NEW DELHI: Bangladesh executed two opposition leaders yesterday for war crimes during the country's 1971 independence war, despite concerns that the legal proceedings against them were flawed and threats of violence by their supporters. A reporter was shot and wounded after covering the funeral of one of the men, though it was not clear who was responsible.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, secretary general of the main Islamist party Jamaat-E-Islami, were hanged at 12:55 am at Dhaka Central Jail in the nation's capital, said Senior Jail Superintendent Mohammad Jahangir Kabir.
A few hours after the execution, a security detail escorted ambulances carrying the men's bodies to their ancestral homes, where their families were to perform burial rituals.
While there has been international concern over the legal process that led to the executions of the two men, most leading Bangladeshi newspapers and TV stations supported the hangings.
The leading English-language Daily Star's main report detailed the atrocities that Chowdhury was convicted of, and ran another story with the headline, "Heartless, hateful against Hindus ..." The second story narrated how minority Hindus were brutally attacked and killed and their homes torched under Chowdhury's leadership.
Two top Bangla-language dailies, Samakal and Prothom Alo, also published reports that demonstrated their support for the trials and executions of the two leaders.
Bangladesh was bracing for upheaval ahead of the hangings, with supporters of the two opposition leaders threatening violence if they were executed. Rajib Sen, a reporter for the Mohona TV station, was on his way back from Chowdhury's funeral in Chittagong district when his car was sprayed with bullets, the station said. Three other journalists in the car escaped unhurt, and Sen was rushed to a hospital in Chittagong. The TV station is owned by a member of the ruling Awami League party.
Local police would not provide any details on the shooting, and it was not immediately clear who attacked the car or why. The Jamaat-e-Islami party, which had already had two other senior leaders executed for war crimes, issued a statement calling for a nationwide general strike today. Chowdhury was convicted on charges of torture, rape and genocide during Bangladesh's independence war against Pakistan, while Mujahid was found guilty on charges of genocide, conspiracy in killing intellectuals, torture and abduction.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh's Supreme Court upheld their death sentences, and on Saturday, President Mohammad Abdul Hamid rejected a clemency appeal, clearing the way for the executions.
Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party say the trials were politically motivated. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has denied the allegations.
More than 15 people, mostly leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, have been convicted of war crimes. The party had campaigned openly against independence for Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan until the 1971 war. Bangladesh's government says that Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the war.
In a statement late Sunday, Pakistan's foreign ministry said that the trials the two men faced were flawed, and that "Pakistan is deeply disturbed" by the executions. Mujahid, 67, was the head of Islami Chhatra Sangha, then the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami . He was accused of being the mastermind behind the killing of intellectuals, including teachers and journalists, days before the Pakistani military surrendered to a joint force of freedom fighters and Indian army units on Dec. 16, 1971, after a bloody nine-month war. Chowdhury, 66, whose father was the speaker of Pakistan's National Assembly and, at times, the acting president of Pakistan, also actively opposed Bangladeshi independence. He was accused of carrying out war crimes, including killing more than 200 civilians, mostly minority Hindus, during the independence war, according to evidence presented at the tribunal.
US lawmakers overseeing foreign policy described the war crimes tribunal, set up in 2013, as "very flawed" and a means of political retribution. Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a letter sent Tuesday to the top US diplomat for South Asia, voiced concern that "democratic space is shrinking" in Bangladesh amid "a growing climate of violence, fear and self-censorship."
Since February, four secular bloggers, a publisher, and two foreigners - an Italian aid worker and a Japanese agriculture researcher - have been killed in attacks linked to Islamic militants.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but authorities say the Sunni extremist group has no presence in the country. Instead, Hasina has blamed the attacks on the opposition, accusing them of trying to destabilize the country and halt the war crimes trials. Both opposition parties denied the allegation. Such extremist violence was once rare in Bangladesh, which is mostly Muslim but has a strong secular tradition. - AP