The Vendetta of the Bangladeshi Government: Motiur Rahman Nizami

The leader of the political party, the Bangladeshi Jamaat Islami, was executed on the 11th of May, 2016, having being given a death sentence for genocide, rape, and torture. But there is an important and under-represented perspective hiding from the international public: the corruption, lack of judicial independence, and political motivations behind the sentence.

Whether you’ve heard it or not, Bangladesh has a power problem. Amongst many concerns international commentators have had against the Bangladeshi government is the pattern of back-to-back criminal convictions of many opposition leaders in the country. United Nations officials and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have both issued statements expressing that Bangladesh may be entering a pseudo-democratic age. So, what is happening and why is it a problem?

Let us summarize the basic timeline of events and background of the situation in Bangladesh to understand where we are coming from. In 1971, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan after its “Liberation War”. The Jamaat Islami party opposed the move for independence, and its supporters even fought with the Pakistani army against Bangladeshis. Since then, coups, uprisings, and problematic elections have kept the stability of the country volatile.

Since 2008, the Bangladesh Awami League lead by PM Sheikh Hasina Wazed has been in power. In 2010 the “International War Crimes Tribunal”—a government-led war crime tribunal—was created with seemingly good intentions of putting war criminals of the 1971 Liberation War to justice: the tribunal was welcomed by the international community. Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of the HR Watch stated that the “Human Rights Watch welcomes your government’s commitment to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes in connection with the war of 1971.”

It was downhill from here. Now, the international community has concerns regarding the validity, honesty, and politicization of this tribunal. One of the political opponents of the ruling Awami League is the Jamaat Islami, and the fact that many senior leaders and members of the Jamaat Islami have been hanged as a result of the tribunal have raised concerns of politicization of the tribunal. Nizami was the fifth opposition member to be hanged and eleventh to be convicted of war crimes. No ruling-party members were convicted.

Nizami’s death on conviction of war crimes, genocide, and rape, ignited a series of protests, and further clarification on the international stance against the ICT (International Crimes Tribunal)—that it is being used as a political tool, and is not nearly as genuine, independent, and transparent as was originally claimed to be.

It is not solely because of the suggestion of politicization that there are concerns with the tribunal. It’s also the evidence, lack of judicial independence, and disregard for human rights.

Regarding the rule of law, the Rule of Law Index ranked Bangladesh as having the 10th worst judicial system. It is no mystery that every-day corruption and lack of accountability are commonplace in the developing country. But what is even more concerning is the actions of the tribunal specifically. There are problems with ideological impartiality, and outright scandals wherein judges breached procedure, hinting at lack of independence.

Besides these concerns, there are also human rights concerns surrounding creating the tribunal itself. The government has been accused of breaching previous constitutional norms defending the human rights of people accused of crimes. The government amended these laws only for the creation of this tribunal—the tribunal that just happened to have sentenced opposition leaders as the International Justice Resource Centre notes.

Finally, there has been concern of lack of substantial trial evidence. The evidence needed to convict someone in the tribunal is less than that required as per national legal norms. This explains how, among other examples, someone could be convicted of a crime wherein the person was “not in the country at the time of the crimes he was accused of committing”, the New York Times reports regarding a trial in November.

Evidently, the situation of the ICT is worse than a “we could do better” level: it is systematically corrupt. The killing of Motiur Rahman Nizami was not an isolated incident of one militia leader-turned politician convicted of war crimes. This death sentence was, holistically speaking, a political opposition leader sentenced to death in a problematic tribunal by problematic judges, with nearly non-existent evidence, and resistance from the international community. This was a stone-cold Vendetta led by Sheikh Hasina herself.

Jaan S. Islam is a research associate at the Emertec R&D, based in Halifax, Canada. He is the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Political Theory, and has published multiple books and papers in political philosophy, history, and religion. Read other articles by Jaan.