Washington Post | November 25, 2015
On Saturday, authorities in Bangladesh carried out the executions of two men convicted of war crimes. One of them was Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, a former leader of the country’s leading Islamist party, who was found guilty on five counts for his role in the slaughters that surrounded Bangladesh’s bloody independence war with Pakistan in 1971.
As my colleague Annie Gowen reported over the weekend, the two convicted men were hanged in Dhaka in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Six years ago, I met Mujahid, then the reigning general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party that had not long before been part of the country’s ruling coalition government. The veteran local journalist I was working with during my assignment refused to come along; he said he didn’t want to shake hands with a man whose own were so blood-stained.
So I went alone to Mujahid’s party’s headquarters, tucked away within a warren of streets in Dhaka’s Mogbazar neighborhood and surrounded by what seemed to be an endless line of Islamist bookstores and seminaries.
A pair of grim, muscled men escorted me to Mujahid’s office and there I sat face-to-face with what in many senses was a typical South Asian politician: heavy-set, festooned with facial hair and giving off the distinct impression of someone who was very pleased with himself.
Mujahid peeled a clutch of lychees that were in a bowl on his desk. “Our fruit is the sweetest,” he announced.
But our conversation was not so sweet. Among the questions I asked Mujahid were a set of blunt queries about his involvement in the atrocities of 1971. Bangladesh — formerly East Pakistan, separated from Islamabad by the vast landmass of India — emerged in an orgy of bloodshed, ordered by the West Pakistani military and carried out by its troops as well as East Pakistani collaborators.
These included avowed Islamists like Mujahid, who opposed East Pakistan’s secession from its western partner, and helped lead a paramilitary force known as Al Badr. The death squad systematically targeted and killed countless leading Hindus, secularists, Bengali nationalists, leftists and intellectuals.
In our conversation, Mujahid angrily rejected any suggestion of his own guilt, and pointed to massacres of suspected collaborators carried out by Bengali nationalists.
Bangladesh’s fractious politics in the decades since independence have meant that his crimes and the misdeeds of 1971 — which some say led to as many 3 million people killed — were not adequately investigated or prosecuted. My 2008 meeting with Mujahid came at a moment when the country was under a brief period of rule by a caretaker government, propped up by the military.
Whether his death brings much catharsis to Bangladesh, though, is another matter. As Gowen reports, the tribunals conducted by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been deeply controversial, with international observers, including the U.S. State Department, criticizing the flawed process through which the verdicts were deliberated and carried out:
“Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.”
Critics of Hasina’s government also point to the harsh tactics it has used to sideline its political rivals. All the while, the specter of Islamist violence in the country grows, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility for recent attacks on foreigners.
For many Bangladeshis, the wrongs of 1971 needed some sort of redressing, no matter how delayed or imperfect the justice. In 2008, I wrote about the scale of the atrocities:
Sydney Schanberg, then the New York Times’s South Asia correspondent, described the month-long Pakistani crackdown in March 1971 as “a pogrom on a vast scale” in a land where “vultures grow fat.” (He would famously win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting five years later on Cambodia’s killing fields.) Passing through the charred husks of villages razed by West Pakistani troops, he heard whispered story after story of mass executions of Hindus, college students and anybody suspected of Bengali nationalism. Neighborhoods were gutted as Bangladesh’s main cities fell to a fifth of their existing population; 10 million refugees fled west to India. Almost every Bangladeshi household has a tale of loss and suffering. Around 400,000 women, by some estimates, were raped.
In our meeting, Mujahid growled at me when I suggested that the calls made by his political rivals for a war crimes tribunal ought to be heeded.
“This is a dead issue,” he said. “It cannot be raised.”
But the issue was raised, and now Mujahid is dead.