.

“They say the only crime he has committed is being a leader of the opposition. It is true that many of those facing the tribunal are from Jamaat-e-Islami, but they are known to have collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971 and so they are an obvious target for prosecution.”

The Jamaat, a key part of an opposition coalition, had backed Pakistan during the independence war, but has denied its leaders were involved in war crimes. Kamaruzzaman, who had pleaded not guilty through his lawyers, was accused of committing multiple abuses during the country’s liberation war.

“He was just a lad during the war. It’s a ridiculous suggestion that a 19-year-old could control the Pakistani army,” chief defence counsel Abdur Razzaq said. He was found guilty of leading his followers to kill at least 183 people in his home district of Sherpur in northern Bangladesh.

The prosecution said he had formed the group Al-Badr to collaborate with the Pakistani army and led them to kill unarmed people and rape women. Bangladesh says the war left three million people dead, 200,000 women raped and millions forced to flee to neighbouring India.

Previous convictions of other Jamaat leaders, including two that carried the death penalty, led to protests and violence throughout Bangladesh. The supporters of the largest Islamic party in the country claim the tribunals are a politically-motivated attempt to persecute their leaders.

“The Jamaat-e-Islami will not be happy with this verdict, but it is unclear at this point whether there will be violence,” Bergman said. “There has been constant criticism from the defence lawyers that they are dealing with a politicised court process and that they are being prosecuted because they are part of an alliance that is against the government.”

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 Kamaruzzaman at his trial in which the prosecution detailed how the then 19-year-old led Pakistani troops to the village. The tribunal was told 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. “We still have 37 widows in the village.”

*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

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