Bangladesh’s highest court on Wednesday (18) upheld the death sentences of two opposition leaders convicted for atrocities during the 1971 independence war against Pakistan, sparking fears of violence by their supporters.
The supreme court’s decision to dismiss the final appeals of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury clears the way for them to be hanged as early as next week if the president does not grant them clemency.
“The judgements fulfilled the desire of the whole nation. There is now no legal bar to execute them,” Attorney General Mabubebey Alam said.
Mujahid, 67, is the second most senior member of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Chowdhury, 66, is a top aide to Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
They are among more than a dozen leaders of the opposition alliance who were convicted by a controversial war crimes 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 activists and police.
There are fears the latest verdicts could spark fresh unrest in the Muslim-majority nation, which is reeling from a string of killings of secular bloggers as well as the murder of two foreigners in recent months.
Authorities immediately shut down Facebook and messaging and voice-call services Viber and WhatsApp in measures aimed at preventing Jamaat supporters mobilising to protest against the rulings.
“We’ve ordered the shutdown after we’re instructed by the government,” Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission official Shahjahan Mahmud said.
Jamaat-e-Islami called a nationwide strike to protest against the court ruling, declaring Mujahid’s original trial “farcical” and “aimed at eliminating” the party’s leadership.
The ruling came as unidentified assailants shot and seriously wounded an Italian priest in the northern district of Dinajpur on Wednesday.
No one has yet claimed responsibility, but it bore the hallmarks of previous attacks on foreigners that were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government insists IS has no presence in Bangladesh. It blamed Zia’s BNP and its ally Jamaat for the attacks, which it says were part of a conspiracy to create chaos.
The tribunal found Mujahid guilty in 2013 of leading a notorious pro-Pakistan militia that killed secular intellectuals including writers, journalists and professors during the final days of the war against Pakistan.
Dozens of these intellectuals were abducted from their homes and murdered when it became clear that Islamabad was losing the war, in the most gruesome chapter of the conflict.
Their bodies were found blindfolded with their hands tied and dumped in a marsh on the outskirts of the capital.
“Mujahid ordered the killing of my father and other freedom fighters. I am happy that finally we’ve got justice,” Shawan Mahmud, daughter of top musician Altaf Mahmud said.
Chowdhury, a five-time former lawmaker and scion of a top political family, was found guilty of genocide, torture and rape.
Prosecutors had described him as a merciless killer who murdered more than 200 Hindus.
The tribunal has divided the country, with the opposition branding its trials a sham aimed at eliminating their leaders rather than meting out justice.
International rights groups and legal experts have also criticised it, saying its procedures fall short of international standards.
Hasina has rejected any criticism of the trials, saying they were needed to heal the wounds of the war.
Bangladesh says three million people died in the nine-month long war but independent estimates put the toll much lower.
Hundreds of additional police were deployed on Dhaka’s streets ahead of Wednesday’s court ruling.